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Jack Neo turns ‘Ah Boys’ into “The Lion Men”

Singapore director Jack Neo along with actors Tosh Zhang and Wang Weiliang share their thoughts about working on the lion dance-themed movie "The Lion Men".

SINGAPORE: After breaking Singapore box-office records last year with his two-part film “Ah Boys to Men” about the lives of a group of army recruits, local director Jack Neo and his band of young actors from “Ah Boys to Men” are back with “The Lion Men”, a new two-part lion dance-themed movie.

“A lot of fans wanted us to do ‘Ah Boys to Men 3’ but honestly, we couldn’t have come up with a completely new story in such a short time.

“Audiences loved the ‘Ah Boys’ and the camaraderie they share, so I thought we could do a film about a lion dance troupe, instead of a platoon, which also highlights this camaraderie,” said Neo.

“The Lion Men” revolves around the lives of the members in the Tiger-Crane Lion Dance Association headed by Master He (“Ilo Ilo” actor Chen Tianwen).

Master He’s star pupil Wang Wei Cheng (Tosh Zhang) wants to create a new version of lion dance by adding dance and hip hop elements to it.

But Master He chides Wang for not respecting the traditions of lion dance and kicks him out of the troupe, especially after finding out that he is seeing his daughter He Xiao Yu (newcomer Eva Cheng).

Wang winds up joining a modern lion dance troupe that shares his vision, and competes against his former buddies in a big lion dance competition.

His departure puts the spotlight squarely on Mikey (Wang Weiliang), the Tiger-Crane Lion Dance Association’s second best performer.

He likes He Xiao Yu too, but lacks the confidence to compete against Wang for her affections, and struggles to overcome his fear of heights so he can assume the mantle of Tiger-Crane’s Number One Lion.

“Ah Boys to Men” stars Charlie Goh, Noah Yap and Maxi Lim round out the cast of “The Lion Men” and play members of the Tiger-Crane lion dance troupe.  

Lion dance 2.0 and the big split

“The Lion Men”, which is now showing in cinemas, is a far cry from previous films about lion dance that tend to dwell on its traditions.

Neo said “The Lion Men” makes use of a lot of special effects, and is a fresh new “combination of dance, martial arts and the art of lion dance”, which he says, has “almost never been seen before” in a movie.

“When I watched Tsui Hark’s ‘Once Upon a Time in China 3’ which featured a lion dance tournament, I really respected him for bringing the grandeur of traditional lion dance to the big screen, especially at a time when there wasn’t much special effects available,” said Neo.

“But what he was shooting is the past. We are shooting the present.”

“If people want to see traditional lion dance, there is a whole bunch of videos online now.

“We try to show audiences something they cannot see in real life, but can see at the movies because of special effects,” said Neo, referring to the flashy, nigh-impossible lion dance moves shown in “The Lion Men”.

When asked if splitting the S$4.2 million “The Lion Men” into two parts is a commercial decision, Neo candidly said it was partially true.

“Honestly, I didn’t want to do it because it is really exhausting.

“But when I told investors that I wanted to shoot an action-oriented film and showed them the budget … they found the risk was too great, so many of our usual sponsors refused to invest.

“I discussed it with my partners and they suggested we should split it in two like ‘Ah Boys to Men’ to reduce this risk. That way, there is at least some safety margin,” said Neo.

“Then again, there are so many characters in the film and so many stories to tell. There is more than enough to fill a two-parter. In fact, we had to cut some out some content in the end.”

New experiences

While many of the cast members from “Ah Boys to Men” return in “The Lion Men”, the characters they play are nothing like their characters in “Ah Boys to Men”.

Mikey the lion dancer, said Wang, is “totally different” from the brash, loudmouthed recruit Lobang King, whom he portrayed in “Ah Boys to Men”.

“At first, I was a little worried if I can play Mikey. I had a lot of ideas on how to play Lobang King, because he is confident, and likes to help his friends, much like myself.

“Mikey on the other hand, has a bit of an inferiority complex, and often needs his buddies to help him out,” said Wang.

“So I told myself to be more introverted, and didn’t talk much on the set, to get into the mindset of someone who has an inferiority complex. Now, I am still trying to get back to my old, outgoing self!”

Wang isn't the only one who had to step out of his comfort zone for "The Lion Men".

His co-star Zhang plays the highly skilled lion dance performer Wang Wei Cheng in the movie, and performs numerous acrobatic stunts many metres above ground, without a moment's hesitation.

But it turns out the young star actually has acrophobia in real life.

“I am afraid of heights. I can’t even go on roller coasters!” said Zhang.

“When I first went for lion dance training, I thought lion dance was simply about moving the lion head around and make the eyes blink a few times.”

“But it turns out there are a lot of steps to carry the lion head onto the Mei Hua Zhuang (a set of raised platforms used for the lion dance Pillar Demonstration).”

“When I actually got onto the platform, my legs were shaking!”

However, both actors felt the end result made their sacrifices worthwhile, and hoped the “The Lion Men” will enjoy the same success as "Ah Boys to Men".

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