Legendary actor/director Sammo Hung talks exclusively to easternKicks about his career and upcoming film The Bodyguard…
After almost two decades away from being a director, legendary martial artist Sammo Hung comes to the 18th Edition of the Udine Far East Film Festival with his film The Bodyguard, about an ageing bodyguard living in a city on the north Chinese border. This interview was taken during a panel discussion with director Sammo Hung, and a following private interview between him, myself and Fred Ambroisine.
Can you talk to us about The Bodyguard?
The Bodyguard is a good movie, thankyou!
I haven’t been a director for the last 18 years, so I feel like I’m a new director again for this film The Bodyguard. Originally, I wasn’t thinking of doing this film, so when I was first shown and read the script, I was asked “what do you think?” and I said “Yes it’s a very good script” and the director said “do you have time?”, and I said “Yes, I have time”. Almost half my life I’ve worked in the movie industry, and it’s very rare to see a good, strong script. I really love movie making, editing and directing, however if you want me to count it then there’s only really handful, about 5 movies that I consider to have had good scripts that I’ve been involved in. So if I see a very good script and I wasn’t involved, then I feel it’s a pity I wasn’t involved in that collaboration. So if there’s a good script then it’s good to be involved, but if nobody invites you then it’s very hard, those sorts of opportunities are rare to come by.
So I was really involved in this film, I was the director, the action choreographer, and the lead actor, and I totally invested myself creatively and collaboratively in the process of this movie. When I made The Bodyguard, I enjoyed every day from when I woke up until I got to call “Wrap” in the evening, every time was a good time.
When you saw the script, was there anything in it that appealed to you in particular?
This is a script that already had it’s own credit and awards, so already it’s a very strong and complete script. I knew I didn’t need to change a lot, so I just added my own thoughts behind the script in how to make the movie itself.
You know I’ve done everything before right? Horror movies, action movies… I want to try a movie just for the sex scenes, not the fighting! I’ve never had a chance to hold a girl and kiss her. Everyone tells me I should fight again, but actually I want to try everything. Now I just want to find new, young action stars. I’m looking for someone fresh as Hong Kong has sort of lost that part (with the aging of Jackie Chan and death of Bruce Lee), and I feel Mainland China has a real chance to make great Kung Fu movies. Everyone loves when I make Kung Fu movies, so I’m looking for the chance to make another movie but with new talent. I’m going to invite people from across China to come to a school of Martial Arts, as across China there are a lot of fighting champions who don’t have a chance to show themselves. So I’m going to give them the chance to come, join me, and see how I make films.
You were an action director and an actor. You stopped acting in the mid 90s, then in 2004 you played a very important role in a Wilson Yip and as a bad guy as well, and you haven’t played a bad guy since the 70s. I want to know what made you accept this role, and what has changed?
I don’t normally play bad guys, as you said. But now it’s a very simple answer. Who pays me the most?
Well I actually examined the character very carefully; I looked at the script, I looked at how the character was portrayed in the movie, why was he the bad guy, how was he the bad guy and how was he described in his personal life and his character? SO I wanted to understand who this bad guy is and why he is who he is. And at the end I don’t want the character to affect the audiences perspective of me as a person, but I wanted to understand the character.
So whether acting as a bad guy or a good guy, as an actor I want to see if the script has the full character development for me to be a good actor, so I can use my acting methods to express the character which will eventually enhance the overall storytelling of the film.
So for awhile I was acting almost like Robin Hood, I would be going out and always helping people, as a lot of people in the industry are good friends for many years, such as the directors and actors. They’re telling me “come on, I’ve got a role for you, come and help me out”. So I was being a ‘robin hood’ for quite awhile for friends. Just like this movie The Bodyguard, I have a lot of friends and a lot of old friends, so they just came to star in my movie and sat for one day to shoot a handful of scenes.
