Breaking a tooth is usually a major source of distress for most people. But for veteran Singaporean actress Aileen Tan, it was another way to add a dramatic element to her spirited character.
Having turned the traumatising experience into a fruitful one, she can now crack jokes about how losing a tooth enhanced her first starring role in a movie – Jack Neo’s Long, Long Time Ago.
Having been in show business for close to three decades, Tan laughs at remarks that it came as a shock for some to see a glamorous star like her turn into a dumpy middle-aged woman with frumpy hair and broken teeth, a far cry from her modern woman roles.
The TV veteran, who turns 50 in October this year, humbly proclaims herself a rookie on the big screen, as Long, Long Time Ago is only her second film project. Her first big screen role was a supporting character in Jack Neo’s Ah Boys To Men 3: Frogmen, where she played the mother of Wang Weiliang’s Lobang King. “Audiences mostly see me on television, so I’m really a newbie when it comes to film. I’m still in the process of learning,” said Tan, who has no qualms about making herself look “ugly” for a role.
Unlike her co-star Wang Lei, who had to get fitted with dentures and rely on prosthetic makeup to reflect the condition of people’s teeth in that era, Tan now finds great amusement in telling people that her broken tooth in the movie was actually for real.
In a recent promotional event for the movie, Tan recounted her initial concern when she very nearly lost a tooth in a minor incident, while scheduled to shoot some crucial scenes for Long, Long Time Ago.
“After assessing the damage and concluding that I had chipped my tooth, I realised that it would take some time to get it fixed. Because we were supposed to be shooting the movie, I quickly called the director and explained my predicament. He asked to see my tooth, and he actually liked how it looked. We felt that it would be an important detail that tells the story of Zhao Di. So, he decided to keep it that way, and resumed shooting with my broken tooth exactly the way it was.”
Set in the mid-1960s to early 1970s, Long, Long Time Ago revolves around the trials and tribulations of a family as their journey from a humble village hut to a modern HDB flat runs in parallel with Singapore’s early growth.
The story is about a pregnant woman who is driven from her husband’s home and gives birth to twins. One child is born with two moles on her face, which is seen as a sign of misfortune, so her family forces her to give the little girl away.
Tan plays the woman called Zhao Di, whose name literally reflects her parents’ wish for a younger brother. She is the second wife of a coffeeshop owner and the mother of three daughters. When her husband passes away, the first wife takes the opportunity to kick her out of the house. Pregnant and penniless, Zhao Di returns to her parents’ house in a kampung (village). Unfortunately, her father and second brother do not welcome her as they see her as a burden. Despite being uneducated and unskilled, Zhao Di works hard to contribute to the household so her children can have a roof over their heads.
“In the past, women used to have a very tough life. But, the women themselves were very hardy individuals,” quipped Tan, with a knowing smile.
Not many people know this, but the veteran actress herself also grew up in an environment where sons were given preferential treatment over daughters. She was the third of four children. Her eldest brother was the only male child and therefore much doted upon by her parents.
“Although we did not live in the countryside, our life in HDB flats had its own challenges. My father drove a taxi to make a living. After his stroke, my mother became the sole breadwinner, and had to go out to work to support the family. As children, we grew up through difficult times.”
To recreate the kampung atmosphere, most of the scenes had to be filmed at the heritage enclave in Ipoh last year. For her role as a villager, Tan had to work on her language skills. This was a major challenge to Tan, as her character Zhao Di had to speak Mandarin, Hokkien and Malay.
Since the dialect of Hokkien or Teochew spoken then was quite different from now, Tan had her work cut out for her. “I haven’t spoken Hokkien in more than 20 years, so my command of the dialect is terribly rusty. When we were children, our parents spoke to us in Hokkien, After their passing, we never spoke Hokkien again. So, using Hokkien for this movie meant that memories of my parents came flooding back. The moment I stepped onto the movie set, it felt as though I’d entered the world of Zhao Di.”
Tan also revealed how her aunt wept after watching the movie. “She told me that if my mother were still alive, she would be so proud of me, because I managed to use Hokkien to bring my character to life.”
To tell the tale of a multi-ethnic era, non-Chinese artistes like Suhaimi Yusof, Silvarajoo Prakasam and Nurijah Sahat were roped in to add colour to the family-oriented flick.
Since Zhao Di’s best friend is a Malay man named Osman (played by Suhaimi), Tan said her greatest challenge was that she had to learn to speak Malay fluently too. “Since I don’t speak Malay, I had to memorise my lines and learn everything by heart.”
Long, Long Time Ago is currently showing in cinemas nationwide. For GSC showtimes, see next page.