SINGAPORE - Dialect will be a star in director Jack Neo's upcoming period drama Long Long Time Ago, about the trials and tribulations of a Chinese family living in a kampung in the 1960s and 1970.
Much of the film's dialogue is in Hokkien.
Neo, 55, seems confident that he will not run afoul of the Board of Film Censors even though, in line with the Speak Mandarin Campaign, there is an unofficial quota on the amount of dialect a film may contain.
At a press conference on Friday, he says: "There's actually a lot of Malay in the film as well as well as Mandarin and English so there's a balance on the whole. In the past, everyone spoke Malay in the kampungs.
"What we're going for is realism instead of trying to force things. In the case of Aileen Tan, I don't want her to speak Mandarin because her character wouldn't have known how to speak it."
Tan, 48, plays the lead character Zhao Di, the unwanted second wife of an older man who is forced to return to her own family.
The other leads in the cast were also unveiled at the press event.
Mark Lee, 46, plays Zhao Di's self-centred younger brother, while veteran getai entertainer Wang Lei, 54, plays their conservative father who favours boys over girls.
Long Long Time Ago is budgeted at between $4 million and $5 million. It will be shot in Ipoh and Singapore for more than two months, starting in July, and is slated to be released during the Chinese New Year period next year.
Neo wants to capture the large-scale shift of Singaporean families from kampungs to housing estates. He says: "It was a major moment in our history, with an impact on the economy, on people's emotions and families and society at large.
"I experienced that era and it feels very meaningful to record all these things that happened in the past. If we don't, who else would?"
Because of the Hokkien dialogue in the film, Neo picked actors who are fluent in the vernacular tongue. Wang called dialect his "homeground" while Lee was clearly at ease as well as he joked about in Hokkien.
The big surprise was Tan, who proceeded to show her command of it at the press event. She says in Hokkien: "A lot of people think I'm Cantonese because of my husband. My parents are Hokkien so it's thanks to them that I got this role." Her husband is director Gerald Lee from Hong Kong.
The challenge for her is that she will have to speak another language she is not familiar with - Malay.
Wang's grouse is that he has to age for his role. After dyeing his hair white recently to sort out the look of his character, a parking station attendant addressed him as "Ah Pek" (Hokkien term for old man). He adds: "And when I went home, my dog wouldn't stop barking at me."
For Long Long Time Ago, Neo wants to recreate a major flood from 1969 and is hoping to build a 30m by 30m pool that is 1.5m deep. Tan thinks she and her cast mates would have to spend two to three days soaked in it. But Lee thinks it would be closer to a week given that it is a night scene.
"That's why it's fun making his films, it's like taking a roller-coaster ride," says Lee, who adds in jest: "To the audience, watching a Jack Neo film is a light-hearted, meaningful experience. But to us, it's like making a horror thriller."
In the Neo-directed comedy Ah Long Pte Ltd (2008), Lee had to jump into a pit filled with faeces and also got smeared all over with chocolate sauce, attracting the unwanted attention of ants.