Making his biopic Wonder Boy is an emotional roller coaster for Dick Lee

Wonder Boy is loosely based on the singer-songwriter's life in his teens leading to the release of his first album

Wonder Boy, which stars Benjamin Kheng (above left), is co-directed by Dick Lee (above right), and filmed in Penang.
Wonder Boy, which stars Benjamin Kheng (above left), is co-directed by Dick Lee (above right), and filmed in Penang.PHOTO: MM2 ENTERTAINMENT
Julie Tan.

The cosy-looking, two-storey house with beige walls and exposed brick detailing is in a quiet residential enclave along Jalan Jesselton in Penang.

Stepping inside, one is transported to a different era, thanks to a retro-looking television set, rotary- dial telephone, wooden cabinets and slatted windows.

The place is festooned with gaily coloured streamers and paper balls for a celebration. Welcome to Dick Lee's 18th birthday party, as it is re-created in the upcoming movie Wonder Boy.

The movie, which is loosely based on the Singaporean singer-song- writer's life during his teenage years leading to the release of his first album, is mostly filmed in Penang. It is slated for release in August next year.

Lee, 60, who is directing the movie with Daniel Yam, said to local media during a recent set visit: "We are here in Penang because it is a wonderful substitute for Singapore circa 1970s. I'd like this movie to look as real as possible."

Only 20 per cent of the film is shot in Singapore.

The filming locations also include the Penang Free School, which stands in for St Joseph's Institution, where Lee studied, and "everything has been recreated so lovingly and accurately".

All that authenticity meant that shooting the movie brought back a lot of memories for him.

Describing it as being on an "emotional roller-coaster", he said he could not even bring himself to watch some scenes.

There were challenges for the actors as well, as they had to grapple with playing characters whom the director was intimately familiar with, including his sister Patricia who died in a car accident in Malaysia in 1984 at the age of 24.

The cast includes Constance Song and Gerald Chew as Richard Lee's parents, actress-model Michelle Wong as Richard's sister and Julie Tan as his love interest.

The most challenging role falls to singer-actor Benjamin Kheng, who plays Richard. The 26-year-old, who is better known as the frontman of home-grown band The Sam Willows, said: "I'm in a biopic about a man who's not only very much alive, but also spearheading this ship. It's pretty unprecedented ground, I'd say."

Both he and Lee agreed that it was important to bring the character to life without resorting to mimicry.

Kheng said: "Very early on, he sat me down and said, 'I don't want you to imitate me, I want you to recreate, to be inspired by my life and create a character that captures my heart and my passion.'"

It helps that he had played the singer-songwriter once before - a star turn in the Esplanade's National Broadway Company in 2012, which impressed Lee.

The veteran composer said: "He basically learnt to play the piano for the role and I was very impressed. He played it really well. So I thought, this is a guy who can play music, sing, everything - similar to me, lah."

He will probably be hoping that Wonder Boy will possess the bittersweetness of his best songs.

"It is my strongest quality that I put into my music. I think Home is a terribly bittersweet song. It makes people feel proud and yet it makes people cry and that is the hardest thing to capture," he said.

With music being a big part of Wonder Boy, Lee told The Straits Times that it could be turned into a stage musical.

Meanwhile, he is already working on other projects, including Cantopop Superstar, a stage and screen musical about the music from Hong Kong, where he lived and worked for some time.

Calling it his dream project, he said it has not been done before in Hong Kong probably because the people there are too close to the subject.

"They don't see it as Cantopop, it's just their music," he said.

"Why do I have authority to do this? Because I was there at its peak. There was my time in Hong Kong and I worked with all the Heavenly Kings. My last thing was (the musical) Snow.Wolf.Lake (1997), which was to me the crowning glory of that era."

Challenge to film in English for actress

Mediacorp actress Julie Tan, who plays the love interest of the character based on local composer Dick Lee in the movie Wonder Boy, was nervous about emoting when filming in English rather than Mandarin like she is used to.

It is her first English-speaking role - a challenge she wanted.

"It's been seven years and I feel very comfortable at Mediacorp. I've been busy all this while and that's good, but I want to improve myself. It's when you're out of your comfort zone that you learn," Tan, 24, said to The Straits Times during a set visit. While she was referring to the short study stint at New York Film Academy that she had just completed last month, the challenge that Wonder Boy presents also appeals to her.

Her co-star, singer-actor Benjamin Kheng, 26, who plays the titular character Richard Lee, would help her go over the lines.

He said separately: "She came up to me and told me how nervous she was about emoting in English. But I got a lot from her in the scenes. If the emotion is true, the emotion is true."

Filming in Penang for Wonder Boy was like a homecoming for Tan. Her mother is from Penang and she visits the island once or twice a year. While she professed that she was no local expert, she brought food such as chendol to share with others on set.

In contrast, she felt like a fish out of water in Manhattan, New York.

She pronounced "can't" the British way and the Americans "thought I was cussing".

They pointed out that it should rhyme with "rent" instead.

But that faux pas is unlikely to be something that gets her down. She is someone who appears to get energised by challenges - she has played a wide range of roles from a tomboy in Peace & Prosperity (2016) to a villain in The Dream Makers II (2015) to the romantic lead in music drama film That Girl In Pinafore (2013).

She won a Star Award for Best Supporting Actress for Dream Makers and two so far for Top 10 Most Popular Female Artistes.

Tan's first role was in the telemovie The Promise (2009) as an intellectually disabled girl and she won it through auditions, a process she said she loves: "When you land a role, the sense of achievement is greater. And it's the norm be it in America or China, even for the A-listers."

One prize that seems to have eluded her so far is finding the right guy in real life.

Sounding a little wistful, she said: "Maybe it's hard to meet someone who can understand what you're going through when you're in the entertainment line. Or maybe someone wants to get to know me just because I'm Julie Tan the actress."

While she had said to herself before that she would not want to date someone who is in show business, she no longer wants to restrict herself.

"I wouldn't reject it if it comes along, but I want to focus on myself and my career right now."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2016, with the headline 'Dick Lee's life made into a movie Challenge to film in English for actress'. Subscribe