Chen Tianwen a leading man at 52

Veteran Chen Tianwen finds it hard to fathom that he is getting his big break at this time in his career with Mr Unbelievable

Chen Tianwen (fifth from left) with director Ong Kuo Sin (third from left) and the cast of Mr Unbelievable (from left) Tosh Zhang, Hayley Woo, Liu Lingling, Jaime Teo, Roy Loi and Marcus Chin.
Chen Tianwen (fifth from left) with director Ong Kuo Sin (third from left) and the cast of Mr Unbelievable (from left) Tosh Zhang, Hayley Woo, Liu Lingling, Jaime Teo, Roy Loi and Marcus Chin.PHOTO: CLOVER FILMS

Local veteran actor Chen Tianwen has been feeling emotional lately.

While filming his latest movie, Mr Unbelievable, there were several moments on set when he found himself on the verge of tears, he says.

Even at yesterday's press conference to promote the film's release, he was visibly moved by all that was going on around him. He almost choked up on several occasions and his nose turned red.

It seems that the 52-year-old still finds it, well, rather unbelievable that he is, for the first time, the leading man in a movie and one inspired by a viral video clip, no less.

He says in Mandarin in a matter- of-fact tone: "I've had many ups and downs in my career, but I never imagined I would be the leading man of a movie at this time in my life.

"People tend to hire hot young stars, so for the longest time, I've come to accept the fact that I should just be happy if I can still get any work."

The story of Mr Unbelievable struck a chord with him, given how much he could identify with his character, Eric Kwek.

In the $1-million film, Kwek is raised by his adoptive father to become a professional singer, except that his lack of good looks and talent set him back. Thanks to a viral video, he finds himself enjoying a taste of fame - albeit a lot later in his career.

Chen says: "There were so many times while filming this that I felt like I understood the character of Eric Kwek. I could relate to his struggles and how he had to keep at it to pursue his passion and to succeed."

The actor, who debuted three decades ago as a gongfu star with the then local television station Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, is enjoying a second wind in his career.

He was thrown into the spotlight again two years ago when he took on a supporting role of a jobless father in the acclaimed local film, Ilo Ilo, which won the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as Best Picture at the Golden Horse Film Festival.

For his sensitive performance, Chen was also nominated for a Golden Horse for Best Supporting Actor.

Then, in April this year, he became the accidental star of the viral music video, Unbelievable, which has since garnered more than 3.2 million views on YouTube and Facebook.

The video was an instant hit as viewers lapped up Chen's cheesy 1970s get-up and ridiculous-looking wig, as well as the song's hilarious lyrics, such as "You blossom like a flower, I so stunned like vegetable".

Now that the clip has inspired an entire feature-length film, Chen admits to feeling the pressure.

The night before the press conference, he did not catch any sleep as he was "excited and nervous".

His co-star, veteran getai actress and host Liu Lingling, 51, talks about how he would often ask for retakes and do-overs in his strive for perfection. She says: "He would say, 'This part could be done better this way' and give suggestions on how to improve the scene. It just shows how much he wants to do well."

Chen, who is married with a son, adds: "I don't want to disappoint anybody, so I have to give it my all.

"I'm just thankful for this amazing opportunity and I would not want to mess it up."

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

•Mr Unbelievable opens in cinemas tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2015, with the headline 'Chen a leading man at 52'. Print Edition | Subscribe