First-time female director, Jess Teong is one of the biggest winners in this year’s Macau Film Festival. The dynamic and persevering film director shares with Top 10 of Malaysia about her background, the real-life challenges she faced and her life’s journey thus far, in a recent interview.
Like any journey that’s worth it, Jess Teong has come a long and winding way. Through a 26-year career spanning modeling, singing, television hosting and acting, she has tirelessly worked and learned the ropes on her own to be a producer and director of movies.
“I realize now I have been planting seeds all along the way. And the fruits that I have harvested are my audience. I am totally focused and committed to create movies for my audience enjoyment. It is my passion,” explains Jess.
It was different when she was a young girl at school. Jess reveals, with disarming honesty, that in those days she had no goal. “I didn’t have any ambition. While others aspired to be doctors or accountants, I had no idea what I wanted to be.”
But in 1991, stardom beckoned her. She won the coveted Malaysia’s 1st female Cover Girl of the Year. She was featured in print, TV ads and commercials hosted for several TV programs. From that springboard, Jess went into singing, eventually recording 4 albums. Her talent for telling story was already showing since in those days, as she won an award for best lyrics, but she kept to performing in concerts and shows in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and China.
Jess got married in the mid-90s, and for 8 years, she took a break to spend time bringing up her young family. “I enjoyed cooking and baking bread. My boys, 19 and 16 are my greatest achievement,” she smiles.
However, Jess’ family life took a turn when she got divorced. She returned to the entertainment industry in early 2000 as a single mom. The hiatus didn’t diminish her acting talent, and by 2006, she was offered to be the main cast of drama series, ‘Man of the House’ by MediaCorp.
Subsequent offers followed but Jess felt that acting shouldn’t be a just a profession where one just put in the hours and deliver on tasks. She began to choose her roles. At this point of time, she met the future director of ‘Paper Moon’ (not to be mistaken by an English movie of the same title), Stanley Law. The two of them began sharing ideas about movie making.
“He found that I have a lot of information and ideas, since I’m an avid movie enthusiast! He asked me to join and help him out and I just grabbed the opportunity,” says Jess.
That was in 2012 as she debuted behind the scene as the producer for ‘Paper Moon’, featuring Malaysian and Hong Kong actors. It won 4 awards at the Los Angeles Movie Awards in 2013.
She would win another 4 awards again as a debutant 3 years later. Around the time she was working on ‘Paper Moon’, she had started conceptualizing a movie that would eventually called ‘The Kid from the Big Apple’.
“If I consider the entire process, this movie took 4 years – from initial conception to the day of the final screening. The writing itself took me roughly 2 months,” reveals Jess (in between, she produced for 2 more films).
This time around, Stanley Law and Jess Teong swapped roles. He encouraged her to get into the Director’s seat while he will be the Producer. Again, it was a collaborative between local and Hong Kong actors, with Ti Lung playing ‘Grandpa’, the lead actor role.
The movie weaved in quite a few topics: East-West cultural divide, generation gap, technology and relationships, and, perhaps as an autobiographical touch, single parenthood too. It was quite nicely done and it won 4 awards at the 7th Macau International Movie festival, beating other contenders such as Ip Man 3. Jess won the award for Best Writing. Tan Qin Lin, the Malaysian child star who played ‘Sarah’, won the Best Newcomer Award. The Best Actor award went to the veteran Ti Lung while the Best Supporting Actress award was bagged by Jessica Hester Hsuan, who played Sarah’s mother.
Jess already has scripts in hand for future movies. They are heartwarming stories for family to watch together. Jess has often emphasized whenever she was interviewed that she would like to share a message through films.
“I want to make movies which an entire family, young and old, is able to watch together. There are so few movies that appeal to an entire family. I feel a movie maker should make movies that can share a message with the audience,” she says.
Asked about her guiding tenets in life, Jess says that being courageous is essential. It has worked for her as she takes on every challenge, big or small, that comes her way. Another of her principle is not to dwell in the past. “Don’t let the past drag you down. Look ahead, move forward and start leaving a beautiful legacy behind as you do.”