So a lot of time in the industry we really value our old relationships and old friendships. In The Bodyguard you can see a lot of old timers and cameos, and I just called them up and said “I only have a one day shoot and all I need is you in the daytime to come over and play in this movie. So people like Dean Shek, Tsui Hark, Karl Maka, they all came to play in this movie for one day as we are good friends! So in the same way we reciprocate each other, it’s very common in the industry, so other people will ask me to do the same favours and I’ll never reject them. I will help them out when I can.
In The Bodyguard, what aspect is most challenging for you to play as an actor, is it the dementia or an old man’s relationship with a young girl, or an old man in big action scenes?
My most desired scene is to make a love scene on a bed. Every morning at six o’clock, I’d love to wake up on the bed and get up, but the challenge for me is getting up and getting off the bed! Im 70 years old, and a lot of other people my age are the same. The clock goes at 6 but they’re already awake, and it’s the same in my movie how the old man wakes up early, but can’t move at all straight away. To portray a realistic older person, for me it’s actually getting harder. The film is very much about people of my age group, and all the troubles that come with it. I really value my time and spending it with senior people, I was practically brought up by my own grandfather.
Years back I was practically raised by my grandfather, and as I was shooting Wheels on Meals in Spain, someone told me all of a sudden from Hong Kong that my grandfather had passed away. I was just sitting there for one whole hour thinking, and it’s quite shocking when you realise you’ve lost somebody who’s quite close to you. Another thing, my mom just passed a few years ago, and I used to go down to her room just to pop in and say hi. All of a sudden after she passed and you would go down to the bedroom again, she’s no longer there. So it’s really struck me, that you should spend more time with your family in the coming years. I encourage everyone to spend more time with the elderly in your house, every minute counts and that’s what’s very important.
How would you describe the difference in Hong Kong cinema back in the day when you and Jackie were on top compared to today. What are the differences?
I can rightfully say that during our days and our times of martial arts, we knew how to make martial arts movies and they were martial arts movies, and now I don’t see the same type of martial arts movies in Hong Kong coming out now. The movies are totally not the same.
You see now there is a big export of Hong Kong film talent to Mainland China, who have started being actively involved in the movie industry there. It seems like today in Hong Kong, there is a void of martial arts movies being made. It’s really because the China market has grown so big, and the box office revenue generated from the audience is so high that it’s very hard to compete, and for the Hong Kong market to survive. In some cases, the Mainland Chinese box office for a film is bigger than the American box office. Some productions have budgets of millions of dollars, but you may only get 5 million back, so it’s for the practical reason that it’s not even possible to make the same type of movie now just for Hong Kong markets alone.
So for my new movie The Bodyguard, I didn’t make it for any market. I made it from a universal perspective so that it could be aimed at both Hong Kong audiences and Mainland Chinese audiences. Maybe even European or American audiences, it’s not aimed at specific markets as I just want to make entertaining movies. I hope that everyone will like them, but the problem now is that in Hong Kong, if you have Mainland Chinese actors or actresses then the audiences will consider it’s a Mainland Chinese movie so the audience doesn’t want to go. The same is true for Mainland China as well if Hong Kong actors are starring in a film, a lot of Chinese people are saying “This is a Hong Kong movie” and they just won’t pay or go. I don’t care; I want to make entertaining movies! But it’s the audience, this is what the audience are saying and thinking… I don’t have any political ideas or aims, my point is that I want people to go to the theatre and enjoy the movie. There seems like a segregation in the audience, initiated because of the geographic division between the choices made on the Mainland of Hong Kong, but that’s not my intention, I just want to make films that people enjoy with no barriers.
The Bodyguard is a small project, it feels very passionate?
When I read the script, I liked the old man and his life. Actually his life was very sad, after he retired then he lost his granddaughter and came back to his hometown. He lives alone, he doesn’t want to talk to anybody, and suddenly he meets a little girl. He tries to say sorry through his actions with this girl, as she is like his granddaughter.
I like all of the characters in this movie. First of all because I’m old, so I know how to act as an old man!
