'Filming it was an adventure'

Joe Ng, the titular character in Mee Pok Man, now does music and sound design for film and television.
Joe Ng, the titular character in Mee Pok Man, now does music and sound design for film and television.PHOTO: ST FILE

Twenty years ago, there was no film industry in Singapore.

And that made the shooting of Mee Pok Man an adventure, says musician Joe Ng, 48.

He says: "The analogy is like a couple of schoolkids coming together and saying, 'Let's climb Bukit Timah hill.'

"We were all excited about doing a feature and none of us had any experience. Along the way, we made mistakes, we got lost, we didn't know how to have a proper workflow for making a feature film. We didn't have visions of grandeur."

It was the first independently made Singapore movie to get a commercial release. Now, the feature film debut by Eric Khoo is being celebrated at the Singapore International Film Festival as a milestone of local cinema. The work, newly restored by the Asian Film Archive, will be screened at the National Museum on Sunday.

Based on a short story (One Last Cold Kiss in Classic Singapore Horror Stories: Book 2, 1994) and script by writer Damien Sin, the dark movie features Ng as the dim-witted titular character who is obsessed with a prostitute, Bunny, played by Michelle Goh.

Ng was immediately drawn to the tale: "Fantastic, I just loved it. I've always gravitated towards stories with characters who are looked down upon, ostracised and sidelined by conservative, mainstream society."

While he had some experience helping out with the camera and lighting and even acting in his drinking buddy Khoo's short films, a full-length feature was very different.

Making mee pok was not a problem - "that one was sort of easy, monkey see, monkey do" - the biggest challenge was maintaining emotional continuity.

"Not being an actor, it took me some time to remember that this was how my character was feeling at this point. If there was no sense of continuity, Eric would have problems at the editing stage."

As for his co-star Goh, they did not hit it off at the start.

He recalls: "She thought I was a pretentious rocker and I thought she was some prissy, high-class society person."

As they learnt more about each other, they became more comfortable to the point where shooting a pivotal intimate scene was "okay".

At that time, he was fronting a band called Padres and his day job was as a music executive at a record label. Making the film convinced him he was not meant to be an actor. He said no when Khoo asked if he wanted to be involved in his latest project, the decade-hopping drama In The Room, which premieres at the film festival on Tuesday.

Ng says: "My first love is music and, subsequently, I've been doing music and sound design for film and TV. I'm excited by what audio and music can do to complement storytelling."

His soundtrack credits include Ken Kwek's black comedy Unlucky Plaza (2014) as well as Kelvin Tong's films, from kungfu romance Eating Air (1999) to nostalgia drama It's A Great, Great World (2011). Next up is an arts project for which he is venturing into the jungles in Johor to record sounds.

He might never act again, but Mee Pok Man will always have a special place in his heart.

Ng, who is dating someone, muses: "We were like kids on an adventure and that adventure has taken on a life of its own."

Boon Chan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 25, 2015, with the headline ''Filming it was an adventure''. Print Edition | Subscribe