Recently, I was asked which Singapore film would I rank as the most significant, the kind of landmark movie that paved the way for change and helped create the semblance of an industry we have today. I did not hesitate in giving an answer. ‘I Not Stupid’. Yes, it is, on so many levels and in so many ways. Why would I say so? And in such a resounding manner. Before ‘I Not Stupid’, a foreigner would not have a reference to a Singapore film. After ‘I Not Stupid’, there was a brand of Singapore film we could speak of, both to ourselves and to people beyond our shores. This was the movie that proved beyond any doubt Jack Neo was no flash in the pan. Because he went on to be a prolific director, this ‘the Jack Neo comedy’ became an exceptionally viable genre, reflecting a maturing society laughing at Singaporeans and with Singaporeans. ‘I Not Stupid’ was also the Singapore film that took political satire to a whole new level.
I remember the genesis of the film quite well. After the euphoria of the ‘Money No Enough’ success and the set up of Raintree Pictures as the de facto local studio, the Singapore film industry was faced with one box office disappointment after another. I went back to the drawing board to rethink how we could move forward. The results, for overseas collaborations, were ‘The Eye’, ‘Turn Left, Turn Right’ and ‘Infernal Affairs 2’. For local productions, I discussed with Jack on a quintessentially Singaporean film. Jack’s sensitivity to the education of children, especially early streaming, not from the view of the parents, teachers, principals or the society, but from the child’s perspective, set the stage for an unusual story for the young, especially those who were ‘condemned’ to do badly from an early age. This struck a chord with every child, even those who were doing well in school, because finally someone understood their plight.
When I was watching the first cut of the film, I was suddenly emotional. There were moments in the film that, if you were someone who had issues in school and felt misunderstood, especially by your parents, your teachers, or the system at large, you would connect on an emotional level. Both Jack and I ‘toured’ this movie from school to school, institution to institution, and city to city. It was the only Singapore movie that ran for over 5 months in Hong Kong. At every screening, we would know at which points audiences would laugh, and which points they would start to cry. It was a sign that the movie was connecting on a very universal level. I remember Peter Chan telling me after watching the film that a Hong Kong director could no longer produce such a film. There was an idealism and naiveté that could happen only when the film industry was in its infancy. Michelle Yeoh made a special effort to congratulate me on the film.
Yet ‘I Not Stupid’ did not start out with a bang. It came out at a time when Singaporeans were losing faith in local films. I remember checking the cinema halls during the sneaks. They were almost empty. I called a last-minute crisis meeting with Jack, friends and the distributor on the Sunday night. I asked everyone if they believed in the film. Everyone nodded. We decided to execute a sampling exercise of 10,000 people; to invite parents, principals, teachers, especially students to watch for free in the week leading up to the launch. We managed to get about 6,000 people to watch the film. By the time the movie was released, the word of mouth was so positive and strong that the movie quickly overtook the overseas blockbusters during the Chinese New Year festive period to become one of our most successful movies at the local box office. It went on to break many other records.
So why was it an all important movie? Because it was the turning point, at a point in time that meant everything for the local film industry. It restored faith, and the kind of confidence like what ‘Infernal Affairs’ did for Hong Kong and what ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ did for Asia. It fits the label of a ‘Break-Out’ hit on every count. It paved the way for other movies to go abroad. It paved the way for investments in Singapore films. Members of Parliament started to push for changes in the education system The Education Minister openly declared “we need a broader definition of success.” He said the movie “provides a mirror for our society and for each of us to see how we might actually be behaving. And how this, even with the best of intentions, has a negative effect on our children…It is a useful movie for principals, parents and teachers to watch”.
Reflecting on ‘I Not Stupid’ after all these years, Jack said, “Comedians are usually not taken seriously. I wrap a serious issue with comedy. It gets more people to pay attention to it. Being a critic in a critically acclaimed movie is the best way to make a difference.”
‘I Not Stupid’ started the signature ‘Jack Neo laugh and cry’ phenomenon. He literally makes you laugh one minute, then cry in the next, before making you laugh out loud again. And there are some parts he will make you laugh till you tear. Ultimately, ‘I Not Stupid’ is still the number one Singapore movie to me because, although some may think it could be more filmic, it has some of the most real moments on our cinematic screen. It calls to mind the Hong Kong movies by the Hui Brothers in the 1980s and the early Feng Xiaogang movies. These movies mirrored a slice of real life in the cities they were set in. Most of us know ‘I Not Stupid’ spawned a sequel which was equally successful. To me, it spawned a whole generation of wannabe Jack Neo movies, some not bad, mostly not good. Jack himself would go on to produce and direct more gems, culminating in his record-breaking ‘Ah Boys To Men’.