Lee Chong Wei: Behind the movie, the legend and Lee

 All in the famiLEE (from left): Actor Mark Lee, Sports Star Lee Chong Wei and Tosh Chan (who plays Lee Chong Wei) 

Somewhere inside Malaysian movie Lee Chong Wei: Rise Of The Legend, Singaporean actor Mark Lee utters a note of warning to his son, young Lee Chong Wei, about working in Singapore, “You want to go work in Singapore? You could bump into some really bad people." Laden with irony, this is a line that never fails to crack audiences up whether they are in Malaysia or Singapore, as Mark Lee related in a small group interview with SINdie and other media for the movie.

Such is the situational relevance of the movie in both countries on two sides of the Causeway. Lee Chong Wei: Rise Of The Legend is a biopic on the rise of one of Malaysia’s most famous sportsmen – Lee Chong Wei, who was ranked the world's greatest badminton player. For a medal-starved country like Singapore that went hysterical over Joseph Schooling's Olympic Gold in 2016, it is not difficult to appreciate a movie like this, despite the Malaysian context.

Malaysian Director Teng Bee (centre of row)

Malaysian director Teng Bee developed the script out of material from Lee Chong Wei's autobiographical book 'Dare to be a Champion', as well as interactions with Lee Chong Wei and his family members themselves. The movie follows Lee’s early life from a primary school kid (played by Jake Eng) learning to play badminton, to his formative years as a young adult (played by Tosh Chan) trying to make his mark in the National Badminton Academy. Lee's story follows a familiar rags-to-riches arc in which he grew up as a poor kid who wanted to play badminton but his family could not afford to buy him a racquet. As Mark who plays Lee's father relates, Lee has a father who disapproves of his passion for badminton. This is a conflicted stand towards his son's interest, because after all, the father himself loved badminton and introduced him to the sport right at the start. Then there is also the familiar saving grace in the form of a mother (Khor Kim Choi, played by Yeo Yann Yann), who quietly encourages Lee at the side. Parents aside, the movie also delves into his relationships with his wife Wong Mew Choo (played by Ashley Hua), and the man who trained him into a world champion – former national player and coach Misbun Sidek (play by Datuk Rosyam Nor).

As Teng relates, it was very important to bring out intimate episodes and details about Lee's life and he spent a fair amount of time with Mdm Khor, Lee's real mother to get stories that were not written into the book. One particular episode was about young Lee waking up at midnight to do jumping sets and trying to hit the wall above the door, all in the hope of growing taller.

"Her eyes were red when she was sharing that with me. So I found this part particularly touching  and when I shared it with Yann Yann, it also touched her. So this scene turned out to be very poignant and you can see that her eyes were red too,” Teng Bee added.

In response to a question on why he wanted so much to be tall, the badminton star himself answered, "Actually when I was twelve, they were making selections for the national team and I was not chosen at that time, mainly because I was too short. I was finally only selected at the age of 17."

Produced by CB Pictures and Mahu Pictures, the movie was three years in the making and over 2,000 people all over Malaysia were auditioned for the roles in the movie. Teng was more interested in badminton skills above looks as it would help make the on-screen matches more realistic. Still, they were fortunate to have found a dead ringer for Lee in the form of 22 year-old Tosh Chan, whom Lee himself approves of the resemblance, especially the lean features.

"In this world, experts say there are 7 people who look similar to each other. It so happens 2 of them are in Malaysia, "quipped actor Mark Lee, to unanimous laughter.

Tosh, a coffee barista originally from Johor Bahru, nabbed the role through auditions in Kuala Lumpur. He said, " When I heard of this audition opportunity, it occupied my mind and distracted me from work for a while. I just wanted to try something different and I went home to discuss with my mum about auditioning for this and she gave me her full support. When I went to the audition in Kuala Lumpur, I was very nervous. All I did was tell myself, just try my best, regardless of the results.

"During my secondary school days, friends around me did tell me I look like Lee Chong Wei, But I didn't really see the resemblance," Tosh added.

