It’s not easy to elicit emotions from jaded moviegoers, as even the most seasoned directors will tell you.
However, former actress Jess Teong, who starred in the 2009 Channel 8 drama “Your Hand in Mine”, wrote and directed a touching family drama in her first foray into writing and directing films.
“The Kid from the Big Apple” is a 2016 Chinese drama about a family in Malaysia. When an estranged granddaughter and grandfather are forced to stay together, the most unexpected of family bonds develops, despite the generation, cultural, and technological gap between the two. It stars Ti Lung as grandfather Lim Chun Gen and Sarah Tan as granddaughter Sarah Lim.
When it premiered in Singapore earlier last year, it was shown only at select Shaw Theatres cinemas. However, that didn’t stop Singapore Film Society Chairman, Kenneth Tan, from watching it 16 times (and counting). And he’s not the only one who was bowled over by this unassuming film. With its simple premise, the film brought this writer to tears during the press screening in 2016.
The unlikely inspiration for the film
Before shooting and directing this film, Teong produced three other feature films and co-produced one other.
“A lot of people thought that I was writing my own story, that I was the mother character in the film. But no, the only similarities are that we both worked overseas for very long and we are both stubborn,” said the 52-year-old Malaysian. “However, I’m close to my family and I did not have a child out of wedlock, unlike Sarah’s mother (Sophia Lin, played by Jessica Hsuan).”
In fact, the story was originally born out of a very different emotion from love.
“I wrote the story out of anger,” said Teong. “Initially, it wasn’t for a script. When I moved back in 2011, I was angry with what I saw in Malaysia, situations similar to what I’ve seen in Singapore, Thailand, and Hong Kong.”
Teong had worked overseas for a number of years before returning to her home country, Malaysia. What irked her was the rampant use of mobile devices, even back in 2011.
“It bothered me because I saw people not talking at all, but just using their mobile devices. There’s no communication among everyone – even among friends, they were just taking photos of food and going on Facebook.”
The second reason was the lack of respect for traditional Chinese festivals.
“I came back right after Dragon Boat Festival, and the next festival would be Hungry Ghost Festival. Instead, I saw restaurants selling mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn Festival,” said the first-time director.
Chronologically, the Dragon Boat Festival comes first, followed by the Hungry Ghost Festival, then the Mid-Autumn Festival. The Mid-Autumn Festival takes place about three months after the Dragon Boat Festival.
“I was upset and asked the restaurant manager why they were selling mooncakes so early. They said they didn’t care about the significance of eating mooncakes, and that it was probably a commercial decision by the boss. It made me so angry because people don’t appreciate such festivals anymore.”
From story to script
However, once she shared her story with her producer, she received affirmation that it would be an excellent topic to turn into a movie. They turned to experienced Singapore scriptwriter Rebecca Leow, who also liked the story and was willing to come on board for the project. Unfortunately, the project had to be delayed as Leow had other commitments.
“At that time, I was on leave. So I started doing my own script outline, and by Scene 22, I was writing dialogue,” laughed Teong.
Usually, a script outline will be written from a treatment (or story, in this case), and then a full-length script (complete with locations, scene directions, and dialogue) would be written based on the script outline.
“I sent it to Rebecca, who immediately called back and said ‘Jess, you’re already writing a script! Just carry on!’ But I was worried — how was I going to write a script? With Rebecca and my producer’s encouragement though, I started writing. I went through scripts from previous movies I had worked on for reference.”
Even before going into the movie industry as producer, Teong was an accomplished actress in feature films, television dramas, and a host for other programmes.
She drew on that experience to craft the script for “The Kid from the Big Apple”.
‘It sounds like I wrote a tragedy instead of a family drama!’
Teong didn’t set out to make audiences laugh or cry. “I was so fresh and green at this at the time, and only one portion of the script made me cry, so I thought audiences might tear at that part.”
“I cried myself when I watched it in the editing suite,” she said,” but I thought that was to be expected since as writer-director, I have a much more personal connection with the film. It’s my baby,” she added.
Online reception to sneak previews and other screenings revealed that many viewers cried watching the film, and when Teong learnt that, she asked her producer “What are we going to do? It sounds like I wrote a tragedy instead of a family drama.”
Thankfully, the film went on to win multiple awards, such as the Golden Lotus Award for Best Writing at the 7th Macau International Movie Festival, and the Special Jury Awards at the 28th Malaysian Film Festival.
The story isn’t finished yet
The film ended post-production in 2015 June — and that’s when work began on the sequel.
“I fell in love with the characters,” said Teong. “So I thought that since I had some spare time while waiting for the film to be screened in cinemas, I started writing the story for the sequel. This was before we won any awards. In ‘The Kid from the Big Apple’, there’s something missing for Sarah.”
“To give closure to her storyline, I wrote the sequel, ‘Before We Forget’, which addresses the issue of Sarah’s father,” she added.
“Before We Forget” sees the family facing a new set of challenges after their reunion in the first film. Sarah Tan and Ti Lung reprise their roles, with new cast members Shaun Tam and Debbie Goh playing Sarah’s father and mother, respectively.
It premieres 17 November in Singapore, at the following Golden Village cinemas: GV Tiong Bahru, GV Paya Lebar, GV Tampines, GV Plaza, GV Vivocity and GV Yishun.
Marcus Goh is a Singapore television scriptwriter, having written for “Lion Mums”, “Crimewatch”, “Incredible Tales”, and “Police & Thief”. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. You can find him on social media as Optimarcus and on his site. The views expressed are his own.
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