Make no mistake about it, Jack Tan really has true star quality.
Shuttle Life may only be his second movie, but the Malaysian singer-actor has already made waves in China with his portrayal of a young man going through tough times.
It recently won him two Best Actor accolades in China: at the 20th Shanghai International Film Festival’s (SIFF) Asian New Talent Award competition in June and 12th Chinese Young Generation Film Forum Awards in Wuhan last month.
A news release by SIFF stated that Tan, 26, won the best actor award for his natural acting and ability to engage the audience with his interpretation of his difficult existence as well as his extremely powerful and genuine emotions as he interacted with various characters.
In his acceptance speech, Tan said: “This is a turning point in my life, and also my entrance ticket to the film industry.”
Shot in Kuala Lumpur last May, Shuttle Life is the first full-length feature film by Malaysian auteur Tan Seng Kiat, who was also nominated for Best Director in Shanghai. The movie also won for Best Film and Best Cinematography (for Chen Ko Chin) in June.
Meanwhile, at Wuhan, Shuttle Life also won for Best Cinematography and Best Production Design apart from the best actor award.
The film has also been nominated for two awards at the upcoming 54th Taipei Golden Horse Awards – Best New Director and Best Cinematography.
Shuttle Life is produced by Ong Lay Jin and Roland Lee of Malaysian production studio More Entertainment, which also manages Tan, who is part of popular local pop duo ThomasJack.
In the movie, Tan plays Qiang, a 19-year-old boy from a poor family who is struggling to make ends meet in the big city as he has to take care of his mentally unstable mother (played by Sylvia Chang) and five-year-old sister Hui Shan (Angel Chan).
A Sylvia lining
Reflecting on his recent win, Tan said he learnt that making mistakes is the key to success. This was one of the most valuable pieces of advice he received from Chang.
“She was a very generous mentor who offered lots of advice. She told me that we did not necessarily have to stick to the script, and that directors actually like it when actors deviate from the script and make ‘mistakes’.
“Because it is the ‘unexpected’ which helps to spark the realism and emotional rawness that translates into natural acting,” he said.
To illustrate his point, Tan described a pivotal scene where he was supposed to be having a disagreement with his mother.
“Sylvia’s character is a seamstress, so she decided to shake things up a bit by grabbing a pair of scissors and point it at me menacingly while we were arguing. That caught me unaware as it was not in the script, but the good thing was it also helped to add an element of danger to our exchange, which in turn led to a tinge of fear in my reaction.”
As they veered off into unexplored territory, Tan recalled how he had to start thinking on his feet, and react appropriately.
“With her waving a sharp weapon in my face, my character had to think about calming her down as there was a possibility that someone may get hurt, if she got carried away.
“It was like that every single day. She would keep us all on our toes, thinking of ways to add an element of surprise that would help inject that extra oomph,” he added.
Learning from the best
Apart from her valuable mentoring, Tan added that he learnt a lot from Chang by observing her on set.
“In the movie, she is a single parent with mental problems. I truly admire her attention to detail. The moment she put on her clothes and shoes, you can see her transforming into another person.
“I especially observed how she slipped on her sandals only halfway and started dragging her feet and shuffling them as she walked across the room, adding distinguishing mannerisms to bring her character to life,” said Tan.
“It is my second movie and I am working with another veteran Taiwanese actor, for which I am truly grateful. For my first movie The Gathering, I worked with Michael Huang, who played my father.
“He’s a rugged, manly sort of guy, who taught me how to modulate my voice. I learnt a lot from both Sylvia and Michael.”
Tan also put in copious amounts of hard work and hours of research to bring colour to his interpretation of Qiang and his difficult existence.
Late at night, after his TV drama shoots, the young pop star would embark on research for his movie project, which is set in the old tin-mining town of Pudu.
Tan would hop onto a bicycle and cycle all the way to Pudu to explore the myriad nooks and crannies of the historic enclave.
There, he walked among the townsfolk and observed them going about their daily lives. He spent hours wandering around, taking in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures, in his bid to immerse himself in the psyche of the character.
“For this, I have to thank director Seng Kiat. When producer Ong Lay Jin decided that I was suitable for the character, I met with the director to discuss the role. And we spent more than a month developing the character and expanding his potential. Pre-production work took almost two months.”
Roots in TV
With ongoing TV drama shoots in Port Dickson and Sungei Buloh, Tan’s schedule is so packed that this interview had to be done while he was having his hair restyled by local celebrity hairstylist Taki Chegne.
Then, right after the interview, he had to rush off to a doctor’s appointment, having sustained an injury while shooting a scene for local drama Dr Chen’s Diary, set to air on 8TV next year.
Best known as one half of pop duo ThomasJack, Tan says that people tend to forget that he actually started off as a TV actor before releasing his first album as a singer.
He made his acting debut in 2008 in a 13-episode Astro AEC Mandarin drama titled Love 18 where he forms a love triangle with Thai-French singer-actor Chinawut-Stephane Indracusin and Taiwanese actress Winnie Zhong.
With his chiselled features and athletic build, he soon found acting roles pouring in. Tan has since appeared in more than a dozen TV dramas and even served as a judge in several kids talent shows.
In 2010, ThomasJack opened for the Malaysian leg of Super Junior The 2nd Asia Tour in Malaysia. Last August, the duo held its first concert titled ThomasJack Fantasy Concert at Stadium Merdeka.
Tan can currently be seen in local Mandarin dramas such as 8TV’s My Pet Lover and tonton’s The Night Columnist.
Meanwhile, Tan’s next film will be an action flick titled Brothers, which is inspired by a real-life kidnapping case, where a mentally disabled boy recognises his abductor as his long-lost brother who went missing after being kidnapped.
Shuttle Life opens at cinemas nationwide on Oct 12.