If you watched Anthony Chen’s 2013 award-winning film IIo IIo, you might remember Koh Jia Ler as the havoc-raising student who developed a close bond with his domestic helper (played by Filipino actress Angeli Bayani) much to the chagrin of his mum (Yeo Yann Yann). He was 13 years old when he beat out 2,000 hopefuls to snag the role, which earned him a Best Newcomer nomination at the Golden Horse awards. We caught up with the now-16-year-old teenager to find out what he’s been up to.
After Ilo Ilo, he dabbled in some acting.
In the 2015 Ch 8 drama Life — Fear Not, he played a trouble-making student alongside Felicia Chin and his idol Elvin Ng. “Elvin always brings this portable chair on set and he’ll sit on it and use his phone. I’d always talk to him when we weren’t filming. Felicia was quite fun [to be around]. She’d always tell jokes and then she’d laugh very loudly. And that made all of us laugh too," he said.
He stays in touch with his Ilo Ilo parents.
“Last Chinese New Year, I went to [Chen] Tianwen’s house for mala steamboat. On Father’s Day or his birthday, I’d Whatsapp him to wish him well. Recently, I bumped into Yann Yann at West Coast Plaza and we talked a bit. But I never really ask them out ’cos I’m still busy with my studies. But whenever I see them [in public], I’d spend some time talking to them.”
He’s studying to be a banker but what he really wants to do is act.
“I’ll be taking a diploma course in Banking and Finance at [private school] Kaplan this April. I’m still too young to quit school and go into acting. But it’s still my dream to be an actor. Hopefully, more roles will come my way. Recently, a Mediacorp producer called me to go for an audition. But I couldn’t ’cos I still have my braces on. The role was a poor kid but a poor kid wouldn’t be able to afford braces.”
He has fond and not-so-fond memories of filming IIo IIo.
“My best memory [of filming IIo IIo] is that, my real mom would often give me money to go buy ice cream and I’ll eat it [at the void deck]. Before I did the movie, I was actually very scared of chickens. My worst memory was when I made the whole production OT until 4am. Everybody [in the production crew] was very mad at me. I was extremely scared. The director, Anthony Chen, wanted to take this shot of me playing with chickens. He wanted me to touch the chicken and turn it over. But I was scared of chickens at that time. [Shooting that scene] was very jialat. We did at least 50 takes. It took me about 3 hours to do that scene. I was brought into the toilet and scolded by my screen mummy (Yann Yann). I ended up doing it because I was under a lot of pressure. That scene didn’t make it to the movie in the end. Now, when I think back about it, my fear [of chickens] was very stupid. I’m not scared of them anymore.”
He’s a reformed bad boy.
“I was very naughty from primary school to Secondary 3. I’d skip detention class [for being late] regularly and go out and have fun with my friends instead. I’d also spout vulgarities at teachers. But, when I was in Sec 4 [in 2015], I changed [for the better] because I want to be an actor and I believe my behavior matters. I’m afraid that [word might get out if I behave badly]. The day I decided to change, I went for two weeks straight of detention classes. I also became a good student. I’d pay attention in class and wouldn’t talk back to teachers. My results all along were okay. But after I changed, my results became better. I even became the top scorer [in the Normal Technical stream] in my school [Clementi Town Secondary]. My class teachers and principal were all very amused by my change.”