Veteran actor's return to film

Chen Tianxiang (right) and Vincent Tee (left) play father and son in the film The Return.
Chen Tianxiang (right) and Vincent Tee (left) play father and son in the film The Return.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Veteran actor Chen Tianxiang - the face of kindly fathers and grandfathers on local television - finds himself in his first lead role in a film at the age of 76. He plays a released political prisoner in writer- director Green Zeng's The Return.

Having lived through the 1960s period of leftist sentiment and heightened political sensitivity in Singapore helped Chen to connect with the role. He says: "I did hear about and had friends who were arrested, but I was not directly involved in the political scene. I was mostly involved in the arts."

He was the first person auditioned, but Zeng, 44, did not think he was right for the role.

The film-maker says: "He dyed his hair and was smartly dressed so I thought he was not suitable. Two years later when I wanted to make the film, he appeared again, but this time he didn't care anymore, his hair was undyed. He read the lines and I thought he's the one.

"He's the anchor of the film, if we couldn't find the right actor, we would not have wanted to make it."

The Return was selected for the Venice International Film Critics' Week in July 2015. It opens here tomorrow at Filmgarde Bugis+.

The Return also features another veteran actor, Vincent Tee, 62, who plays Chen's estranged son.

Its story resonated with him. "I was around 10 and had heard of an aunt's son-in-law who was chased out of Singapore, but I didn't know why at the time. There were fathers of friends who were jailed and later released and had to renounce communism," he says.

Tee, a Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts theatre programme alumnus, had acted in Zeng's wife June Chua's first short film The Usher (2002) in the title role. Chua is also the executive producer for The Return.

Over the years, Tee has taken on all kinds of roles on TV, in films and on stage, including the lecherous and/or violent geezer. He says with a laugh: "People have said that I looked very fierce and scary. I'm okay with all those roles, I just take them all as a challenge."

Chen started out at Rediffusion Mandarin Play Group and then moved to the local broadcaster, then called Radio Television Singapore, where he was already playing fathers in his 30s.

Between him and Tee, the two actors have several decades of experience.

"You keep learning as you grow older and with richer life experiences, you can dig deeper into roles," says Tee.

Chen adds: "I love acting. Drama is life and life is drama. You can take on many different roles which are not possible in real life. And when you nail it, that thrill is indescribable."

• The Return opens tomorrow at Filmgarde Bugis+.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2017, with the headline 'Veteran actor's return to film'. Print Edition | Subscribe