We sat down with Jack Neo, Mark Lee & Henry Thia for 2 hours. Here's what we learnt about their friendship.

*One hour spent filming.

Mandy How | February 10, 2021, 10:53 AM

I introduced myself in Mandarin to 68-year-old Henry Thia, who eyed me suspiciously from the chair in our office's meeting room.

The veteran actor, better known as Hui Ge in the local entertainment industry, was the first to arrive for our interview.

After sizing me up for a long moment (with the rest of the MM2 team looking on), Thia offered me a fist bump without changing his expression.

Phew, I thought. I gestured to the snacks on the table.

"These are for you guys," I said to Thia.

"Cheap ones!" Thia semi-shouted in response. "We don't eat cheap stuff. Only the expensive ones!"

The assortment of pineapple tarts, bak kwa, cream puffs, fruit tarts, swiss rolls, and I wilted under his words.

While I attempted to pacify him with the bak kwa ("These are the most expensive!"), Thia let on that he was joking, thank god.

For the next half an hour, the punctual guest either stared out of the window or sat beside me, twiddling thumbs (quite literally — he was scrolling on his phone) and getting increasingly antsy with his late colleagues.

At one point he asked me, "Why your computer screen so dusty? Never use one ah?"

After enough time, 52-year-old Mark Lee turned up, followed by Jack Neo after another generous stretch of the clock's minute hand (Neo jested that I leave this part out, actually).

The two were keenly apologetic, while Thia was busy making his complaints heard.

The OG YouTubers?

With the squad assembled, we began the interview proper.

They were here to promote their upcoming movie — "The Diam Diam Era Two" — set to hit cinemas on Feb. 11, 2021.

Despite that, however, 61-year-old Neo reminisced about past projects unprompted, even going as far back as to how the trio was formed.

Neo also took the lead in answering most of my questions, whether it's about the movie or the group's dynamics.

Every single week for 10 years, he emphasised, whether rain or shine, the trio would work together on "Comedy Nite", a long-running variety show that aired on Channel 8 from the 1990s to 2003.

The 90s and 2000s were, arguably, Neo's heyday, where movies like "Money No Enough" and "I Not Stupid" cemented his status as a household name in Singapore.

The auteur continued,

"The formats you see on YouTube now, we've done them all before. It's not that they're copying, it's just repackaging. Actually the genre of comedy only has that same few formats — types of teachers in school, types of colleagues you hate etc. — it's all been done before."

For Neo, Lee, and Thia, however, the skits were filmed and broadcasted live, meaning that there was little room for mistakes.

But mistakes they made, with the little room they had. Thia, in particular, was notorious for screwing up his lines.

Neo and Lee cracked up over the memories, but Thia sat stoically next to me.

When Thia spoke up, he admitted that he got so well-known for his NGs that other actors would express their relieve at having him on set, as that meant that they wouldn't be the worst performing talent.

But the years of live mishaps have been "good training" for them, Neo added, while the other two expressed their non-verbal agreements.

Sibling rivalry

Taking a photo of Lee and Thia before our shoot. Neo was busy taking a phone call. Photo by Mandy How.

The three musketeers. Photo by Mandy How.

With a friendship spanning longer than I have existed, I asked if there was still anything about each other that surprised them on the set of "Diam Diam Era Two".

Thia was the first to jump in: "We've never fought before, never fought before."

At my mild distrust, Lee asked, "Why, are you very disappointed?"

Neo and Lee proceeded to give me a politically correct, almost boring answer: They talk their conflicts out, with the understanding that it's nothing personal.

Underneath the obvious bond, however, lurks a sense of sibling rivalry between Thia and Lee (if middle-aged men still sought validation from their fathers, that is).

As their mentor in the industry, Neo is clearly the father figure in this speculative scenario.

If fact, both actors periodically address Neo as "Liang lao shi" (Teacher Liang) throughout the interview, even though they have long ago come into their own leagues.

In the early part of our conversation, the three were discussing their progress in the industry, and it was remarked that Lee had gotten "promoted" much quicker than Thia.

Lee and Thia started out in the same show, but Thia remained a calefare (extra) while Lee moved on to bigger roles.

At this, Thia blistered for a bit, and never really got around to stopping it for the rest of the interview.

I eventually learned that his grouse is with Neo's (perceived) display of favouritism, exacerbated by the director's penchant for heaping praise on Lee.

But whether Thia's affectation is pure pretension, or if it hides a germ of truth, is hard to tell.

And lest we perceive Neo with the same tinted lens, he does play up Thia a fair bit, too.

Thia, for instance, apparently has the talent of being able to convey a scene without needing to deliver any lines. According to Neo, all that's needed is for the camera to focus on the veteran actor and comedian.

"Some people call it the X-factor, I call it god's gift," Neo added about Thia, not too seriously.

Sensitive subject

Not all was horseplay during our two hours together (including a one-hour shoot).

Speeches of visions and conviction are interspersed between the group's banter, such as when I venture gingerly into matters of censorship.

After all, both "Diam Diam Era" and "Diam Diam Era Two" touch on matters of reform and policies in Singapore's short but expeditious history.

But censorship was the least of their problems, as it turned out.

Neo said,

"Honestly speaking, we didn't [run into issues with censorship]. Of course they asked, oh why are certain things like this, so we explained it, I think it's okay. In our current society, even if you avoid talking about certain things, it's still on the internet for all to see."

And in watching the movie, you'd probably realise why there was little to no issue on the censorship front.

Lee and Thia, who play opposition members running for the election, aren't at all controversial in the anti-establishment sense, and function merely as a foil against the backdrop of Singapore's progress.

Lee, in particular, continues to be highly detestable as Ah Kun, an egotistic man who complains about everyone and everything.

While other media have criticised Ah Kun as a two-dimensional caricature, Neo and Lee explained that Ah Kun, to them, was a very real product of his time.

"If Ah Kun was alive now, he'd be one of those people who refuse to wear a mask," Lee quipped to laughter from the room.

Another subject that I broached (carefully) were the negative reviews for "Diam Diam Era".

Thia did not react much, but Neo and Lee were sufficiently moved to launch into a discussion.

Aside from defending his cinematic techniques, Neo (at other parts of the interview) was also convinced that no one in the proceeding generations can, or will, take up the task of chronicling Singapore's history in the cinemas, and let slip the possibility of fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth instalments for the "Long Long Ago" series.

Due to time constraints, we moved on to film for our video interview shortly after, where the trio effortlessly amps up their charisma for the camera.

On that note

With carefully curated props and settings that will serve its older audiences well, "Diam Diam Era Two" paints a sentimental, if static portrait of the 80s.

If you're looking for subtlety and nuance, you will find little of it, but as Neo said, the work is an precious snapshot of Singapore's past, and it will do well for viewers to take it as a light-hearted history lesson.

The "Diam Diam Era Two" will start showing in theatres from Feb. 11, 2021. 

Top photo by Mandy How