2014 sees the release of not one but two features films directed by Jack Neo - 'The Lion Men' and its follow-up 'The Lion Men: Ultimate Showdown'.
Whether you are a fan or if you pan his movies like the reviewers of a certain national newspaper, Jack Neo is undisputedly the king of our local box office.
His trademark slapstick gags and dialect laden rapid fire dialogue, social commentary with a moral compass, and man on the street characters seem to find a common identity with his fan base from the heartlands of Singapore, the uncles and aunties and even younger audiences who have been supporting his movies almost unwaveringly the past 15 years.
inSing takes a trip down memory lane to recap all the films made by Neo, tracing their box office track record and accolades as we celebrate the one and only Jack Neo.
‘Replacement Killers’ 杀手一出手 (short video; 1998）
Most of Neo’s fan base would probably not have known about this little seen short video made in 1998, which actually won him recognition as Best Director at the year’s Silver Screen Awards during the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF). While amateurish in production quality, with an almost experimental flair like a student short film exercise, it does show early promise and boast several of Neo’s eventual trademarks – dialect laden gags, spoof of established movie genres (in this case the killer and HK triad genres), and starring his proteges from Channel 8's 'Comedy Night' series Mark Lee, Henry Thia and Patricia Mok. His award at SIFF remains his only film award won for Directing in over a decade.
‘That One Not Enough’ 那个不够 (1999)
Many audiences would have mistaken ‘Money No Enough’ as Neo’s feature film debut. Even though his signature was clearly imprinted in the hit movie, he actually served as screenplay writer and lead actor, with directing duties handled by Tay Teck Lock. The honour of Neo’s feature film directorial debut actually goes to ‘That One Not Enough’, a story about three married men – played by Mark Lee, Henry Thia and Neo himself, who deal with sex and marital problems. The film was marketed as a naughty sex comedy, which might not have been well received with the more family oriented and conservative Singaporeans, hence the lukewarm box office response (just $1.02 million) due to the film’s adult skewing subject matter. It did however feature a scene where the married male character played by Neo has sex with a young nubile girl in a car, seemingly an early premonition of the extra marital scandal that plagued the real life Neo many years later.
Parts one and two of 'I Not Stupid'
‘I Not Stupid’ 小孩不笨 (2002)
The hit movie that established Neo as a successful director – it earned $3.8 million – and his first movie distributed in overseas territories such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia. For many years, overseas Chinese audiences have identified this film as the quintessential Singapore movie, carrying our flag high until the recent phenomenon that was ‘Ilo Ilo’. Tackling our education system and the way modern busy working parents engaged with or neglected their children, the social commentary seems to have touched the hearts of many local and overseas Chinese audiences, who find the mixed languages in our Singaporean lingo to be both entertaining and a novelty. This movie even received the endorsement of our then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.
’Homerun’ movie poster
‘Homerun’ 跑吧孩子 (2003)
Neo adapts this story from the acclaimed Iranian film ‘Children of Heaven’, about two poor school kids who share a pair of shoes, and sets it during the 1960s kampong days of Singapore. It stars the late Huang Wenyong and Xiang Yun as parents to Shawn Li (from ‘I Not Stupid’) and young Megan Zheng, who won the Best New Performer at the Golden Horse Awards, a first time for a Singapore film. ‘Homerun’ is known to feature authentic period looking production values, with filming mostly done in Malaysia, and a narrative that pulls at the heartstrings of audiences with touching melodrama and moving performances.
‘The Best Bet’ 突然发财（2004）
A morality tale against greed, the plot device of “what if I strike lottery” featuring realistic ah beng characters who are basically gambling addicts played very well with 4D and Toto obsessed Singaporeans. Richard Low and his wife played by Chen Liping are the main protagonists who face the dilemma of sharing their surprise lottery winnings, and have trouble knocking on their door when former buddies Christopher Lee and Mark Lee come to demand their share. Would they get a second chance to redeem themselves? One of the most intelligent and best scripts by Neo coupled with strong ensemble performances, many critics have dubbed this the best Jack Neo film together with ‘I Not Stupid’.
‘I Do, I Do’ 爱都爱都 (2005)
Jack Neo attempts romantic comedy, seemingly to support our national SDU campaign to get men and women dating again. But the miscast of Sharon Au with Adrian Pang (who had little on-screen chemistry) and the disappointing script that is hardly ever funny and always drags along in uneven pacing proved to be its biggest failings. Interesting to note that the mismatched coupling of an uneducated guy from a lower social class with a highly educated elitist woman would be used again to much better results in ‘Just Follow Law’.
‘One More Chance’ 三个好人 (2005)
A co-directorial effort with Du Nan Xing and Michael Woo, this movie is in collaboration with the Yellow Ribbon Project and is well noted for shooting scenes inside the real Changi Prison. Strong on social commentary with sympathetic portrayals by Marcus Chin, Mark Lee and Henry Thia playing the ex-convicts trying to get back into society, this is one of the rare Jack Neo film that actually focuses more on drama than comedy. One of his most underrated movies together with ‘That One Not Enough’.
‘I Not Stupid Too’ 小孩不笨2 (2006)
This was Jack Neo’s very first sequel, likely to cash in on the popularity of the first movie, especially after the dismal performances of his last two movies. Neo cast himself once again as the father character and received top billing on the poster, and all the original cast returns as the story focus on teenage angst, juvenile delinquency and their alienation from parents and society. Though not as original or sharp as the first movie in its satire, ‘I Not Stupid Too’ does have its big melodramatic moments that seem to appeal to its target audience, as it exceeded the box office takings ($4.18 million) of the first movie.
