Socio-Political Commentary in the films of Jack Neo
In recent years, the name Jack Neo has become synonymous with films about the Singaporean heartland. His stories about the average Singaporean and their values are delivered with a unique comedic sense, laced with a light touch of social commentary and often well-timed with current events in Singaporean society. His films, though not as aesthetically and technically refined as some of his contemporaries like Eric Khoo, are nonetheless lauded for their ability to connect with and affect his audiences. Through the stories and characters that he present, Neo has managed to successfully weave socio-political commentary into his films that is subtle and never overtly critical or subversive. His impressive results at the box office have confirmed his commercial viability but perhaps more importantly, it is a clear indication that his brand of social commentary has struck a chord with the hearts of the average Singaporean. As such, Jack Neo is somewhat of a phenomena in the local entertainment industry and thus most deserving of a deeper analysis.
Jack Neo is no stranger to Singaporean audiences, having established his presence in the local entertainment industry for many years first as a television actor before moving behind the camera as a consummate film director and scriptwriter. While his career on screen is well-known, not many are aware that Neo's success story has its roots in his time with the Singapore Armed Forces. Neo entered the army as part of his National Service where his 'O' level passes were sufficient to make him an officer and a position as director in charge of scriptwriting at the SAF's Music and Drama Company. Part of his role involved writing and producing short skits to entertain the troop masses but even at that time, Neo was already writing stories about the average Singaporean. This was perhaps only logical as his intended audiences were his fellow army servicemen, many of whom were not particularly well-educated enough to understand the more esoteric storylines. Working in a government outfit has also familiarized Neo with the mechanisms of propagandistic material and the acceptable levels of expression in Singaporean society. This, coupled with his experience at writing heartland stories, would serve as an important factor behind his success at blending social commentary into his films.
Neo's social consciousness would be later reinforced with his first big break after leaving the SAF. The then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation or SBC for short offered him a slot on their night time variety shows and Neo appeared with Moses Lim on one day of the week. Although there were two other pairs of comedians fronting shows on the other days, Neo and his partner Lim managed to garner a faithful following with their unique brand of highlighting different facets of Singaporean culture through comedic skits and slap-stick storytelling. The duo stayed on after their colleagues left the small screen and they went on to produce Comedy Night, a half-hour show filled with humour and slap-stick comedy which later became one of the longest and most successful prime time television variety shows in the local entertainment industry. It was during this time that Neo created two of the most recognisable screen characters on local television, Liang Xi Mei and Liang Po Po, the former being the stereotypical dutiful housewife caught between making ends meet and raising two growing teenage sons and the latter a lonely elderly woman finding her place in Singapore's fast-changing society. Neo himself played these two characters and despite the cross-dressing, it proved to be a hit with local audiences who could identify with the everyday situations and dilemmas that the characters faced in the comedy skits. This success gave Neo the confidence and affirmation that he needed to further explore and develop the social commentary in his storytelling. Comedy Night's long run gave him the time and space to hone his craft and establish a rapport with local audiences which was made up of mostly housewives and elderly folk, just like his characters Liang Xi Mei and Liang Po Po. As such, it was clear that Neo was beginning to find his calling in telling stories about the average Singaporean and he was getting good at it.
Jack Neo's social commentary extended into the realm of filmmaking where he continued to explore the Singaporean psyche and social issues. His first feature, Replacement Killers (1998), was a comedy about two killers wanting to get out of the business but their past soon catches up with them. Neo submitted the film to the 1998 Singapore International Film Festival and won the Best Director award for the Singapore Short Film category. Encouraged by the success, Neo went on to direct That One No Enough in 1999 which explored the average Singaporean's concerns about love, marriage and sex, though not necessarily in that order. Despite its relatively low production values, the film was well-received by the general audience due to the slapstick humor and its simplistic plot about love in fast-paced Singapore. Not content with producing mere slapstick comedies and also perhaps to garner respectability as a bona-fide director, Neo then wrote, acted in and directed I Not Stupid in 2002. The plot revolves around three primary school children who are struggling to cope with Singapore's rigid educational system. To understand the significance and relevance of the film, it is necessary to take a step back and examine Singaporean society's attitude towards education.
