It has taken Singapore's favourite television auntie, Liang Ximei, 16 years to make it to the big screen, but actor-director Jack Neo is confident she has not been forgotten.
"So many Singaporeans grew up watching Liang Ximei on TV. It has been a long time, but she is a part of a lot of people's memories because they laughed at her every week for 10 years.
"I think audiences will be happy to see her again," he tells The Straits Times in Mandarin.
Neo, 59, had played the role in drag in the popular variety show Comedy Night from the mid-1990s to 2002, when he turned his focus to films.
He reprised the role briefly on TV in 2016 on the dialect programme Happy Can Already!, but that was a show geared towards senior citizens and it aired only on weekday afternoons.
Now, Liang and her affable auntie ways are back in a big way in the movie Wonderful! Liang Ximei The Movie, which opens in cinemas today.
"It was actually the positive feedback we got from viewers of Happy Can Already! that led to the idea of giving Liang Ximei her own movie," says Neo, who scripted and directed the new film.
When it was first announced that Liang would make a comeback on Happy Can Already!, the news generated so much interest that a promotional video clip featuring her garnered more than a million hits online in just two days.
Another testament to the enduring popularity of Liang and Comedy Night: Malaysian rapper Namewee, 34, collaborated with Neo in November last year to release a remixed version of the show's theme song.
The music video for Funny Action! features Liang's signature catchphrase "shang nao jing o" ("how vexing" in Mandarin) in the lyrics and has garnered over 1.9 million hits on YouTube.
Neo's children, whose ages range from 13 to 27, were too young to remember watching the show on TV, he says, but they have since caught up to speed.
"They actually learnt about the show through their friends. They rented Comedy Night on VCD and watched it all together. I heard them laughing and having a good time," he recalls.
Neo says: "Liang Ximei is a heartland auntie whom many Singaporeans can relate to and that's what makes her forever endearing.
"It's like when Wang Sha, Ye Feng appeared on TV again in the 1990s - we were so excited to see them again after so long. They were always at the back of our minds."
Comedy duo Wang Sha, Ye Feng, the stage personae of the late Xiao Tian Cai and Heng Kim Ching, were known for their TV sketches during the 1960s. They made a brief comeback on the goggle box in 1992.
Even though Neo is bringing an old character back to life, he assures that the new film is updated and explores fresh ideas.
He says: "We answer so many questions that long-time audiences would have asked about Liang Ximei.
"For example, in the TV show, she is seen only in the living room. The movie will let viewers into her bedroom, into her closet."
Besides Neo in the titular role, the film has also gathered his original co-stars Mark Lee and Henry Thia, who will respectively reprise their roles of Liang's elder son Robert and his friend Lion King.
Getting the old gang together was easier than expected, says Neo.
"They're both so busy, especially Mark with all his businesses. But as soon as I told him about this movie, he said he would push everything aside to do it. I guess he missed it too," he says.
It certainly did not feel like much time has passed among them as soon as the camera started rolling.
"We just found that chemistry we had again almost immediately. We've worked together for so long and we've grown as performers, but as soon as we were playing our roles again, it felt like old times."
Rounding out the cast members are Long Long Time Ago's (2016) Benjamin Tan as Liang's younger son Albert, veteran getai star Wang Lei in drag as Liang's friend Guang Dong Po and veteran actress Cai Pingkai as the mythical Goddess Of Fortune.
While much of the film follows the lighthearted comedic tone of the old Comedy Night sketches, it will have its touching moments as well, says the director.
"Liang Ximei is an auntie, but she's also a wife and mother. The main story here is about family and how the members come together despite a series of misunderstandings.
"It's meaningful and perfect for Chinese New Year."
He believes the film has a good chance of doing well at the box office this festive weekend, despite the competition from big-budget regional films such as The Monkey King 3, starring Aaron Kwok, and fantasy film Monster Hunt 2, the follow-up to one of China's highest-grossing films of all time.
"This is a very local story and these are very Singapore characters. I believe moviegoers can see the distinct appeal of this movie," he says.
The only film he hopes that his latest work will beat at the box office is Liang Po Po: The Movie (1999), which made $3.03 million. In that film, Neo had played the titular grandmother character, also taken from the Comedy Night days, and who is now marketed as a rival to Liang Ximei.
He says in jest: "Liang Po Po is always trying to sabotage this movie because she's jealous. But it's time for Liang Ximei to be in the spotlight."
• Wonderful! Liang Ximei The Movie opens in cinemas today.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2018, with the headline 'Singapore's favourite auntie is back'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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