Film-maker Jack Neo and writer Ivan Ho

Combining strengths and interests

Ivan Ho (left) was the writer for director Jack Neo's films Ah Boys To Men 3: Frogmen and Long Long Time Ago as well as Neo's segment in the anthology 7 Letters.
Ivan Ho (left) was the writer for director Jack Neo's films Ah Boys To Men 3: Frogmen and Long Long Time Ago as well as Neo's segment in the anthology 7 Letters.PHOTO: J TEAM PRODUCTIONS

The hit national service-themed movie Ah Boys To Men 3: Frogmen (2015) has several "Easter eggs" hidden in it. For example, the role of Hong Kong teenager Hei Long was a reference to a gangster who turns over a new leaf in the long-running Hong Kong comics Long Hu Men (Oriental Heroes).

The suggestions came from Ivan Ho, 50, who was also the writer for director Jack Neo's segment in the anthology 7 Letters (2015) and his two-part period drama Long Long Time Ago (2016).

He says: "Jack's strength is more of a local comedy style. And I'm a huge Hong Kong and Japanese comics fan. A combination of both our interests brought forth a new form of comedy movie."

The film made $7.6 million at the local box office, just behind the $7.9 million of Ah Boys To Men 2 (2013), the top-grossing Singapore film of all time.

Ho had a late start in the movie business, but his background was in television at the then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, now Mediacorp. When he took a film production course by Neo's J Team Academy in 2013, that helped him to stand out. As did the fact that Neo remembered him from when Ho took a class of his on making karaoke music videos in the 1980s.

The film-maker says: "One of his strengths is that he has the linguistic skills and he knows very well what I want when it comes to sketching out humorous scenes."

Neo, 57, has tended to work with one or more cowriters for his films and they have included Boris Boo (Just Follow Law, 2007; Where Got Ghost?, 2009) and Link Sng (Long Long Time Ago).

"When you work alone, your ideas tend to go in a certain direction, whereas working with someone else means we can talk things over and approach things from different angles," he says.

While some are happy to hone their skills in their chosen speciality, Ho has moved on to direct, as well as co-write, Take 2 (2017), a comedy drama about former convicts starting afresh.

Asked if he looked upon scriptwriting as a stepping stone to directing, he says: "I think they are very different. But it's always good to direct your own script because every director has his way of thinking and execution."

It is a transition that Neo actively encourages: He executive-produced Take 2 and his other collaborators have also gone on to direct. Boo, for example, co-wrote and directed romance comedy Lucky Boy (2017).

Neo says: "I won't say that I'll train you. I'll observe and see if that person is serious about film. If he is, he will be totally immersed in what he does and that's not an act that you can put on.

"It's a process that can't be rushed. If he believes in me, then I'm willing to go down this path together."

Boon Chan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2017, with the headline 'Combining strengths and interests'. Subscribe