Tianwen finds his second wind

NEXT STEP: The award-winning movie Ilo Ilo is a huge milestone in veteran actor Chen Tianwen's 29-year career, as it marked the first time that he has starred in a major role in a feature film.


    Aug 28, 2013

    Tianwen finds his second wind

    OFTEN, it's the offbeat moments that one remembers best.

    Looking back now on his foray to Cannes with the rest of the Ilo Ilo cast, seasoned actor Chen Tianwen said it's not the A-list celebrities - like Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung - he was surrounded by that he recalls most vividly.

    Nor was it even the moment that director Anthony Chen's film, about a Singapore family and their newly arrived Filipino maid, was announced as the winner of the Camera d'Or prize.

    Instead, the 50-year-old remembered the heavy downpour that drenched himself, Chen and the cast when they were meant to be walking down the red carpet.

    "Just before our actresses stepped onto the red carpet, they had to wear slippers to the venue before putting on their heels for the event," he said, a smile spreading on his face.

    For the actor, this one tiny detail will forever be etched in his mind, a piece of the puzzle of a momentous time in his life.


    Ilo Ilo was already a huge milestone in Chen's life.

    It marked the first time that he has starred in a major role in a feature film.

    The actor has more than 80 productions under his belt since he entered the showbiz industry in 1984, but has never been in a movie.

    Set in 1997, Ilo Ilo sees Chen playing the head of a household, a man who keeps his emotions to himself. It was a challenging role, he said, in part because the director was exacting.

    In television dramas, acting is often exaggerated and actors can use gestures and facial expressions to emote a feeling, which is often "fake but easy to do", said Chen.

    Anthony - whose film also stars Yeo Yann Yann - didn't let him get away with that. In fact, when Chen relied on such techniques, Anthony would do a retake.

    Like comic actor Jack Black, who faced a similar situation when he filmed his first serious dramatic role - in Peter Jackson's 2005 film, King Kong - Chen was tasked to dig deeper.

    Like Black, Chen was made to show his emotions with his eyes and less with his face.

    "That...was the hardest thing to do," he added.

    It's been worth it, and Ilo Ilo marks a comeback for him.


    Chen, who holds a black belt in taekwon-do, was often cast in lead roles for the bulk of his 29-year career.

    But, in the recent decade, his star has been on the wane and he was largely seen in supporting roles.

    Chen said that he hopes it's his second wind in his career and that people will see that he's capable of taking on a variety of roles, even in an art film.

    "No matter what type of character it is, I'll always try my very best to present it well," he said earnestly.

    Does Chen feel the pressure that the film's success will inevitably be measured by its box-office takings, and that it may not make as much as, say, a Jack Neo film?

    "I think competition is a good thing," he answered reflectively.

    "Only with comparison can you improve."

    Chen, who appeared as a recruit's father in Neo's Ah Boys To Men 2, added that Neo's movies in particular "have a certain style, with dark comedic elements".

    "But Anthony's film is not like that," he said.

    "He explores family relations, and conveys emotions like joy, anger, sadness and warmth through everyday events. It's not a comedy."

    Ultimately, this season is an exciting one in his life.

    "I think it's quite miraculous to be able to walk on the red carpet at Cannes," he said, eyes lighting up at the memory.

    "I think I probably won't be able to do that again in this lifetime."

    Ilo Ilo opens in cinemas tomorrow.