‘Ah Boys’ stars to return in Jack Neo’s new blockbuster ‘The Lion Men’

Jeanette Tan
Singapore Showbiz

Film director Jack Neo says his latest work, "The Lion Men", will be his most challenging-ever movie. (Yahoo! photo)

Singaporean director Jack Neo may still be reeling from the success of Ah Boys To Men parts 1 and 2, with a third film promised.

Yet, his idea of "taking a break" seems to be to challenge himself even further with what he calls his toughest film yet: a lion-dance-themed movie called The Lion Men, a big ticket show (with a hefty S$4 million budget to boot) slated for release by Chinese New Year.

And yes, it includes a few familiar faces -- five of the well-loved Ah Boys To Men cast will headline the movie, and they will be joined by 23 "unknowns", handpicked by Neo and his casting team over extensive auditions about a month ago.

The film's plot centres on rival lion dance troupes in Singapore -- a liberal-looking faction of a traditional troupe, "Tiger Crane" (led by Wang Wei Liang), breaks away from it to form a new one called "Storm Riders" (led by Tosh Zhang), which advocates a new style of lion dance with more modern influences of hip hop dance and more flashy acrobatics.

Meanwhile, the male stars of the show clash with a third rival troupe called "Black Hawk", competing in wushu, love triangles and of course, lion dance.

"I already thought of doing a lion dance film quite some time ago," said Neo, speaking one-on-one with Yahoo! Singapore on Monday morning after the film's launch, which itself was sparked with plenty of fanfare -- six pairs of lion dancers, dancing and even the slicing of a suckling pig.

The opening ceremony for "The Lion Men" was laced with much fanfare--with Neo and his executive producers and crew collectively slicing a large suckling pig. (Yahoo! photo)

Apart from Dancing Lion, a 2007 film by Hong Kong directors Francis Ng and Marco Mak, Neo said there hasn't been any other film on lion dance since, yet there is much more to discover with the scene in Singapore.

"I think (lion dance) is very good to explore because in Singapore, the lion groups, their lives and the way they train is all very interesting," he said. "I think this is the right time (to make the film) since I have this group of young chaps, and people wanted to see them do more, not just the army show... and they can sing, dance and now do lion dance as well."

Why lion dance, of all things, you might ask? Neo said it actually doesn't deviate that much from the army -- drawing similarities in group sizes (between lion dance troupes and sections), discipline and training involved.

"You can feel the kind of brotherhood, the kind of friendship, helping each other, it's a bit similar to the army," he said.

And it'll be Neo's toughest-ever challenge yet, he added, because The Lion Men will take place on a much larger scale than any of his other movies, with more stunts and computer-generated imagery involved.

"It's going to be the toughest movie I've ever done -- a lot of things I've never tried before: action, fighting, dancing on top of the pole, all these are quite difficult and a lot of people need to learn special skills like lion dancing, fighting and dance," he said.

From Ah Boys to lion dancers

Five of the "Ah Boys" cast will be involved in "The Lion Men": (from left) Maxi Lim, Wang Wei Liang, Charlie Goh, director Jack Neo, Noah Yap and Tosh Zhang. (Yahoo! photo)

Indeed, the five lead boys -- Wang Wei Liang, Tosh Zhang, Maxi Lim, Noah Yap and Charlie Goh, all of whom had key roles in the Ah Boys movies -- spent the past three months in twice to thrice-weekly lion dance, wushu, singing and dance classes to prepare for the film shoot, which started on Monday.

Despite the work involved, the Ah Boys are excited to be working on a new film -- and in Lim's case in particular, to be taking on a different role.

"This is the first time I'm touching lion dance as a subject; I'm also portraying a much different character from what I did in Ah Boys to Men, so I'm quite excited to show the audiences a different feel!" said Lim, who previously played Aloysius "Wayang King" Jin, a wannabe recruit who strove excessively to look good in front of his superiors, to the ire of his section mates.

"(Lion dancing) is quite hard because it's hard to see what's on the outside, and it's sort of like puppetry and dance at the same time," he added.

Yap, Goh and Zhang agreed, all of whom were learning lion dance for the first time as well.

"Lion dance is an art," said Zhang, who played Sgt Alex Ong in the Ah Boys films. "I think we all used to assume it's really very easy, just moving around with the lion, but once you actually start learning from the real people you find out there's a lot of technique and it's really not easy!"

Even for Wang, who previously was part of a lion dance troupe for about a decade until he quit four years ago, it was tough getting back into shape alongside the others.

"I still know the techniques; I just don't have the physical stamina and strength anymore so now that I'm back doing it again I'm just like them -- aches and pains everywhere!" he said in Mandarin.

They each have their specialities -- Wang plays a lion head, Lim his tail, Zhang a head, while Yap and Goh play the cymbals and drums respectively, but Goh says they are trained in all aspects of lion dance and understand a little of every part.

Some 23 new faces will be joining the "Ah Boys" in the cast of "The Lion Men", and they performed a short dance segment for the opening ceremony. (Yahoo! photo)

What they're most looking forward to, though, is working with a wider, new cast on the film, which now includes a couple of familiar faces like dancer and choreographer Yutaki Ong.

"They remind us of us in the past; not that long ago," said Zhang, who with the others have been practicing with the rest of the cast for about a month.

"It's nice to see new people coming in throughout the process, and we don't want to have that separation (between us and them)... we want to really get close together and bring out the chemistry with one another."

Related stories:

'Ah Boys' star Ridhwan Azman admits to hitting girlfriend
From Ah Boys to international pop stars?
Y! Singapore meets Tosh Zhang & Wang Wei Liang