Note: The following article may contain some spoilers for the movie “Before We Forget”.
“I’ve kicked out directors because they were unreliable,” said Ti Lung.
The 71-year-old Hong Kong star shared his experiences with fickle-minded directors from the four decades of his career in a mix of English and Mandarin, explaining that “People like that will be the downfall of our industry. Such directors would shoot a film, and halfway through they would alter a character because they were influenced by other people.”
Best known for his roles in martial arts dramas and crime/gangster films, Ti Lung’s screen career began in 1969 with the film “Return of the One-Armed Swordsman”.
“I’ve walked away on set before because of such directors. If the script says a character is like this, then I will play it accordingly. So the director had better stay true to the script and shoot the scene properly, or I’d leave.”
Playing Chun Gen
In 2016’s “The Kid from the Big Apple” and the 2017 sequel “Before We Forget”, Ti Lung plays Chun Gen, a traditional old Chinese grandfather.
“When I first received the script, I tested the director on the different aspects of Chun Gen’s character, such as education level and how cultured he was,” he said.
Writer-director of both movies, Jess Teong, subsequently earned his trust and confidence, and he went on to take on the role in her films. She talked about how she first saw Ti Lung and found him perfect for the role.
“In 2012, when I attended a film awards ceremony in Macau, I saw Ti Lung sitting there. I went ‘Wow’. It was like seeing Justice Bao in the flesh,” she said.
Ti Lung played the legendary character in the 1994 TVB television series “Justice Bao”.
“In my mind’s eye, that was exactly what Sarah’s [Chun Gen’s granddaughter] grandfather would look like. So when I went home and started on a new draft of the script, I visualised Ti Lung in the role of her grandfather. At that point, I didn’t dare to presume that I would be able to get such a popular actor to star in the film,” said Teong.
However, when she showed the script to producer Stanley Law, he exclaimed “This character is exactly like Ti Lung! Shall we invite him to play the character?”
“I couldn’t be more grateful for that,” said Teong. “Thank you, Ti Lung.”
Depicting a character with dementia
In “The Kid from the Big Apple”, Chun Gen’s struggle was to connect with his estranged daughter Sophia (played by Jessica Hsuan, then Debbie Goh in the sequel) and granddaughter Sarah (played by Sarah Tan).
He has to deal with the onset of dementia in “Before We Forget”. To prepare for the role, Ti Lung researched more about the degenerative brain disease.
“First, I asked my doctor about the symptoms and different stages of the illness. I took notes after he explained more about it to me, and studied it intensively. Then I went on to work and study with the director about it,” he said.
This was to ensure a realistic and authentic depiction of dementia. “So in the film, you see the slow and natural progression of the illness. (Chun Gen) doesn’t feel any pain, because it’s not a painful disease. But it’s like a monster inside his brain, controlling him.” said Ti Lung.
“He becomes so helpless and depressed because he forgets everything. But he manages to cope with the help of his family, which makes it an optimistic movie. Unity is strength, and if your family can lend a helping hand, you can turn the situation around. It reminds you that people are not heroes alone, everyone needs help, everyone needs understanding.”
Coming up with the character’s name
When Ti Lung first received the script, his character’s name was not Chun Gen. But he felt for the character so much that he felt that the name Chun Gen would be more appropriate.
“I persuaded Jess to use the name Chun Gen instead, which means spring (the season) and roots. In Chinese, spring represents prosperity and hope,” he said.
“For roots, if a tree has healthy roots, it will flourish for a long time. In Chinese, we say that your roots are very important. The roots are your mentality, which is the foundation for your character, knowledge, and experience.”
Ti Lung came up with the name after analysing Chun Gen’s character. “He’s skilled in acupuncture and Chinese chiropractics, so he relates to traditional Chinese customs. What he believes in are natural ways of medical treatment, instead of more scientific and modern ways. So Chun Gen is the old-fashioned type,” he elaborated.
Advice for new actors
So what does the veteran have to say for those who want to pursue a career in acting?
“For newcomers, once you decide to join this career, you must be like a fireman — you can’t be scared to take the heat. You have to be like a cook, and taste all the different flavours of acting — sweet, sour, bitter, salty,” he said.
“You must have a strong mind and prepare yourself. By hook or by crook, you must do it well. Please the audience, give all of yourself (to the role), and you will feel proud.
“Because you are a professional.”
Just like Ti Lung.
“Before We Forget” opens in cinemas:
– 17 November, 2017 (Singapore)
– 16 November, 2017 (Malaysia)
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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