Jack Neo's breakout star has 11 grandchildren, 2 great-grandchildren
Fans ask to take photos with 79-year-old star of Long Long Time Ago, Jack Neo's latest flick about 1960s S'pore
Madam Ng Suan Loi is living proof that age is no barrier to fame.
The jovial 79-year-old Kelantan-born freelance actress, affectionately known in the industry as Jing Jing Ah Ma (Hokkien for grandmother), is hit local movie Long Long Time Ago's breakout star - and its oldest cast member.
In director Jack Neo's latest film, a nostalgic paean to the kampung days of 1960s Singapore, Madam Ng plays Ah Ma, devoted mum to main protagonist Zhao Di (Aileen Tan) and wife of grumpy Si Shu (getai veteran Wang Lei).
The real-life great-grandmother - she has five children, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren - is not exactly a rookie in local cinema, having played supporting parts in Neo's I Not Stupid Too (2006) and Boris Boo's Filial Party (2014).
But it is Long Long Time Ago that is finally putting the septuagenarian in the spotlight.
ON SCREEN: Madam Ng Suan Loi as Ah Ma in Jack Neo's latest film, Long Long Time Ago. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES
"After this movie came out, I realised I have fans," she told The New Paper in Mandarin at her Woodlands flat last Friday.
"These days, youngsters will come up to me and exclaim, 'You are the Ah Ma in Long Long Time Ago!' and ask to take photos with me."
She said of her most memorable fan encounter: "Just the other day, we held a charity screening for elderly folk and a young man who was coordinating the event remarked to me in disbelief, 'How can you be almost 80? You are so fashionable and youthful'.
"That made my day."
Long Long Time Ago, which is showing in cinemas, is resonating well with audiences.
It topped the local box office over the long Chinese New Year weekend, earning $1.65 million in six days and beating star-studded blockbusters such as The Monkey King 2 and From Vegas To Macau III. (See report, right.)
Madam Ng said she did not have to audition for the role of Ah Ma, as Neo offered it to her after just one costume fitting.
And despite the huge 25-year age gap between her and on-screen husband Wang, 54, the duo share a palpable chemistry as a bickering old couple.
"When I first found out that Wang Lei was going to play my husband, I did find it a little weird, as he is really a lot younger than I am," she admitted.
"But I soon brushed such thoughts away as Liang Dao (referring to Neo) would jokingly say, 'Anyway Wang Lei looks old mah'. I've also received my fair share of comments that I look young, so that balances it out.
"There were times when Wang Lei would pretend to complain that he is very suay (unlucky in Hokkien) to be paired with an elderly woman, but it's all for fun and laughter."
Like most of the other cast members, Madam Ng spent two and a half months on location in Ipoh.
"All of us became so tight-knit, like a real family. Even till today, Aileen Tan still calls me Ah Bu (Hokkien for mother) whenever she sees me.
REEL & REAL LIFE: (Above) In Long Long Time Ago, Madam Ng plays Ah Ma, the mother of main protagonist Zhao Di (played by Aileen Tan, above in purple). PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES
"The interesting thing is, although I am the oldest on the set, by the end of the shoot in Malaysia, everyone fell sick except me!"
Madam Ng, who owns a snacks stall selling banana fritters and chicken wings at Woodlands Centre hawker centre, as well as a blogshop selling handmade batik clothes and bags, had a late start in showbiz.
When quizzed why she didn't start acting earlier, she said matter-of-factly: "It was just not possible; the thought of it did not even cross my mind. Growing up, life was tough."
She never got the chance to receive a formal education. At the age of six, she was already working in a rubber plantation in Malaysia to earn pocket money. At 19, she married a Singaporean, relocated here and has been a housewife since.
"It was only when I was in my late 50s, early 60s, that one of my sons-in-law signed me up for an acting course at MediaCorp. That kickstarted my interest in acting," she said.
Thanks to the success of Long Long Time Ago, Madam Ng is able to command higher fees for her short film acting projects. She has starred in local short films such as Ten Thousand Bowls (2014) and Ah Ma And Me (2015).