’Just Follow Law’ movie poster
‘Just Follow Law’ 我在政府部门的日子 (2007)
The mismatched odd couple formula from ‘I Do, I Do’ was used again to much better effect, with a twist this time as the souls of Tanya Chew (played by Fann Wong) and Lim Teng Zui (played by Gurmit Singh) got swapped with each other’s bodies, giving a chance for several outrageous gags such as Gurmit’s Ah Zui character, played by an unruly Fann, bathing and taking a peekaboo at the female body. Even more interesting is the way Neo’s script lampoons the inner workings of the civil service as arrows fly together with emails much to the audience’s delight. Gurmit’s two-fold performance as the Hokkien touting Lim Teng Zui and as the girly Tanya Chew (trapped in Ah Zui’s body) got him a first time nomination for Best Actor at the Golden Horse Awards.
‘Ah Long Pte. Ltd.’ 老师嫁老大 (2008)
Taking a rather literal cue from Korean movies like ‘My Wife Is A Gangster’, Fann Wong plays the tough as nails mobster who bags the trophy husband of the sissy Mark Lee, who plays a dance instructor. Changing the setting to Malaysia and featuring a villain played by a young Jack Lim (now one of Malaysia’s biggest movie stars), the movie proves to be popular both in Singapore and across the causeway as audiences watch Fann Wong and Mark Lee ham it up with lots of silly gags and several triad fighting scenes thrown in.
A still from 'Money No Enough'
‘Money No Enough 2’ 钱不够用 2 (2008)
Neo hit the jackpot the second time with another sequel, this time of the colossally successful ‘Money No Enough’. Although featuring the same three lead actors of Neo, Mark Lee and Henry Thia who also played in the original movie, the main theme of the sequel is less focused on the evils of money, and more on the message of family values and filial piety, as veteran actress Lai Meng plays mother to the three sons who each have difficulty fulfilling their duties to take care of her. The touching scenes of Lai Meng ripping off her drips in an attempt to end her life touches audiences everywhere – it achieved cult status in Taiwan, where an independent cinema in Taichung continued to play the film for more than three years, breaking into record books. The film earned $5.08 million in box office takings.
‘Love Matters’ 爱情万岁 (2009)
After the successful ‘Money No Enough 2’, Neo seems to have little to prove and decides to experiment with new material and working with a young co-director Gilbert Chan, in this offbeat drama comedy that stars Henry Thia, Yeo Yann Yann, Jack Lim and Lai Meng. Perhaps due to its stronger appeal to Malaysian audiences and lesser star power, and also because it was facing off against intense competition from ‘The Wedding Game’ starring Fann Wong and Christopher Lee, the box office results were disappointing judging by usual Jack Neo standards. Nevertheless, there is an experimental streak in this film that is not seen in other work by Neo in a long time.
‘Where Got Ghost’ movie poster
‘Where Got Ghost?’ 吓到笑 (2009)
In need of a hit after the dismal performance of ‘Love Matters’ during Chinese New Year, Neo concocted an anthology of 3 short stories – morality tales that mixed horror with comedy, which he branded ‘horr-medy’ – which struck gold at the box office around the Hungry Ghost Festival season, despite bad critical reception for formulaic gags and shoddy special effects. Nevertheless, this movie revived the horror comedy genre in local filmmaking and other filmmakers like Boris Boo and Mark Lee continue to exploit this trend in subsequent movies.
‘Being Human’ 做人 (2010)
’Being Human’ movie poster
Released right after Neo’s extra marital affair, the scandal certainly had a negative impact on the movie’s reception, especially from Neo’s core fan base of heartlanders who tend to read tabloids like Wanbao and Shin Min Daily News that were non-stop reporting on the transgression. Ironically, the movie is another morality tale preaching against the evils of greed and achieving success through unscrupulous means. Despite a rather good script and featuring strong performances from Mark Lee and Yeo Yann Yann, the film was largely overshadowed by the real life scandal and became the worst performing Jack Neo movie ever. This would be the last movie that actor Lee works on with his mentor Neo, as the two soon part their ways in business, with Lee branching out on his own.
‘We Not Naughty’ 孩子不坏 (2012)
After an extended break from directing movies, Neo tested the waters first by starring as part of an ensemble cast in Lee Thean-jeen’s ‘Homecoming’, which was fairly successful at the box office, before finally returning to make ‘We Not Naughty’, dubbed the third movie in his hai zi (children) series after ‘I Not Stupid' and its sequel. Although featuring Shawn Lee and Joshua Ang once again, there were also younger child actors, as well as having Hong Kong singer-actor Daniel Chan, with supporting roles by Xiang Yun, Eric Moo and Roy Li Feihui. In this movie, Neo revisits similar themes of neglect and alienation of under-performing ITE students in another morality tale that borders on being preachy.
A promotional image from 'Ah Boys to Men'
‘Ah Boys to Men' & 'Ah Boys to Men 2’ (2012-2013)
Neo seems to be on a roll after the successful comeback of making ‘We Not Naughty’. With the army theme ‘Ah Boys to Men’, he not only taps on the national nostalgia of NS Men past and present, he also discovers new talents from his extensive casting search of popular bloggers and fresh faces, turning them into bona-fide movie stars. The lovable characters of Lobang (Wang Wei Liang), Wayang King (Maxi Lim), Recruit Ken Chow (Joshua Tan), Ip Man (Noah Yap), Sergeant Ong (Tosh Zhang) and their natural banter and camaraderie as platoon mates, together with all the familiar army jokes and scenarios from the in camp training resonated well with our national audience, and especially our youths. The two movies break box office records back to back, with ‘Ah Boys to Men 2’ taking in over $7.9 million during the Chinese New Year 2013 period, becoming the most commercially successful movie ever for Jack Neo.