Singapore, being a small island with no natural resources, has long depended on the value of its population as leverage in the world economy and as such, the Government, and consequently society in general, has placed great emphasis on education. Singaporean society is built on meritocracy where the individual is rewarded for hard work and the value of his contribution to society. And the one way to achieving that is through education. Singaporeans have long held the perception that the good-paying jobs always needed suitably high academic qualifications and that those who fail to attain the necessary 'papers' are consigned to working in the lower ranks of society. In addition, due to the Government's emphasis on developing the manufacturing and electronics sectors during the early years, jobs associated with engineering and science were valued more than those in sports and the arts, which were regarded as “having no future”. Top of the 'desired' jobs list were naturally doctors and lawyers, traditionally the ones which brought home the most bacon. As a result, there was great pressure on school-going children to excel academically so that they could take on these 'good' jobs and most parents often goaded their children into focusing on the sciences rather than the arts.
In I Not Stupid, Jack Neo takes a self-reflexive approach at examining this overzealous attitude towards education. The characters resemble a cross-section of Singaporean society. Terry is the obedient, bespectacled and nerdy child while Kok Pin is the child who struggles in the sciences but has a flair for the arts and Boon Hock is the often maligned 'bad boy' who is deemed a failure simply because of his academic failures. The parents of these kids run the gamut from the stereotypical tyrannical mother to the well-meaning but overly harsh father. The design of these characters and their situations is deliberate for Neo wants us to identify with one or more of them and thus emphatise with their plights. Many of us will surely remember being made to go for endless hours of tuition or chastised for pursuing drawing rather than mathematics. Beneath the film's straightforward storytelling lies a deeper level of social commentary. In Terry, Neo shows us the typical Singaporean who listens and simply does what he is told without thinking further, much like sheep being led around. Kok Pin is a metaphor for the often neglected arts scene in Singapore which has long been struggling under the shadow of the business and science industries. Boon Hock is symbolic of the misperception and discrimination that Singaporean society have about people who are less academically inclined. Terry's mother, perpetually dressed in white, is Neo's subtle way of drawing parallels with the Government. Her usual refrains of “Just trust me. I know what is good for you.” echoes the ruling party's mantras. Terry, of course, is the obedient Singaporean. Through this microcosmic representation, Neo forces us to re-examine our attitudes towards being in the 'rat race' and asks questions about the over-emphasis on paper qualifications as a measure of one's placing in society. The film was a hit at the box offices and was something of a phenomenon in the otherwise stagnant local film industry. Audiences laughed and cried along with the characters but more importantly, identified with the situations and the message behind the film. Critics lauded Neo's understanding and handling of one of Singaporean society's main preoccupations. Neo's credentials as a director and his skill at social commentary through storytelling was slowly being recognised and he would follow up on the success of this film with the sequel I Not Stupid 2 in 2006, which features the same characters but this time round, he examines the impact of corporal punishment on the young in Singapore.
Through his many years on screen as an actor and stand-up comedian, Jack has developed a keen awareness of current affairs and social trends which he skillfully uses as material for his skits. This strong sense of timing would come into greater significance with his movie Money No Enough (1998) which he again wrote and acted in. The film tells the story of three friends from different strata of Singaporean society who all face a common problem: being cash-strapped in expensive Singapore and how it leads to problems which ultimately affect not only themselves but those around them as well. Again, Neo's choice of topic features prominently in the Singaporean psyche and is certainly not alien to local audiences. The film's release came not long after the economic recession of 1997 and this only added to the relevance of the theme.
Singapore is a modern, first-world country and along with this status comes a relatively high-cost of living. The finer things in life do not come cheap and nowhere is this more apparent than in Singapore. Land is scarce and thus land prices are accordingly quite expensive. The average Singaporean lives in four or five-room HDB flats which most purchase through housing loans and it is not uncommon to be able to fully repay the loan many years after. Private transport comes at a premium too. It is often remarked that the price of owning and operating a car in Singapore is equal to the price of a landed property in other countries. The typical Singaporean's penchant for excellence and quality, coupled with the relative affluence afforded by previous years of economic prosperity, has only further fueled their drive for wealth and material accumulation. Many turned to riskier ways like stock trading and get-rich quick business ventures founded entirely not on good business acumen but rather on fads and trends. Others simply spent on credit, charging expensive purchases to their credit accounts with the assumption that they can pay it off with the next paycheck. But life is never rosy and it certainly proved so when the economic crisis struck in 1997. The economy stalled, stocks plunged and unemployment rose with retrenchment being the most-dreaded word during that time. Singaporeans who were used to a comfortable life suddenly found themselves without jobs and with mounting bills to pay. Those who dabbled in stocks and unsound business ventures were severely burnt and became bankrupt.