Relating a scene in which he kissed his on-screen girlfriend on the forehead, Tosh said that it was a little awkward when he knew he had to shoot this scene, as he only knew this girl for 2 weeks. He said, ”We practised that scene many times, about 10 times a day. The director and producer would come and watch how we rehearse. And make some suggestions."
Director Teng added, "I told him, you are going to kiss the girl. So he went to the toilet and took a very long time. When he came back finally, I asked him where he went, because everyone was waiting for him. He said he went to brush his teeth. And I said you really thought you were going to kiss for real!"

Actor Mark Lee has been on a roll in Singapore cinema screens since the year started, having played a pivotal role as Robert in Wonderful Liang Ximei!, and now simultaneously appearing in both Lee's biopic and Ramen Teh, Eric Khoo's latest ode to food, family and love.

"Last year, I count Ramen Teh and Lee Chong Wei: Rise Of The Legend as my two most fulfilling projects. For this film, director Teng actually met me in Taiwan years ago and mentioned this film to me and asked if I would like to be involved. Three years later, there was no news, and I thought to myself - it's true, Malaysians cannot be trusted. (laughter in the room) Then last year in March, he finally called me and said 'do you remember I asked if you wanted to act in this movie?' I said yes I remember. I was going to be filming Ramen Teh at the time this movie was going into production, but we sorted out the dates eventually.
"In this film, I act as Lee Chong Wei’s father. I have actually not met his father so I could only rely on the script and my discussion with the director on how to take on the role. So Teng said the father is someone who loves his son but does not know how to express it. Due to certain reasons, he disapproved his son taking up badminton, yet he liked the sport itself, so it was a dilemma. So the direction I got from Teng is to show some ‘tough love’ to my son. And strongly oppose this child’s pursuit of badminton…...Sometimes, I would check myself and ask if I look too fierce? Because I don't look cute when I am fierce (more laughter in the room). The director also said I could try a bit of humour to make the father a bit more endearing. So there is humour in the sternness," recounted Mark.

Of course, no Lee Chong Wei movie would be complete without mention of his rivalry with Lin Dan of China. The movie ends with what has been acknowledged as one of the best badminton matches ever played, also one of Lee’s most famous victories, his historic win against Li Dan at the 2006 Malaysian Open final. When asked about whether Lin Dan knows about this movie being made, Lee said yes, Lin Dan did ask him about it, and where and when he is able to watch it. The producers are still in discussions with distributors in China and feedback so far has been positive.

Lee has tasted an equal share of defeat as much as triumphs in his sporting career, including once in which he issued a Twitter apology to his fellow countrymen for losing a match.

Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan

When asked about how he dealt with defeat, Lee shared, " Of course, I will feel down whenever I lose a match. I will try to think of the times when I won, and use that as a motivation to drive me back to the court. Of course, nobody likes to lose but there is always a victor and a loser in a match. So the most important thing is how you pick yourself up after your loss and find a new breakthrough…...So when we were back, we would replay the losing match and analyse what went wrong and what we can do better. Why did we lose?"

Lee's story aside, the movie brings home a familiar message about chasing your dreams and overcoming the odds. When asked if Lee will allow his own children to pursue whatever they want, he said, ”No matter what, I will let my child choose what he wants to do, because after what I have gone through myself, I think I want to respect what my child wants."
Relating to this, Mark, also a father himself, had this to add, "I feel that if we know our children love to do something with a lot of passion and they have the ability to do it really well and make it to a career, as parents, we must support them fully. We have seen and known many parents who want their kids to become doctors and lawyers, and force them to study. But in the end, after they come back, they become actors. This is totally different from what they studied and I feel is a waste of learning time. If they like music, we should let them go learn music. Who knows, when he is back , he might be even more successful than Jay Chou!"

Here is the move trailer.

Lee Chong Wei: Rise Of The Legend  opened in Singapore and Malaysia on 15 March and is still showing. Go grab your tickets now.

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