"For short films, I used to be paid $350 for around half a day of filming work, but I think I might not be able to accept this rate now. It has to be higher. I am all for supporting young, aspiring film-makers, but unfortunately, I cannot spoil the market," she said.
She will hit the big 8-0 next year, but Madam Ng shows no signs of slowing down.
"I'm game to take on all kinds of roles. The only roles that I won't take are the ones that require my character to die! I'm superstitious."
I've also received my fair share of comments that I look young, so that balances it out.
- Madam Ng Suan Loi, on the 25-year age gap between her and getai veteran Wang Lei, who plays her husband
Neo: Her energy level is incredible
Jack Neo and Wang Lei had nothing but praise for Madam Ng Suan Loi.
"I discovered Jing Jing Ah Yi (auntie in Mandarin) back in mid-2000s," said Neo, 56, in a phone interview with The New Paper.
"The main reason I gave her the role is that the minute she put on the character's costume, she looked totally convincing as a grandmother from our 1960s era. Plus her Hokkien is very authentic.
"Her energy level is incredible for her age. She mixes around with the youngsters and at times, she is even more energetic than Wang Lei.
"There is a flood scene in the movie which I had initially left her out of, as I was concerned it would be too physically tiring for her. The actors had to be chest-deep in the water. But Jing Jing Ah Yi insisted that she be in it. She had no complaints at all."
In a separate interview, Madam Ng recalled: "Yes, I remember reassuring Liang Dao (referring to Neo), 'Don't worry about me, I can swim!'"
As for getai veteran Wang, he told TNP that he "had to do more re-takes" than Ng.
"She has a very good memory and didn't have problems with her lines. I definitely had more NGs (no good in filming terminology) than her."
Wang admitted, however, that he was "extremely shocked" when he first heard that his on-screen wife was 25 years older than him.
"Then, we had a costume fitting where I had to put on my character's elderly make-up. Both of us stood together and it was at that point that I felt we looked really compatible," he said.
Neo: It's a movie about S'poreans
BOX OFFICE GOLD: The cast of Long Long Time Ago and director Jack Neo at a lo hei at the movie's press conference. TNP PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO
His mainstream movies have topped the local box office over the Chinese New Year long weekend four times in five years.
Despite that, director Jack Neobelieves "there is no surefire win".
"Nobody will dare say that they can win the CNY local box-office battle every year," he told The New Paper.
"If a Hollywood mega production happens to be released during the CNY period, it might just beat us. We can only keep doing our best to bring cinemagoers top-quality works."
Before Long Long Time Ago's victory, his past three films, Ah Boys To Men (2012), Ah Boys To Men 2 (2013) and Ah Boys To Men 3: Frogmen (2015), were all CNY box-office champions.
Part 3 of the popular army franchise holds the record for the highest-grossing opening weekend of all time for an Asian movie title, with takings of $2.8 million.
Neo said: "Four groups of Singaporeans helped Long Long Time Ago achieve such amazing results - the Chinese, the Malays, the Indians and the Eurasians.
"Because the movie is my story and theirs, too. It is our common story that brings back memories for many people.
"I'm very happy that a home-grown film has managed to hold court amid so many Chinese films. It shows that locals do support local works."
This year's CNY box-office battle was "especially tough", said Neo.
"The Chinese blockbuster films we were going up against are star-studded, with so many Heavenly Kings," he said with a laugh, referring to big names like Aaron Kwok (The Monkey King 2), Stephen Chow (Mermaid), Chow Yun Fat, Andy Lau and Jacky Cheung (From Vegas To Macau III).
Neo declined to comment individually on these films, but said that Long Long Time Ago's advantage is "our heartwarming story".
"I've realised a recent trend in some Chinese and Hong Kong CNY movies - they like to get lots of A-list stars to be part of their cast, but ultimately, those movies' storylines are quite empty," said Neo.
"For us, it's the reverse. Long Long Time Ago doesn't have many big names, but we have a solid, heartfelt storyline that pulls audiences in.
"You cannot simply lump together a bunch of big names to haphazardly do a CNY flick, it doesn't work that way."
The veteran film-maker is confident that the sequel, Long Long Time Ago 2, slated for an end-March release, will "do even better".
"There will be lots of laughs, dramatic elements, as well as emotional moments," he promised.