Film-maker's movie on dementia strikes close to home

Before We Forget, by film-maker Jess Teong (above), stars Ti Lung as grandfather Gen and Tan Qin Lin as his granddaughter Sarah (both left).
Before We Forget, by film-maker Jess Teong, stars Ti Lung as grandfather Gen and Tan Qin Lin as his granddaughter Sarah (both above).PHOTO: THREE PICTURES
Before We Forget, by film-maker Jess Teong (above), stars Ti Lung as grandfather Gen and Tan Qin Lin as his granddaughter Sarah (both left).
Before We Forget, by film-maker Jess Teong (above), stars Ti Lung as grandfather Gen and Tan Qin Lin as his granddaughter Sarah.PHOTO: COURTESY OF JESS TEONG

Malaysian film-maker Jess Teong's new film carries a touch of personal pain.

A year after she began writing the screenplay about a family dealing with elderly dementia, her father began showing signs of the disease.

"I was sad. I thought it was happening to him because I wrote the story," she says.

She felt her choice of subject might have been "pantang" (Malay for taboo), the breaking of which brings misfortune, according to folk beliefs.

But the writer-director of the Mandarin-language drama-comedy Before We Forget, the sequel to last year's The Kid From The Big Apple, did not let fear get the better of her.

Spending time with her father, who is in his 80s, convinced her she was on the right path, says Teong, 52.

"My father needs companionship. He needs pictures to remind him of things. He doesn't need big activities," she says of the advice she picked up that has been incorporated into the film.

Before We Forget (PG13, 121 minutes) opens in Golden Village cinemas on Friday.

Teong's film-making career began late. Last year's Big Apple was her first feature.

She was at first a singer, cutting her first album in 1991. Then, she acted, modelled, designed jewellery and operated restaurants with her former husband. She is divorced and has two sons from that marriage.

Taking a break from her jewellery business, she returned to acting in 2006 and again in 2010, appearing in two Mediacorp Channel 8 dramas, Man Of The House (2007) and Your Hand In Mine (2010).

After that, she moved abroad to focus on her business. But a few years ago, she returned to Kuala Lumpur to start production company Three Pictures, partly to be close to her sons.

Having a company gave her the platform that turned Big Apple from a dream to reality, she says.

But she adds that it would be unfair to see Before We Forget as a "dementia movie".

"The movie is about a family coping with a problem. It might be any problem," she says.

Hong Kong legend Tommy Tam, better known as Ti Lung, returns from the first film to play grandfather Gen, as does Tan Qin Lin, who plays granddaughter Sarah.

In the first movie, the focus was on the culture clash between the older man and his Westernised granddaughter.

In the new movie, they have grown much closer. But when he begins to lose track of people, things and places, adults such as Sarah's single-parent mother Sophia (Debbie Goh) is in denial. But Sarah is certain that there is a deeper problem.

When Teong was making the film, she made sure that viewers see the Kuala Lumpur she knows and included scenes set in the modern city centre and less glamorous lower-income residential blocks as well as hawker stalls.

She avoided giving the movie a slick, upmarket look. Neither did she want the opposite, in which the city looks quaint and frozen in time.

"I want people around the world to see Malaysia as it is," she says.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2017, with the headline 'Malaysian film-maker's work strikes close to home'. Print Edition | Subscribe