Gordon Choy and Sunny Pang belong to the rare group of Singapore actors/fight choreographers who can turn a show into a big hit.
TEXT BY JO TAN
Published on 11 May 2015
TEXT BY JO TAN
It’s quite sad. We may see brawls enacted on Singapore TV and films, but very little martial-arts fight choreography with flair,” says Sunny Pang, actor (best known as Inspector Han in Ch 5’s Code of Law) and film fight choreographer.
Gordon Choy, stage actor and fight choreographer, feels that the demand for action scenes onstage is better, although irregular. “It’s a trend that comes and goes. In 2004 and 2005, I had lots of jobs choreographing fights and stunts. Then it faded away. In the past few months, I choreographed fights for both Monkey Goes West and Legends of the Southern Arch.”
Pang and Choy once had more stable professions. Pang taught boxing and kickboxing among other combat skills. Choy, who picked up stunts and stage fighting from his Chinese-opera-artiste dad, later joined Singapore’s National Wushu Team. Along the way, both fell in love with acting, were roped into fight scenes and decided to try choreographing them. They soon realised though, that being skilled in combat moves alone wasn’t quite enough.
“My initial challenges were understanding the philosophy — a fight isn’t just a fight,” Pang explains. “It’s part of the story and process the character goes through to end up in the next part. I need to understand the character’s background, traits and emotions before helping him or her continue telling the story through the fight.”
Choy adds, “Even if it’s a big mess of a fight, you can’t make the stage too rowdy or crowded, otherwise there is no focus, the audience doesn’t know what to look at. That was my mistake when I first started,” he says with a sigh. “I’ve also been learning how best to help different actors. I’m a dancer as well, so if actors know dance and rhythm but not martial arts, I use rhythm to teach.”
Even while Choy and Pang have been honing their choreography skills, there are limited opportunities to use them, especially on TV. “In Singapore, we have safety regulations and censorship. You can’t do this or that,” says Pang. “Moreover, fight choreographers require a lot more collaboration than local directors might be used to offering. Many don’t understand action very well, or that we need to work together to plan the whole scene where fights are involved. In that way, I can design the choreography, try it with the actors and shoot the whole trial with my camera phone to show directors what camera angles and shots are needed for everything to look convincing,” elaborates Pang.
“After all that, I’d want to help with the editing, cutting from shot to shot, to ensure the tempo is right. It’s so important. I’ve previously offered to edit the fight scenes for free. But often, directors don’t want people to interfere with what scenes should look like, and they don’t set aside enough time for me to work with the actors.”
Indeed, sufficient time with the actors is a pre-requisite, whether for fights onstage or onscreen. Says Choy, “It’s easy working with someone who already knows martial arts. But martial artists can’t always act. For Legends of the Southern Arch, we used two young martial-arts professionals who underwent training from our director to say their lines properly. On the other hand, most actors don’t know martial arts, so for Legends of the Southern Arch, they started training from October last year all the way until the show opened in March, just so they wouldn’t hold their weapons like brooms! The training time is also an opportunity for me to really observe them and see who is good at what, so I can put myself in their shoes and say, ‘You can do this, not that… let me create something for you from there, that will make you look like you can really fight.’”
Pang agrees. “Training and observing actors allow you to help them,” he says. But occasionally, egos get in the way. “Some martial artists never want to play the bad guy. Or when you explain something to them, they go, ‘Are you trying to tell me my style is wrong?’ Sometimes, they refuse to understand it’s fake fighting. I saw one shoot where a performer insisted on punching for real, and put his partner out of commission for a few days!”
Despite the difficulties, Choy and Pang love the thrill of the fight. They also enjoy developing their skills for the next job. “I’m always watching and re-watching different types of movies to get inspiration,” shares Choy. “The first scene in Legends of the Southern Arch was playful, a first meeting. So I learnt from Jackie Chan’s comic action scenes, where the actor throws things to distract the people chasing him, shocks them and fends off blows with a straw basket. Or for certain more dramatic fights, I might include some Chinese-opera elements.
“Of course, I still love doing the fights myself. But somehow, I always get injured. I just have to hide it and constantly seek treatment. As age catches up, I know my skills and technique aren’t what they used to be.”
Pang concurs, “I’ve loved martial arts from a very young age. Learning it broke my nose and
two of my teeth, knocked me out, gave me cuts — I still loved it.
Back in 1996, I even set a Guinness World Record with 17 other qi gong students, where we got a lorry weighing one ton to drive over our stomachs. But I’m not getting younger and want to pass the baton on.”
Accordingly, Pang has been training young actors in screen-fighting for a token sum or even gratis. “You never know, there might be an action flick coming up, if not produced in Singapore, then somewhere in the region, overseas films are casting here now! I am also initiating my own film projects to bring up the level of action films here, and create careers for actors of the new generation. Before I start counting down on my own ability level, I want somebody to take over.”