First time actor hot star at 73

First time actor hot star at 73
The Journey starring Ben Andrew Pfeiffer (left) and Frankie Lee Sai Peng.

Frankie Lee Sai Peng never imagined that he would become a movie star at the age of 73.

The first-time actor, who plays the lead role in the movie The Journey, rose to fame when the drama-comedy became Malaysia's highest-grossing local film of all time.

Speaking to Life! at an interview, Lee, who used to run a business renting out movie props, says matter-of-factly that he has become quite the hot ticket in Malaysia.

"I never knew I would be a movie hero and that I would become so popular," the father of two children says with a grin in a mix of English and Cantonese.

"There was one time when I went to the toilet and fans actually followed me. They then asked me to take pictures with them. I'm both delighted and amazed."

The Journey, which opens in cinemas on Thursday, tells the story of a stern father (Lee), who allows his daughter (Joanne Yew) to marry a Caucasian man (Ben Andrew Pfeiffer) only if his future son-in-law goes on a road trip with him to hand-deliver the wedding invitations to friends scattered across Malaysia.

The movie's themes of family and tradition struck a chord in audiences who also enjoyed the "realistic" lingo in the movie. The dialogue is a mix of English, Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka and Teochew.

Directed by Malaysian film-maker Chiu Keng Guan and scripted by Malaysian screenwriter Ryon Lee, the RM3-million (S$1.1-million) movie has earned close to RM17 million since it opened on Jan 30.

It beat the RM12-million record set by 2010 action flick KL Gangster starring popular actors Aaron Aziz and Adi Putra, a feat that director Chiu admits is "shocking".

The 42-year-old film-maker, who made Chinese New Year comedies Woohoo! (2010) and Great Day (2011), muses: "Many non-Chinese-speaking audiences came to see The Journey as well. And there were definitely a lot of people who said that they went back to the cinemas to see the movie over and over again, bringing with them different family members. I'm more surprised than anyone by the movie's overwhelming success."

He says that it could be the film's "sense of realism" that moved audiences.

The entire cast, except for Australian stage actor Pfeiffer, had never acted before, a fact that he believes contributed to the "naturalism" of all of the performances.

He says: "I told them not to act, but to just experience the story and the emotions for real for themselves and show me their real reactions to the situation."

Fresh face Yew, 27, for example, was formerly a model and beauty queen, having won the Miss Astro Chinese International Pageant in 2007.

The 1.76m-tall beauty, who is single, says: "I think that because I have never acted before this, I just went ahead and showed whatever genuine emotions that I had about the story. Those are my real feelings because I don't know what it means to act something out."

Even for an experienced actor like Pfeiffer, Chiu cast him only because he had never visited Malaysia - and would therefore feel "the same culture shock that his character feels".

He says: "When Ben asked me why the father character had to hand-deliver the invitations, rather than simply e-mailing or SMS-ing the invites, I told him to hold it so that I could film him right then and there with those very thoughts. It was perfect for his character and the story."

The director, who is single, says that using an amateur cast, however, also means having to deal with "many, many NGs" or 'no good' takes.

Lead actor Lee, for example, had to re-shoot one scene more than 40 times to get it right. He lets on that the director tried using different "tactics" to make him feel less nervous.

He recalls with a laugh: "Even if I get a line wrong, the director would never scold me. He would just laugh and say, 'Don't worry, this is just a rehearsal', and he never even shouted 'action'. So I would feel less anxious. But actually, he was shooting for real the whole time."

Now that he has become quite the star, has he caught the acting bug and would want to do this again? He says with a laugh: "I don't mind acting again in another movie - but please, don't give me so many scenes again. It's just so tough. So I'm okay with doing just a supporting role."

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