Taiwanese singer-actor Jay Shih was surprised to be picked to portray the inspiring teacher Wang Zhen Zhong, in the film Turn Around.

“It was a much-coveted role. Many actors in Taiwan expressed their interest. When I asked, they told me it was because I was most suited to play him,” said the 33-year-old, on how he won his first leading role in a movie.

The biggest challenge of the role was portraying Wang Zhen Zhong as a real person.

“Teacher Wang is not just a character in a movie. He is a real person, he’s still alive, and most importantly, he is still teaching,” Shih said. “He has been teaching for more than 20 years. There­fore, it is very challenging for us to create a convincing and believable Teacher Wang for the big screen.”

Shih said he met up with Wang and observed him teaching some classes to get an overall impression, but refrained from picking up too many mannerisms.

“I was not out to do an impersonation. I wanted to portray him as a real person, not some superhero. I tried to develop the character with natural and genuine emotions.”

The plot of Turn Around is based on the 1999 Jiji earthquake which occurred in Jiji, Nantou County, Taiwan, also known to the Taiwanese as the 921 earthquake, as it happened on Sept 21, 1999.

The earthquake was a major disaster which caused more than NT$300bil (RM42bil) in damages.

As the victims of the Nantou disaster tried to recoup their losses, the young teacher Wang returned from his mandatory enlistment to help rebuild schools and used unorthodox methods to motivate the students to achieve success.

A Tough Shoot

The shoot took place in a rural area in Nantou County to show a lack of resources and was completed in two months.

“We had children of different ages in our cast. Half the kids were from the city and half were from the country. And, none of them had any acting experience,” Shih recalled.

“But they managed to gel quite well. The kids were mostly playing around and having fun on the set. So, they look very natural on the screen.

“It was really tough initially. The nearest convenience store was at least a half hour’s drive away in a car. So, there were no modern conveniences, no bubble tea, no soda pop. Even their soft drinks were from a brand we had never seen before.”

According to Shih, the most impressive scene in the movie was a musical sequence which occurs towards the end.

“None of the kids could play any musical instruments before we began shooting the movie,” he chuckled, adding that they sounded as bad as they did in the movie at the beginning.

“But after they were given their instruments, they polished their skills by practising hard every day, and managed to pull off a remarkable show.”

Shih said he wanted to be surprised by the students’ hard work, so he did his best to avoid their practices and even wore noise-cancelling headphones on the set.

“I wanted that scene to feel as special to me as it looked to audiences. When I heard them play for the first time as we shot the scene, I felt so overwhelmed that I had tears in my eyes. The performance was so amazing. I felt so proud to hear them play the whole song from beginning to end,” he recalled.

Shih was so moved by the performance that he totally forgot about a hand injury he had sustained the day before.

“I had four stitches on my little finger, which was injured when I tried to rescue a kitten the day before. But I was so carried away (by the kids’ performance) that I completely forgot my own pain and started to applaud. It was not in the script, but I felt so proud of the students that I just felt compelled to do it.”

The dashing entertainer had his beginnings in music too, as he used to sing as part of now-defunct Taiwanese pop duo Awaking (with label-mate Wesley Chia). The group debuted in 2004 and disbanded in 2008.

Since he enjoyed performing, Shih branched out into acting and hosting shows instead.

Although he has enjoyed much success in TV and film, Shih says his heart still yearns to sing. “I started off in music. It was what I always wanted to do.”

He continues to write songs, composing one for every movie he has made: Turn Around is his eighth. “It has become a way for me to document my journey and tell my story. I hope to be able to release a new album with these songs.”

Turn Around took only three days of release to breach the NTD10mil (RM1.4mil) mark in the Taiwan box office.