Money No Enough mirrors the social situation during those tenuous times and this striking similarity to real life contributed to its success at the box office as many people recognised the situations and characters presented in the storyline. Coming in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis, his story struck at the heart of the common man, and not just the poor alone. The characters in the film come from all levels of Singaporean society. There is the office worker who represents the white-collar, upper strata of society. In the middle is the blue-collar contractor who symbolizes the majority of the heartlanders. Rounding up this microcosmic representation of Singapore is the coffee shop helper, stuck in a low-paying job with almost no hope of moving upwards in life, a fate commonly associated with those who fail in the academic race. The office worker leads a comfortable life on the surface but almost all his luxury is afforded through credit. As such, his life falls apart when he quits his job and loses heavily in the stock market. The worldly possessions which he took great pride in were ultimately repossessed as he could not afford the installment payments. The fallout soon takes its toll on his family and marriage. The contractor, in a bid to move up in life, borrows money from loan sharks to sustain his business but falls into debt when it goes bust. The coffee shop helper, blindly believing that wealth brings recognition, purchases a bulky antique handphone as a show of affluence to impress a girl whom he fancies. However, what he gets in return is not only unrequited love but also ridicule and mockery. The questions that Neo asks are clear: Are we so engrossed in the pursuit of material wealth that we have become blinded by it? What happens when materialism takes hold of one's life and what is sacrificed or overlooked in the process? Is Singaporean society so consumed by wealth that one's value and social standing is measured solely by the figures in his bank account? Singaporeans obviously were intrigued by these questions posed in the film and responded by flocking to the cinemas, resulting in an impressive S$6.2 million in box office takings. Clearly, Neo's commentary on this aspect of the Singaporean psyche resonated with the audiences. They saw reflections of themselves in the characters and drew comparisons between their celluloid actions and those of their own in real life. That the film was released not long after the crisis in 1997 only made people take a closer look at themselves and served to further confirm Jack Neo's astute sense of social commentary in his films.
Although Jack Neo never set out to instill political criticism in his films, one can still detect subtle parallels both in the stories and characters that he uses. For example, he brings attention to the governance style of the ruling party through the mother played by Selena Tan in I Not Stupid. As mentioned previously, she is almost always dressed in white from head to toe, much like the adopted dress code of the People's Action Party. Her common refrains of “I know what's best for you” are a dead ringer for the Singapore government's authoritarian style. The government's educational policy of streaming students into EM 1, 2 and 3 and the resulting social stigma that plague students in the supposedly 'less-gifted' streams are also highlighted in I Not Stupid. The sensitive water issue which made headlines on both sides of the Causeway was also parodied and dramatized in his critically acclaimed movie, Homerun (2003) in a scene in which two groups of boys end up misunderstanding the other's intentions due to a lack of clear communication. In another one of his films, I Do I Do (2005), Neo himself plays a Member of Parliament who responds to his constituent's request for assistance by offering to write more letters. When pressed for more concrete help, he again offers to write more letters. In the end, one of the constituents remarks that letter-writing seems to be the only way to get help in Singapore. This perhaps is a subtle dig at the bureaucracy in government agencies. In another scene from the same movie, Neo takes a harmless potshot at the government's current policy of encouraging more births. The main character, played by Adrian Pang, has just been rejected by the woman he loves and is walking the streets when he chances upon a public telecast of a faked Prime Minister's speech. In the speech, the Minister talks about the need for more births to sustain the economy in future. The main character then remarks that it is already so difficult to find love in Singapore and get married in the first place, let alone have more children. It is interesting to note that although Neo makes subtle references to the authorities and government policies in his films, he never really offers an extreme point of view nor forces his ideals. Neither does he openly criticize the issues. Instead, what he does is merely present the situation as it is and let us make our own reflections. His stint in the SAF's MDC has taught him how to skirt sensitive issues and what is considered within the realms of acceptable expression.
In a politically sensitive country like Singapore where self-censorship is practiced almost automatically for fear of aggravating social norms and the government, it is a remarkable achievement for Jack Neo to be so successful at blending his unique brand of social commentary into his films and yet win the affirmation of both the authorities and the common man. Not only have his films actually made money at the cinemas but he has also achieved what no other local filmmaker has managed to so far: a special mention in the Prime Minister's speech on national television and in a positive light no less. Neo is now not only the voice of the Singaporean heartlander but also held up as a poster boy for success by the government. Besides his natural flair for storytelling, there are other factors which contribute to his success and ability as a proficient social commentator in his films.
