The Kid From The Big Apple is a movie born from anger. More specifically, director Jess Teong’s rage against smartphone culture in Malaysia.
“I had just come home after working overseas, and I was shocked at just how rampant the smartphone culture was,” she recalled.
“Everywhere I went, people were just looking at their phones. Even in restaurants, the parents would just let their children watch cartoons on their tablets while they fed them. I don’t think the kids even knew what they were eating!”
Another thing that upset Teong was how a lot of culture and traditions were being exploited for commercial reasons. She recalled being at a restaurant not long after the Duan Wu Festival (Dragon Boat Festival), and the restaurant was already hawking their mooncakes, which was almost two months away.
“The Duan Wu Festival was just over, and the mooncakes were already being sold! The actual culture and tradition is being forgotten and ignored, just for the sake of making profit,” she lamented during an interview last week.
“I grew up in a traditional Chinese family, and we celebrated all the festivals like Winter Solstice, and the Mooncake Festival … so I was angry that all these traditions were being lost. I started writing all these feelings down, and my producer suggested I turned it into a movie.”
Well, one thing led to another, and the result is The Kid From The Big Apple, Teong’s first ever movie as a director. It is a story about a young girl named Sarah (Tan Qin Lin) who is unceremoniously dragged from New York to Malaysia to live with her grandfather (Ti Lung) while her mother (Jessica Hester Hsuan) goes to China for work. Sarah has to adapt to her new surroundings, make new friends, and also form a bond with her strict, traditional grandfather.
Though The Kid From the Big Apple is her first film as a director, Teong had worked on feature films before – she was the producer for the award-winning Paper Moon back in 2012, and has been in the entertainment industry since the 1990s, in a number of different roles (including singer, model, actress, and film producer).
Besides being filmed entirely in Malaysia (most of the film is set in an apartment block in Taman Yulek, Cheras, Kuala Lumpur), Teong drew on her own childhood experiences while drafting the script.
From familiar KL landmarks and local dialects, to some age-old family superstitions and traditions, there is a distinct Malaysian feel throughout the movie, though the director was careful not to make it TOO Malaysian.
“From the beginning, we already felt the movie had a chance to make it overseas as well, so I needed to make sure audiences in other countries would be able to understand it as well,” she said.
That plan seems to have worked. Last December, The Kid From The Big Apple grabbed four awards at the 7th Macau International Movie Festival – Best Actor for Ti Lung, Best Writing for Teong, Best Newcomer for Qin Lin, and Best Supporting Actress for Hsuan.
Having a screen legend like Ti Lung in the leading role certainly helped elevate the film to another level.
Teong first met with Ti Lung at the 2012 Macau Film Festival while she was promoting Paper Moon, but never dreamt that he would actually agree to appear in her movie.
The 69-year-old veteran Hong Kong actor is best known for his heroic roles in classic Shaw Brothers movies, including the popular The Sentimental Swordsman.
His best-known role, however, is the classic 1986 John Woo film A Better Tomorrow, in which he played a triad member alongside Leslie Cheung and Chow Yun-fat. He also played Wong Fei Hong’s father in Jackie Chan’s 1994 blockbuster Drunken Master II.
“In the initial script, the grandfather was nothing like Ti Lung. To me, Ti Lung has always been this screen legend, a wuxia hero, a great, heroic kind of person. But when I walked into the room and saw him sitting there, looking so dignified, I thought, ‘That’s what the grandfather should be like’,” Teong recalled.
With all those iconic roles behind him, it is a little strange to see the actor in such an understated role. “It’s nice to have a role that is just an ordinary person. I don’t need to be the big hero, or the big triad leader all the time!” Ti Lung said in a separate interview with Star2.
“I thought it was a good challenge. The money may not have been much, but that wasn’t important. The script was full of sincerity and warmth, and I liked that.”
Ti Lung also played a big part in getting Hsuan on board. “Looking for the right actress for Sarah’s mother was like looking for a needle in an ocean.
“When we decided (on Hsuan), we still had to see if she had the time to do it. I called a friend in TVB and asked about her work ethics, and the feedback I got was all good,” the veteran actor said.
“When I heard Ti Lung was going to be in the film, I was immediately interested!”said Hsuan, 45. “This was a once in a lifetime chance to work with him, and if I didn’t take it, I don’t know when I’ll get that chance again.”
Ti Lung and Hsuan’s main scene together is a flashback that shows how they became estranged. Hsuan recalled how Ti Lung had requested that the focus should be on her instead of him.
“The director wanted the camera to focus on him more, but he insisted that they gave me more face time instead. It made me feel grateful to be working with a cast and crew that was so professional and sincere,” Hsuan said.
“I just felt the focus should be on the daughter,” Ti Lung added. “After all, I already had so much screentime!”
This being their first time working in Malaysia, both Ti Lung and Hsuan were full of praises for the production crew in Malaysia. “I think there is no difference between the quality standards here and in Hong Kong,” he said.
The Kid From The Big Apple opens at Malaysian on March 10.