In your film, there is a similarity with Hong Kong as your character sees the past fading away but he hasn’t lost the instinct of fighting. There are lots of worries around Mainland China and it being the end of an era, but Hong Kong is famous from taking the best of a difficult situation, what can Hong Kong take from this collaboration with China in your experience?
We have all noticed recently that a lot of films are made with a modern day setting in Hong Kong. I actually have not shot a movie using Hong Kong as a background. I certainly hope there is a lot in my movie that Hong Kong can take and learn from collaborating with Mainland China. It’s very obvious from the cultural perspective that there are a lot of differences.
There are some issues right now, if a movie was made with 50% Mainland Chinese actors then Hong Kong people don’t want to go see those movies. As a filmmaker, I actually have no borders or divisions. I don’t want to make divisions in my film; I want to just make good and entertaining movies. So as a Hong Kong filmmaker it’s very hard to make a movie without considering the Chinese market. That means investors will think if they invest in a movie then there’s no way to go to China or recover the investments. That means If you just make a really ‘Hong Kong local movie’ then there are no big budgets available, and my movie The Bodyguard requires big money to make it according to my standard. To become a commercially viable project and live up to my quality as a director, I can’t compromise with budget.
Why did you choose that specific city in the film, is it because it’s close to the Russian border?
It is very close to the Russian border. Did you see the motorbike in the movie? There are no bicycles in the city actually, I was there for 5 months and saw nobody on a motorbike or bicycle because of all the hills. It’s too hard to ride! The script talks about China and Russia, just like Andy Lau, and they are smuggling across the river.
The signs on the shops in the city are both in Chinese and Russian; the train station is built from a lot of wood imported from Russia. The location of the town is so close to the Russian border, opening up cross-trade between the two cities. It’s very clear that particular town has a lot of trade from both nationalities in that location, which worked well with the script. The leader of that town is also very supportive with that crossborder trade and development. Just like my house in the movie, there was actually 8 families really living there. I said to the government “I like that house”, and the government paid 800,000 in compensation for the families to move and gave them a new house! The government was very supportive in whatever we wanted, I actually needed 3 houses to film in for the film. They gave new houses, and rebuilt anything for us to shoot in. The whole police station in the town is a brand new police station; it was all built especially for the film. “Sammo Hung, this is all for your use” they would say. They local government in the town gave us 120% support for our project.
One thing is, the local government said we couldn’t shoot a gun. By law, nobody can touch a gun. They got a fake gun from Beijing’s prop centre, where two real policemen went to fetch it especially for this production, they really went out of their way for this film. They had a real policeman shoot the gun in the film, it’s an actual policemen and not an actor! I looked at him and said “Do you know how to do it? Okay, ACTION! And pow pow pow pow…”, it was really good. In the chasing scene we also had one local policeman, we didn’t have anymore, and they said “no problem, we’ll do it!”, and the government actually put a real local policeman in their only police car to do the chase scene! The government were really really supportive. I went to Russia to shoot some scenes, we were shooting in the forest and the house I lived in there was actually housing for the top Chinese government officials. I was definitely treated like a top VIP by the Russian government.
Where we were shooting was close to the military area and sometimes we shot some stuff we couldn’t film, some military stuff. At some times we needed to be overseen by 3 men from the government and military whilst shooting using the Flycam. Whilst filming was challenging, we felt that the movie went very smoothly through the collaboration and support from both the Russian and Chinese governments. When we finished the movie, the next day it was snowing, so we were very lucky with the weather. We finished, then left, and there was so much snow!
I was also housed in a national park as I wanted a villa with open space for my dogs, and I wanted an area for them to run around and to walk them whilst shooting. At the back there was a slope on the house, and during the winter that’s actually a natural skiing slope, but it was a very beautiful area we stayed in. We went in the house and it was very… “wow!”.
Watching you fight in your new movie and seeing how fit you are, do you have a training regime?
So in recent years I’ve started training two or three months before the actual shoot of any movie, and then the rest of the time I train my lips to train and enjoy food!