Talented trio

Yip Wai Yee talks to three child actors who stand out in the short film anthology 7 Letters

REY PHUA

Age: Seven

Stars in: Grandma Positioning System (GPS), directed by Kelvin Tong

This little ball of energy is a natural showman.

Within seconds of meeting him at his family's Housing Board flat in Punggol, he starts talking your ears off and showing off his extensive Nerf gun stash and the picturesque park outside his living-room window.



Rey Phua (above) plays the young son of a busy Singaporean couple in Grandma Positioning System (GPS). PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Whenever a commercial jingle starts playing on the television set in the background, he breaks out in song, even throwing in some energetic dance moves.

He also offers a string of suggestions to the photographer during the photo shoot, coming up with a variety of poses complete with his own toy props, such as a helmet and a car.

In other words, he behaves like a show-business veteran, especially as his performance in Kelvin Tong's short film Grandma Positioning System (GPS) was so natural and touching.

He plays the young son of a busy Singaporean couple (played by real-life actor couple Zheng Geping and Hong Huifang) who, despite his young age, proves to be wiser than his years.

There is a scene at the end of the short, where he delivers a long monologue in Hokkien, which caused many teary eyes in the audience at the premiere screening held at the Capitol Theatre last month.


Rey Phua plays the young son (above, with Zhang Jin Hua) of a busy Singaporean couple in Grandma Positioning System (GPS). PHOTO: KELVIN TONG

In fact, Rey is a newbie who snagged the role after auditioning for it. Up till then, he had taken performance classes at the Singapore Media Academy for only one week.

Director Tong tells Life that despite concerns from his casting team over Rey's young age, he insisted on giving the role to the boy.

He explains: "Something about Rey struck me. He may not take minute instructions very well because of his young age, but whatever he does is very natural.

"There is something very old-school in his boyishness. I didn't want a trembling, sensitive leaf of a waif. I wanted an Ah Boy."

Rey, a Catholic High (Primary) pupil, memorised the Hokkien monologue with ease - he picked up the dialect listening to his parents' conversations at home. His father, 50, is a second-hand goods dealer and his mother, 45, is a housewife. The young star has two older siblings in their early 20s.

There was one difficult moment for Rey, though.

His inexperience was apparent when he started getting distracted by the roving cameras.

His mother Niki Liu, who was on set with him for all three days of filming, recalls: "He could say the lines easily, but every time the camera moved upwards, his eyes would follow it, so he had to do the scene many times.

"Finally, I sat him down to tell him seriously that he needed to focus because the crew really wanted to go home. Then he did it in one take."

As Tong would say: "I think showbiz flows in his blood."


YAN LI XUAN

Yan Li Xuan plays a feisty schoolgirl who has a crush on a classmate in That Girl.
Yan Li Xuan plays a feisty schoolgirl who has a crush on a classmate in That Girl. PHOTO: MM2 ENTERTAINMENT

Age: 12

Stars in: That Girl, directed by Jack Neo

Every week night, Yan Li Xuan has dinner at her grandmother's place - a routine that indirectly helped her land the lead role in Jack Neo's short film That Girl.

"It's where I picked up Hokkien," explains the sweet-faced Malaysian girl in Mandarin. She lives in Kuala Lumpur.

"With my parents and at school, I speak mostly Mandarin. Only my grandmother talks to me in Hokkien and I think that helped me a lot with this role."

In the film, Li Xuan plays a feisty schoolgirl who harbours an unrequited crush on her classmate (played by newcomer Josmen Lum), a part that requires her to speak almost entirely in Hokkien.

After auditioning more than 100 hopefuls here for the role without success, Neo went across the Causeway.

The 55-year-old tells Life forlornly in Mandarin: "That's when I decided to travel to Malaysia to look for my lead. There's a higher chance that young people there still understand dialects and, true enough, I found Li Xuan."

The only child of a housewife mother and a company-manager father, she had been taking performance classes on weekends at Kuala Lumpur's Dramatic Art Society for the past year and was recommended by her teacher to attend the auditions.

