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Our First Film Fest winner works with Jack Neo

July 5, 2011 - 7:52pm

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TNP PHOTO: Kua Chee Siong

JACK Neo, meet Amos Yee.

He’s a quarter your age, a head shorter than you, and is arguably more coherent in English.

How are you going to direct a smart alec, American-accented boy who has his own ideas on what makes a good movie, never mind if he’s only made a handful of short films and YouTube videos.

That’s the question we put to the 51-year-old, Singapore’s most successful film-maker, who has just cast the 13-year-old boy in a small role for his next Mandarin film I Not Naughty.

Amos was the big winner of The New Paper’s inaugural FiRST Film Fest (FFF) short film competition held in March, taking home two trophies for Best Short Film and Best Actor.

The pint-sized budding auteur impressed FFF judge Neo and the other panellists with his self-written, self-directed film Jan, in which he took on four different roles in a twisted dark comedy that involves a friend with cancer and a deadly ukulele.

Ever the talent scout, Neo – who had also offered an internship to the FFF winner – was impressed enough to encourage the schoolboy to audition for I Not Naughty at a special FFF screening held a day before the winners were announced.

When Amos was finally called down to Neo’s J Team Productions office for the audition in May, he improvised – and, according to Neo, improved – the language in the script given to him. Impressed by the kid’s chops, Neo offered the role to him.

Neo remained tight-lipped about I Not Naughty, saying only that while it was not a sequel to his successful I Not Stupid films, it will be in a similar vein.

The film stars I Not Stupid alumni Shawn Lee and Joshua Ang, though Neo declined to elaborate on their roles in the new movie.

Amos will play a “smart boy” who is the brother of Shawn’s character. He’ll appear in two or three scenes, speaking only in English.

The youngster’s FFF victory and impending acting debut in a film by Singapore’s most successful director would seem quite an achievement for someone his age.

Yet, his overnight exposure has also spurred others to post unkind comments about Amos’ American-accented English.

Amos doesn’t suffer fools – or Singlish – gladly.

So where did he pick up that accent? It seems Amos, who has never lived overseas, adopted it from shows he has watched.

Asked how life has changed for him post-FFF, the Zhonghua Secondary School student told The New Paper confidently: “Well, I think the haters have just continued to hate. I think it’s probably intensified.”

Amos has had a difficult relationship with netizens who view his YouTube videos.

Earlier this year, he had two videos flagged as “inappropriate” because of the language that was used.

He subsequently had his original YouTube account – which also included Jan – taken down because of a third video that was flagged by another user.

YouTube takes down accounts after users have been given “three strikes” – if they’ve been warned three times for violating the site’s terms of use and other guidelines.

Not everyone, though, is disapproving of his work – there are also “oh my God you’re so cute” comments on his YouTube channel.

Recently, Amos made a video titled “Autistic people”, which his mother said was created in response to an autistic classmate who was being bullied by others.

A teacher in his school saw it and asked the boy to create a video for the school’s upcoming Health Week.

Response

His response to schoolmates and YouTube commenters who lob insults at his strong slang?

“I don’t say it to them, but I think ‘Well, I have to suffer with your Singlish’”, he replied.

Which makes his collaboration with Neo – whose body of work and speech are peppered with colloquialisms – all the more interesting.

Neo joked: “Wah, he’s going to be the one teaching us English.”

When talk turned to whether he and his parents have discussed how to deal with the “arrogant” label that is often used on their only child who is also described as an “amazing talent”, Neo turned to his mum, Madam Mary Toh, who had accompanied her son to the interview.

“Yes, maybe one thing (for Amos) to learn, is to be humble,” said Neo.

Madam Toh, 45, a Maths teacher, nodded.

“He can be a handful,” she acknowledged.

At one point, when Amos said that there had been concerns about working with Neo because he was uncertain whether Neo was “using me for my fame”, Neo made a point to “clarify” the comment.

“I just want to say, I’m not using him that way. There are people who are more famous,” the director shot back.

That little friction notwithstanding, Neo did stress several times during the interview that others should “understand that Amos is an actor”.

“Just because he acts arrogant doesn’t mean he is,” said Neo.

“He is an actor, he’s playing a role,” he added.

But Amos' veneer of impertinence disappeared when Neo started describing his working methods with young actors, and talked about how he wanted to share his 30-odd years of film-making experience with the young boy.

Amos listened, cocked his head attentively, and nodded in assent to most of Neo’s ideas.

Asked if he would be tempted to direct himself while on the set of I Not Naughty, Amos smiled and said: “I’m there to observe him, see him in action.”

Neo quickly stepped in to say: “Yes, if you have any questions, you can ask after we shoot.”

At one point, Neo, who had been observing Amos respond to questions, interjected excitedly.

“Sorry ah, but I just had this idea. Why don’t we do a show on YouTube, every week you’ll talk about the news, and make it funny, and make it interesting for children?

“Maybe something like a news show that is funny,” Neo said.

Amos, wide-eyed, said: “I was actually thinking the same thing!”

There’s a future for this pair yet, even if their storytelling interests are dramatically different.

Though Amos admitted that he cried while watching I Not Stupid, he said he is not quite ready to explore Neo’s family drama genre.

“I think I’ll stick to what I do,” he said.

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