It’s no easy feat bringing the story of Malaysian badminton champion Datuk Lee Chong Wei to the big screen.
Lee Chong Wei: Rise Of The Legend starts with his years as an aspiring shuttler from Perak and chronicles his journey to becoming the No. 1 badminton athlete in the world. The biopic is directed by Teng Bee, who not only had to get the badminton sequences right but also find the right actors to play the younger Lee.
After a nationwide audition and seeing over 2,000 aspiring talents, Teng Bee cast Jake Eng from Sungai Besar in Selangor and Tosh Chan from Johor Baru to play the 12- and 17-year-old Lee respectively.
Chan, 22, learned about the auditions from Facebook and was happy there was one session in JB. But when he miss it because of work, that really got him down.
“I had a talk with my mother who encouraged me to go for it if I was really serious about it. So I decided to take a bus up to attend the final audition in KL,” he recalled. The fact that he looks a lot like Lee – and can play badminton – contributed to him landing the part.
“When I was in secondary school, people have said that I looked like him. But I wanted to go for the audition not just because of that, but because I really wanted to grab that opportunity to test my capabilities.
“I never thought of becoming an actor, and I’m thankful that I got the chance to play a national hero like Datuk Lee Chong Wei.
“I was inspired by Datuk Lee, and I asked my family to let me play badminton,” said Chan, who started playing at 12 and represented Johor Baru at state level.
The story of 13-year-old Jake is even more poignant and mirrors Lee’s story in a few aspects. Jake’s parents didn’t want him playing badminton, even though he has been at the sport since he was six and even represented his district of Sabak Bernam.
“One of my relatives saw the poster and asked my parents to take me for the auditions. But the day before the audition, a relative passed away and my mother had to attend to the funeral, and could not bring me there,” he recalled. “I was really sad, and I cried the whole night!”
Taking pity upon her son, Jake’s mother persuaded his father to take him for the auditions in KL instead.
“I remember my registration number (for the audition) was No. 624! When my father saw my number, he actually asked me not to waste my time there. But I insisted on going through with it, so he left me to queue up and went to do his own thing,” he said.
According to Jake, the audition was the first time ever his father had seen him play badminton. “I was actually more nervous about that than the audition, because I really wanted to show him what I was capable of,” he recalled, with tears welling up in his eyes.
After going through another round of auditions and then being called up for acting class, Jake was actually given a different role instead, much to his disappointment.
“During the two-week acting camp, I was told that I wouldn’t be the young Lee Chong Wei, but I would play the role of another kid who always bullied him instead. Of course I was disappointed, but I kept on doing my best,” he said.
“Then, one day I told the director I was very envious of Lee Chong Wei, because his family was poor, but he at least had a coach to teach him. Where I came from, we didn’t have a coach at all.”
Chan interjected: “When he told that story in class, all of us cried with him!”
During a press conference last November to announce the movie, Teng explained that Jake had not been his first choice to play the 12-year-old Lee, but the young boy’s sincerity and determination had moved him enough to give him the role.
When the going gets tough
Teng, who is best known for hit films like Kepong Gangster and Kepong Gangster 2, said that he picked the two unknown actors because he felt it was important to cast someone who could play badminton – both Chan and Jake have played badminton up to the state level.
Some of toughest scenes for the two actors were on the badminton court.
Jake’s most challenging scene involved him having to hit a shuttlecock into a box on the opposite side of the court.
“At first the director wanted to use edits to show it, but after seeing that I could actually do it, he asked me to try to do it (for the camera). But each time the director said ‘Action!’, I got nervous and couldn’t hit it in. I took 43 takes to do it in the end,” he recalled.
As for Chan, his toughest scene was during a match against Lee’s arch-rival Lin Dan.
“After filming for a long time, we still had not gotten the right take. I was already very tired and ready to collapse, but the director said something that kept me going.
“He told me, ‘You are the spirit of this film. If you fall down, then we won’t have this film’,” Chan said.
“There’s another scene where we had to train by carrying logs, and after that session, it hurt so badly I couldn’t even squat down properly. That night I called home and cried to my mother!”
The film took a total of three years to produce, including 50 days of filming. The crew went through 5,000 shuttlecocks during production and even overshot their initial budget of RM6mil.
According to producer Josiah Chieng, one of the reasons the budget was so high was because they needed to rent an entire stadium for one of the climatic matches, and also used a futuristic robotic arm to film the badminton sequences to make it more realistic.
Besides Chan and Jake, Lee Chong Wei: Rise Of The Legend also stars Singaporean actor Mark Lee, who plays Lee’s father Lee Ah Chai, and award-winning Malaysian actress Yeo Yann Yann, who portrays his mother, Khor Kim Chooi.
Datuk Rosyam Nor takes on the role of badminton great Datuk Misbun Sidek, who used to coach Lee personally and was instrumental in his rise to greatness, while newcomer Ashley Hua plays Lee’s wife, former national badminton player Wong Mew Choo.