Long Long Time Ago(2016)
- RatedPG13 /GenreDrama
For the past few years, we can always count on Jack Neo delivering a new movie during the Chinese New Year festive season.
Several of his movies – from ‘I Not Stupid’, ‘Just Follow Law’, to the more recent ‘We Not Naughty’, ‘The Lion Men’ and his two biggest hits ever ‘Ah Boys To Men Parts 2 & 3' – have laid the foundation of a solid track record of Neo's social comedies resonating with audiences during the festive period.
This year, delivering much more than just social commentary and laughter, Neo wants to take us on a nostalgic trip back to the early post-independence kampung days, with his aptly titled ‘Long Long Time Ago’.
Based largely on Neo’s own childhood experiences of growing up in a village, the movie’s ambitious narrative spans from 1965 to the early 1970s, following Zhao Di (played by veteran Mediacorp actress Aileen Tan) and her family as they journey through the transition years from living in a village to a HDB estate.
The story begins when a heavily pregnant Zhao Di is forced to return to her maternal family in the village with three daughters in tow.
She gives birth to a pair of twins, Shun Fatt and Su-mei, and due to unfounded superstitions plus economic pressures, Zhao Di is forced by her harsh patriarch father (Getai veteran Wang Lei) and her second brother (Mark Lee) to give up Su Mei for adoption.
Zhao Di survives one adversity after another with her family members and friends. As she struggles to make her living, she bears witness to some of the major challenges and milestones that our fledgling nation faced in the early years.
SOLID VETERAN ACTORS PERFORMANCES
It has been said that half of the success or failure of film directing depends on the casting, and here Jack has rightfully cast Aileen Tan as the leading lady.
From the onset, Zhao Di is the anchor of the film, holding the disparate and episodic segments of the story together. Tan, who is very fluent in Hokkien, also showcases her talents in Malay, lending an added authenticity to playing a character of the times.
She is the very epitome of the pioneer generation, never complaining about her hardships, and remains loyal, strong and resilient despite the many challenges.
A sub-plot involving a gangster debt collector Ah Long (played with glee and pathos by newcomer Ryan Lian) who crosses path with Zhao Di suggests a burgeoning relationship that will continue to Part 2 of the story, adding another layer to her character.
The other leading actor that is given the most screen time is Neo’s long time collaborator and protege Mark Lee, who hasn’t starred in a Jack Neo-directed movie since 2010’s ‘Being Human’.
Lee plays Ah Koon, the good-for-nothing bad egg in the family, who has a seriously cynical attitude towards life. He is the movie archetype that you will love to hate in such family melodramas that we have seen aplenty from Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Thankfully, Lee did not sink into a one-dimensional cliché villain, as his comic instincts and well-timed delivery of Neo’s Hokkien laden politically incorrect punchlines provide the most entertaining laughs in this movie.
There is also a certain playfulness and hope in his character, despite his cynicism, as displayed in a montage sequence when Ah Koon drives happily around the city in his new prized possession of a London cab.
The two leading actors keep the viewer engrossed, as well as help to lift the heavily plotted and sometimes meandering film. The pair’s acting compensated for the weaknesses in the development of the other supporting players in the family.
Newcomer Brian Tan fits the role of the baby brother and newly enlisted army conscript with his wide eyed cuteness -- a hook for the younger female audiences out there.
However, there are missed opportunities in showcasing his inner feelings as being among pioneer batch to serve in the army -- perhaps a conscious decision from Neo as he has done enough of it already in the ‘ABTM’ franchise.
Earlier conflict set up between him and the street gangsters lead by Ah Long were also not fully developed. Charmaine Sei is also grossly miscast as the suffering wife of Ah Koon, while Wang Lei, despite being pivotal in the early developments of the movie, was heavy-handed in his performance.
Among the many child actors, only newcomer Yan Li Xuan, first discovered in Jack Neo’s segment of ‘7 Letters’, is memorable with her screen presence, but she falters as the narrator of the story with a rather monotonous and hesitant voice performance.
Perhaps casting a more matured voice and actor as the narrator would’ve worked better since the eldest daughter is supposed to be reminiscing about her childhood kampung days.
Funnyman Suhaimi Yusof rounds up the multi-racial cast as Osman, a friend who came to the support of Zhao Di even during the tumultuous times of the second racial riots of 1969.
Rather than playing up the racial tension in 1965, Neo instead opted for comedy, which certainly makes the message less didactic and coming across more effectively and naturally.
It has been more than a decade since ‘Homerun’ (2003), Neo’s last period film. Both movies have similarities as the art direction requires painstaking authenticity in order to look convincing.
Shooting mostly on location around Ipoh, with lush greenery farmlands and constructed wooden houses decorated with old school props and memorabilia, it feels as if you are living and breathing with Zhao Di’s family in the real kampung, without over-idealizing the environment and space.
Most of the time, the mise-en-scene only serves to complement the drama, and it is the characters and story that take center stage, rather than the art direction and props. When CGI is used to recreate the 1960’s on a larger scale, it blends well with the practical sets and real scenery.
The only time when the environment becomes the centerpiece is during the reenactment of a flooding.
A huge pool was constructed specially for this scene and filled with gallons of water to recreate the scale and desperation of the rising waters while the game actors all took out their A-Game.
Apparently, Suhaimi Yusof did 24 takes for a diving scene, another testament to the commitment of the actors and Jack Neo’s insistence as a director.
Finally, the most important ingredient is the dialogue of the film. A rich tapestry of Hokkien dialect, Malay, English and Tamil are spoken in all its glory -- just like the way people speak in the early days.
The film wouldn’t have worked if not for its authentic dialogue, and credit must be given to Neo and his writers, as well as the actors who delivered them.
WELL SETUP FOR PART 2
Neo has said that when this was being conceived and scripted, it was meant to be one story. However, as the calculation of his production costs kept piling up, the movie has to be split into two to recoup the investment.
And perhaps it is largely due to the period setting, there seems to be much lesser product placement in this as compared to his other movies, which has often been a sore point of criticism.
The few placements that you see are integrated well into the scenes. Other trademark Jack Neo indulgences like the heavy handling of emotional dramatic scenes and cheap slapstick digs for humour are also kept to a bare minimum.
Instead, we see a lot more focus on character development and raising the standards of the production to add value to the storytelling.
Impressive art direction aside, it is ultimately the story and characters that determine whether audiences will be back for the second trip.
Neo has kept the movie well paced and engaging for the most part, despite juggling with so many characters and plot points.
This sets up the movie well for Part two, and looking at the ending teaser, we can expect more drama between the various characters, love blossoming, and even more feel-good nostalgia and pathos as the family moves into the HDB Heartlands in the 1970s.
The appeal is certainly strong for the older generation who can relate to the incidents in the movie.
The big question remains on whether the younger audience will be intrigued, especially with the movie coming this late with post SG50 withdrawal symptoms already setting in.
It may be tough to repeat the record-breaking box office numbers of ‘ABTM 2’, but ‘Long Long Time Ago’ has the potential to be regarded as one of Neo’s masterpiece in his illustrious filmography, and certainly a fitting tribute to the memories and lessons of yesteryears.