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Rui En’s special moment with Van Gogh

SINGAPORE — Award-winning actress Rui En has played many different roles since her career began more than a decade ago, but her latest role takes her into a world that few identify with the actress — art.

SINGAPORE — Award-winning actress Rui En has played many different roles since her career began more than a decade ago, but her latest role takes her into a world that few identify with the actress — art.

Rui En steps into the shoes of pioneer artist Georgette Chen for her first documentary-drama, The Worlds Of Georgette Chen, a three-part docudrama collaboration between Channel NewsAsia (CNA) and National Gallery Singapore, which premieres on Wednesday.

However, it was a painting by another artist that completely changed her view of art — the self-portrait of a certain Vincent van Gogh. The actress had been in Paris shooting scenes for the show and one of the places where they filmed was at Musee d’Orsay, where she encountered the famous artwork.

“It’s so different when you see it in person because the thing that stood out were his eyes. I could actually feel that he was a tortured soul. It just basically changed everything for me — all my opinions about art being hifalutin, about being intimidated by art, just flew out the window because it was just a human connection,” she told TODAY.

Like her encounter with Van Gogh’s work, the popular actress also hopes that her latest role could help spread an appreciation of art to people who wouldn’t necessarily be inclined towards it. “I felt, beyond the glamour, beyond all the Star Awards and the trappings of celebrity, there are certain things that you could do to make a positive change to society or individuals,” she said. “I felt this was one of those — to bring heartlanders and younger children to just take some tentative baby steps to not be intimidated by art.”

The Worlds Of Georgette Chen tracks the life of one of Singapore’s most iconic artists, from her early years in China to her artistic awakening in Paris to her finally settling down in Singapore. One of the artists associated with the so-called Nanyang art movement, Chen received the Cultural Medallion in 1982 and passed away in 1993 at 87. She has been the subject of a retrospective at the Singapore Art Museum, a musical and, most recently, a graphic novel.

The first episode looks at Chen’s early years and paints a picture of the tumultuous times she found herself in — from being in Europe during World War I to her family’s links with early Chinese revolutionaries such as Sun Yat Sen. Joining her in the episode is French-Chinese actor Ralph Lee, who plays her husband Eugene Chen, and young actress Amber Lin, who plays the artist’s younger self.

(Incidentally, Rui En can consider Lin an admirer of her work. “I was hoping to meet Rui En during filming, but she had already finished by then,” Lin said.)

One of the challenges of doing the docu-drama was dealing with issues of accuracy, admitted Debra Soon, head of News and Premier, MediaCorp. But the information unearthed by CNA’s research team — such as discovering an unpublished memoir by one of Chen’s sisters, a rare film of Chen in Penang during the ’50s and even a previously unknown self-portrait given to Chen’s former neighbour in Siglap — had impressed Soon and even the National Gallery’s Georgette Chen experts.

While the art museum has a substantial Georgette Chen archive, including a thousand letters and postcards as well as 100 paintings and drawings, there were still a lot of things that the project had unearthed, said Low Sze Wee, director, Curatorial and Collections, National Gallery. “We knew a lot about her time in Singapore and Malaysia but not in France, China, Hong Kong and New York.”

As for Rui En, she felt “a little bit of pressure” in playing a historical figure, but because there was not much footage to base her performance on, “I had a little bit of space to not only be an imitation, but to breathe new life in her”. Mayo Martin


The Worlds Of Georgette Chen will be shown on April 29, May 6 and May 13, 8pm, on Channel NewsAsia.

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