Neo gushes about his leading lady: "The film is a very innocent puppy love story set in a kampung and she has that very approachable, homely look that I felt was perfect for the part.

"She was also a complete natural in acting, even if she was initially a bit confused by filming technicalities, such as positioning in front of the camera."

In fact, he was so happy with her performance that he cast her in his latest movie project Long Long Time Ago, another work set in a kampung that is now being shot in Ipoh, Malaysia. In the upcoming film that opens during Chinese New Year, Li Xuan plays the daughter of an unwanted second wife (Aileen Tan).

The film-maker has a knack for spotting new talents, such as former child actress Megan Zheng, who bagged the Golden Horse award for Best Newcomer for her role in his 2003 movie Homerun.

Other stars he discovered include the boys in his Ah Boys To Men films (2012, 2013 and 2015), such as Wang Weiliang and Tosh Zhang, who have amassed a huge fan following and gone on to star in other television shows and films.

Neo says: "It's important to give newbies a chance. People always say it is difficult working with children, but when you find the right ones, they make your movie much more fun to watch."

His praise for her notwithstanding, Li Xuan says: "I don't think I did a very good job. When I watched myself on screen, I felt like I didn't play some scenes with enough feeling. I hope I will get better."


RAY TAN LIANG YU


Ray Tan Liang Yu plays a kid who has to run around half-naked in Bunga Sayang in search of a neighbour who would let him shower as the water supply at his home has been cut off. PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Age: 11

Stars in: Bunga Sayang, directed by Royston Tan

"I don't have dreams of becoming an actor, but if I do get the chance to act again, I'm open to the idea. It's quite fun."

RAY TAN

At age 11, Ray Tan Liang Yu comes across as an old soul.

Polite but shy, he repeatedly offers the requisite thank-you messages to his short-film director Royston Tan and fellow cast and crew as if he were some publicityweary veteran star.

The fact that his role in Bunga Sayang requires him to be shirtless almost the entire time does not faze the boy on the cusp of adolescence.

"That was okay. I'm not shy about these things," says Ray with a small smile and shrug.

In the film, he plays a child who has to run around his Housing Board block of flats, half-naked, in search of a neighbour who would let him shower when the water supply at his home is cut off because of unpaid bills.

He befriends an old Malay neighbour in the process.

Director Tan says it is precisely Ray's grown-up vibe that attracted him.


Ray Tan Liang Yu plays a kid who has to run around half-naked in Bunga Sayang (above) in search of a neighbour who would let him shower as the water supply at his home has been cut off. PHOTO: 7 LETTERS, ROYSTON TAN

The 38-year-old film-maker says: "There's a different aura about him, compared with other kids. When you look into his eyes, they are innocent and mature at the same time.

"People tried to dissuade me from casting him due to his lack of acting experience, but I went with my instincts. Most kids are almost formatted to behave in the same way and to like the same things, but Ray is different."

Tan has known Ray's family for the past six years after getting to know them at the Lorong Koo Chye Sheng Hong Temple in Arumugam Road, where he is a regular visitor.

Ray's grandfather is Mr Tan Thiam Lye, chairman of the Taoist Federation. His uncle is notable getai organiser Aaron Tan, who holds regular shows at the temple.

The only child of a former mobilephone store dealer father and an administrative officer mother, Ray spends almost every weekend at the temple.

He often watches the Chinese opera performances staged there and sometimes even joins the cast onstage for minor parts in full make-up and costumes.

Says the Primary 5 pupil of Maha Bodhi School: "I enjoy watching performances of all sorts. I don't have dreams of becoming an actor, but if I do get the chance to act again, I'm open to the idea. It's quite fun."

After the interview and photo shoot, he waves goodbye before picking up a soccer ball and kicking it around excitedly. It is then that you remember he is a child after all.

  • 7 Letters will be showing at selected Golden Village cinemas for one week from Aug 20 to 26.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2015, with the headline 'Talented trio'. Print Edition | Subscribe