Exclusive interview with Jack Neo


For the Chinese speaking community living in South East Asia, Chinese New Year (CNY) often reminds us of the name Jack Neo, as we are accustomed to watching a lighthearted “Jack Neo Film” which is usually launched during the CNY period. Jack Neo is the renowned movie director from Singapore who has directed more than two dozen films that are comical and yet at the same time address issues relevant to the society, particularly in Singapore. Neo was the recipient of the Cultural Medallion as well as the first filmmaker in Singapore to be honoured with the Public Service Award. Some of his box office successes include Money No Enough, I Not Stupid and recently, Ah Boys to Men.

This year, Neo’s film, Long Long Time Ago will be aired in Brunei in late February, depicting the simple life of the Kampong in the 1960s, underscoring what Singaporeans went through when their country became a republic.

We interviewed Jack Neo to find out more about his views on Chinese New Year, his upcoming movie as well as his plans for the future.

Jack Neo

What does Chinese New Year mean to you?
Chinese New year (CNY) is a very important festival for me. Since I was young I always enjoyed CNY very much, but since becoming an adult, I have been making movies for people every CNY. Therefore CNY has taken on another meaning for me in my adult life. It means instead of celebrating it with my immediate family, I now celebrate CNY with a much larger audience through the movies I have produced.

I remember there was one year when we didn’t produce a movie to launch during CNY, I received feedback from people that they did not know where to go or what to do during CNY. When I heard about it, I was especially touched, so I kept reminding myself that no matter what, I must do one Chinese movie for my audience every year because it has become a habit that every CNY, they watch a Jack Neo movie.

Most of my movies are family oriented and have a family theme. Therefore, from the three year old to the eighty year old, movie goer, they are all able to understand and appreciate our productions. Not only that, people tend to make it a family affair by going to the movies in a group, as part of their new year activities.

Therefore, you can say that CNY is an important celebration for me and I treasure it very much.

Your upcoming movie, Long Long Time Ago which will be aired in Brunei in late February, depicts an era when life was a lot simpler, people were more trusting and community minded. Societies are supposed to evolve for the better.

What do you think has changed?
I think a lot has changed since my old kampong days. We have evolved as a society, and a lot of the values have evolved with time. People in the past used to view certain values or ways of conduct a lot more seriously than today.

For example, it used to be a big deal to see women smoking. But today, no one makes a fuss about it. In the past, when you saw someone with a tattoo, you’d label them as “Pai-Kia”, today tattoos have become quite common amongst both genders and people call this body art. And it is not necessarily a bad thing.

With the introduction of the internet, it has shifted our way of thinking tremendously. We used to be very superstitious about certain practices, but with better knowledge and understanding about how things work, we have become a lot less superstitious.

So, I think that the information advancement has definitely played its part in improving the society. However, some changes are good, some may not be so good. To me, the most important thing is that human relationships should not change. You must continue to love your friends, your neighbours, help them and do not turn little frictions into hatred Because a better world, a peaceful and harmonious world commences with love.

Yes, many things from the Kampong are no longer around. But if the evolvement begins with love as the fundamental virtue, I think it will be for the better. But if you lose sight of this real reason for improvement as the purpose, then it would affect the quality of life negatively.

1512 LongLongTimeAgo Poster_2a.tif

You have been known to subtly inject social messages, sometimes with light hearted humour in all of your movies. What is the fundamental message that you wish to convey with this movie?
The main emphasis of this movie is to remind the audience to be grateful for what we have today by not taking our present situation for granted. Much of our achievements today is a result of the sacrifice and hard work of the past generation.

This movie depicts the very essence of human nature, where there’ll always be black sheep amongst the crowd that will mess things up and discourage you. But in the midst of this, we also want to show that there are just as many people, if not more, who are sincere and who live a selfless life for the greater good of all.

You may be able to identify with many of these characters when you watch the movie, and you’ll also be able to relate to these characters – to these people living amongst you in a very real way in your daily life.

In Long Long Time Ago, you’ll be able to experience the nostalgic moments of the 1960s, where people spoke in a lot of different dialects as well as in the Malay language. It also shows the life of the Singaporean community after our independence; how we became a republic and survived. Essentially, it brings you back in time to the simple life of how people used to live in the Kampong.

I Not Stupid, Money No Enough, Ah Boys to Men, The Lion Men, My Papa Rich are some of your famous box office successes. Your choice of titles have always been very simple, humorous, almost effortless and more often than not, grammatically questionable and extremely risky. On the other hand, they are also undeniably powerful, sticky and highly unforgettable. 

How much effort do you put into coming up with your movie titles?
The movie titles are often decided as we write the movie. Most of the time, we would not intentionally spend too much time in developing it. Although many at times, we use less appropriate grammar because I want my movies to demonstrate the authentic culture and uniqueness of Singapore and Malaysia. People are able to relate to it a lot better.

Production Still from Jack Neo’s latest movie “Long Long Time Ago”

Reportedly you took two years to write Long Time Ago and had a budget of close to SGD 5million. What movies are you working on? What is going through Jack Neo’s mind right now?
I am currently aiming to produce movies in collaboration with companies in foreign countries. For many years, we have produced a lot of movies for the audience in this region. And I feel that we are still not giving enough to our audience.

I hope to be able to find more inspiration and breakthroughs with our productions to present to our audiences. And all of these requires time. We are committed to completing all our tasks with the utmost excellence, regardless of what project we take on. The last thing we want is to compromise our quality because it would be a betrayal of trust to our loyal audience.

The previews of “Long Long Time Ago” look interesting as they show an entire era depicted in two hours. We wish you all the best in delivering a heartwarming story to the audience during this festive season.

“I must do one Chinese movie for my audience every year because it has become a habit that every CNY, they watch a Jack Neo movie.”

Production Still from Jack Neo’s latest movie “Long Long Time Ago”

This article was published in the February 2016 issue of Inspire Living Magazine. Download it here!