Firstly, Neo uses comedy as a tool to both entertain and deflect any potential fallout that his social commentary might arouse. Comedy has been used as a tool for social commentary in films in the past. Charlie Chaplin, one of the masters of comedic cinema, used comedy in his film Modern Times to reflect the social situation during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Through comedy, Jack Neo manages to make his point and bring his message across without fear of any serious reprisals. People laugh at his characters and treat it as harmless fun. Any social commentary that one might find offensive can thus be safely explained away as just another part of the comedic act and not meant to be taken so seriously. Comedy also bonds people and establishes a common identity through laughing at ourselves. For instance, Neo utilizes Hokkien which is a common language among heartlanders for most of the dialogue. The jokes, when spoken in Hokkien, find greater resonance with the audience who are familiar with the local context. The average Singaporean understands the joke and laughs along with the others in the cinema. The second contributing factor is the characters and actors that Neo uses in his films. Neo uses almost the same set of actors for his movies and most of them owe their own careers to him. These actors do not possess movie star looks in the likes of Brad Pitt or Zoe Tay, but rather they look just like the average Singaporean on the street. Mark Lee, who appears in most if not all of Neo's films, looks like the typical Ah Beng in local culture while Patricia Mok is a good model for the female counterpart of the Ah Beng, the loud-mouth and slightly coarse Ah Lian. Henry Thia similarly is a good blueprint for the typical middle-aged Singaporean man. By casting all these people in his films, Neo manages to add local flavor and identity to his characters. It is far easier to identify with Mark Lee in a role as a contractor than perhaps James Lye or Robin Leong. The third factor lies in the simple and straightforward stories that Neo tells in his films. His dialogs are written and spoken in true heartland manner without too much prose or poeticism. The stories themselves deal mainly with bread and butter issues like marriage, employment, education and the social divide. These are all issues which concern the working majority of the Singaporean audience. The plots themselves are seldom convoluted and almost always contain happy resolutions typical of comedies. Jack Neo has managed to hone his art of storytelling through his long career on local television and knows what local audiences want to see and hear. It is also interesting to note that almost all his films are interlinked through the themes that he presents. For instance, the issue of education in I Not Stupid is linked to the pursuit of wealth in Money No Enough. Similarly, both education and material wealth are linked to marriage issues and choice of partner in I Do I Do. Adding to the chain is One More Chance (2005) about three ex-convicts seeking a second chance in society. As such, it begins to become clear that Jack Neo's films are not individual bodies of social commentary but rather they combine to complete the overall presentation of the Singaporean psyche. By presenting simple stories about the heartland, adding a healthy dose of comedy and packaging it with recognisable actors, Neo establishes a firm rapport and identity with the locals.
Film is a powerful medium of communication when used correctly. A picture tells a thousand words, even more so when it is a series of pictures running at 24 frames per second. A film with a good storyline and delivery that evokes an emotional and intellectual response has a longer lifespan in the hearts and minds of the common people than any published article. People understand and absorb images easier than blocks of text. By choosing to tell his stories and social commentaries through film, Jack Neo bridges the gap between rich and poor, educated and not so educated, young and old, and talks directly to the mass audience in the simplest way possible. His body of work, though sometimes criticised for their lack of technical and aesthetic sophistication, are a valuable record and reflection of Singaporean society and values. His ability to observe and tap into the heartbeat of Singaporean life is undeniable and clear. In a sense, he is just like one of us, telling our stories and showing who we really are. Neo does not have political aspirations for his films, neither does he want to antagonize or be a Robin Hood exposing the evils and righting the wrongs of society. His mission is simple: to highlight the ideals and values of the average Singaporean in as straight a manner as possible. Any other interpretations, whether intended or not are entirely on the part of the viewer. It might even be argued that his films are perhaps a better and more honest cultural export than any tourism campaign we have so far. Jack Neo is a prime example of how social commentary in films can succeed and be rewarding when the stories you present are honest, simple and true to the spirit.
Written by: Royston Chan
Wikipedia (14 th October 2006) Jack Neo. Retrieved July 26 th, 2006 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki /Jack_Neo
Walsh, B (2002, April 8 th). Neo is the One. Time Asia Magazine. Retrieved July 26th 2006 from http://www.time.com/time/asia/magazine/article/0,13673,501020408-221199,00.html
* This paper was one of the best papers submitted to the Regional Cinema module, offered by Film and Sound and Video, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Singapore.