Eric Khoo's 12 Storeys turns 20

Director Eric Khoo shares the inspiration behind his film 12 Storeys. To mark the 20th anniversary of its release, a restored digital copy of the film will be screened at The Projector on Saturday.
Jack Neo plays Ah Gu, a hawker whose wife, a China emigre played by Quan Yifeng, makes him miserable.
Jack Neo plays Ah Gu, a hawker whose wife, a China emigre played by Quan Yifeng, makes him miserable.PHOTO: ZHAO WEI FILMS
Lucilla Teoh is San San, who suffers at the hands of her abusive mother.
Lucilla Teoh is San San, who suffers at the hands of her abusive mother.PHOTO: ZHAO WEI FILMS

The film marks its anniversary with a screening at The Projector this Saturday

About 20 years ago, director Eric Khoo met Jack Neo, then popular as a comedian and television host on Channel 8, at a small production house where both men were editing their films.

The year before, in 1995, Khoo had released the arthouse horror film Mee Pok Man.

Neo was then working on personal short films - "crazy films about people killing each other in the lift, really dark and not the sort of stuff you'd see him do on TV," says Khoo.

He asked Neo if he had watched Mee Pok Man and Neo said yes, and that he was impressed by its use of Chinese dialects - frowned upon then - but not much else.

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"He said, 'Aiyah, why the film so slow?'" recalls Khoo, 52.

In spite of that critique, Khoo persuaded Neo to take part in his next film, playing Ah Gu, a hawker married to a woman from China. 12 Storeys (1997) would be selected for Cannes Film Festival that year in the Un Certain Regard section, created for film-makers with bold, non-traditional styles.

  • BOOK IT / 12 STOREYS (20TH ANNIVERSARY)

  • WHERE: The Projector, 05-00 Golden Mile Tower, 6001 Beach Road

    WHEN: Saturday, 8pm

    ADMISSION: $13.50

    INFO: Director and co-writer Eric Khoo and actress Lucilla Teoh will be present for a talk. For schedule and bookings, go to theprojector.sg

To mark the 20th anniversary of the release of 12 Storeys (PG, 105 minutes), a restored digital copy of the film will be screened at The Projector on Saturday.

At first, Khoo wanted Neo, now 57, to play a man who watches the film's three separate stories screening on television. But Neo wanted something bigger and less passive for his film debut, so Khoo offered him the part of Ah Gu, a hawker whose wife, a China emigre played by Quan Yifeng, is making him miserable.

Ah Gu had to be ugly, so Neo dug into his bag of comedic props and came back with fake buck teeth. Khoo thought the idea was "cool" - and, even better, because Neo owned the teeth, the production did not have to pay for them.

One of the film's lightly interconnected stories deals with the mentally abusive relationship endured by San San (played by Lucilla Teoh) at the hands of her mother, played by a non-actor, Lok Yee Loy.

In real life, Madam Lok, who has since died, was a sweet person who volunteered to help the elderly. Khoo had met her a few years before the making of 12 Storeys while making videos about volunteers.

He asked Straits Times journalist and frequent collaborator Wong Kim Hoh to swear in Cantonese on a tape, which was given to Madam Lok. She came back a week later with the curses memorised - but wanted to add more.

"She wanted to make it more fierce," says Khoo. Because he wanted his actors, especially the untrained ones, to do what comes naturally, he agreed, and the scene of her berating San San in one long monologue was filmed with surprising ease.

"Ten minutes, one take. She was my fastest actress," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 26, 2017, with the headline 'Eric Khoo's 12 Storeys turns 20'. Print Edition | Subscribe