Anyone who follows Hong Kong cinema will recognize Philip Ng as one of its rising stars. Beginning with 2003’s “The Twins Effect”, Philip has since appeared in everything from “New Police Story” to “House of Fury” to “Once Upon A Time in Shanghai”, wowing audiences all the way with his incredible abilities in kung fu. A lifelong student of Choy Lay Fut and Wing Chun, Philip has also taught at his father’s Illinois-based Ng Family Chinese Martial Arts Association, and even had the privilege of studying under Wong Shun Leung, one of the martial arts mentors of the legendary Bruce Lee.
That would ultimately come in very handy for him when he landed the role of the Dragon himself in the upcoming, “Birth of the Dragon”, a modern-day kung fu fable that retells the famed private match between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man. Today, Philip sits down with KFK to share his experience of portraying Bruce and recreating one of the most famous and controversial fights in history!
Hi there Philip, thank you so much for taking some time out for us today. Have you come across our site before?
Hi Brad, glad to be here. Yes, I’m very familiar with Kung Fu Kingdom, it’s awesome and it’s a great name for the site, very memorable!
Thank you! Well, let’s start out with your experience in martial arts. What are some of the different disciplines you’ve studied?
When my family and I first came to America, I started in Hung Gar, Wing Chun, and Choy Lay Fut, with two of my uncles and my father and he eventually opened up the Ng Family Chinese Martial Arts Association. Later, my uncle sent me to Hong Kong to train in Wing Chun with Wong Shun Leung, who was one of Bruce Lee’s mentors. I also hold a black belt in Taekwondo and I’ve studied Eskrima, amateur boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, Muay Thai, and Jiu-Jitsu, but Wing Chun and Choy Lay Fut are really my core.
An extensive background there. So, how did you first become involved with “Birth of the Dragon”?
Well, my best friend Andy On, who I co-starred with in “Once Upon A Time in Shanghai”, got called for the film before I did, and he said, “Dude, I don’t look like Bruce Lee! But, my friend Philip Ng kind of does and he’s studied the same style as Bruce Lee and he’s made hundreds of kung fu movies. You should check him out.” So, they gave me the opportunity to send in a casting tape – some friends and I spent about six hours putting it together and sent it in. Then, later I got a call back and the director, George Nolfi, wanted to speak to me on Skype, he thought I had the qualities for the part and that’s how I got it.
Solid! So, what can you share about some of the challenges that come with playing such a legendary figure as Bruce Lee?
I’ve played other historical figures before, like in “Once Upon A Time in Shanghai” where I played Ma Yong Zhen. He was a historical figure, but he wasn’t very well documented, so there was a lot of room to create the character for that film. Of course, with Bruce Lee, you just have to put his name in a search engine and you have tons of information about him. Everyone has an idea of who Bruce Lee was, so we decided at the very beginning that we weren’t going to try to imitate him in this film, but rather try to embody him. I had also learned a lot about Bruce Lee through studying with Wong Shun Leung and making movies in Hong Kong. I’ve also met and worked with a lot of people who were close to him like Yuen Wah, so really, I’ve been unknowingly preparing for this role my whole life.
One of the biggest challenges was the accent. Bruce Lee had a very specific accent and you notice the way that, when he spoke, his whole body would follow the rhythm of the speech. I ended up getting so good at it that it wasn’t until about a month after we finished that I was able to shed all the Bruce Lee mannerisms that I had taken on for the film! (both laugh)
Well you certainly embodied that! What is your favourite Bruce Lee movie and why?
My favourite Bruce Lee movie is “Way of the Dragon” (aka “Return of the Dragon”), because he directed it, he produced it, he wrote it, and he starred in it, so you see a lot him in the way the script is written and his character’s personality. He may be called ‘Tang Lung’ in the film but he’s definitely playing Bruce Lee!
Totally! Please share with us an interesting story about the making of “Birth of the Dragon”?
Well, my first day was actually five days in and I realized that no one had seen my interpretation of Bruce Lee, other than the producers and the director. But, by the end of that night, I could tell from the reactions of people on the crew and conversations I’d had with them that we all felt we were going in the right direction. Honoring the man…that was a very integral moment for me because it gave me the confidence in the interpretation of Bruce that I would be portraying.
Morale booster for sure! So, how would you say “Birth of the Dragon” differs in its approach to depicting the life of Bruce Lee from other movies that have done so, such as “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story”?
Well, “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” kind of touched on his whole life and this film is mainly a slice of his life that focuses on this one fight. This is also a young Bruce Lee who’s untested and just initiating his ideas and trying to break into Hollywood. And, of course, the fight with Wong Jack Man was the turning point that led to the development of his fighting philosophy, Jeet Kune Do, (JKD) because it was through the fight that he came to realize that the style a person uses does not matter, it’s all about the practitioner, which led to what we know today as MMA. It’s like basketball, every player takes different techniques and strategies that work for them, and he felt kung fu should do the same; taking what’s useful and discarding what is useless.
That’s an art in itself. So, what can you share about the experience of re-creating the legendary fight with your co-star, Xia Yu and director George Nolfi?
Well, there were only a few people who actually witnessed the fight, and even within that circle of people, there’s a lot of discrepancy. My father is actually good friends with one of the witnesses of the fight and the story that he tells contradicts a lot of what was written about it. What is certain is that the fight took place and it was the catalyst for Bruce to create Jeet Kune Do, so we had a lot of freedom to stylize the fight the way we wanted to, and George shot it as a debate between two people but instead of using words, they use their fists. In a fight sequence, we’re telling a story through movement and in this film, we’re showing Bruce’s evolution through different story points of the fight.
A fascinating way to look at this legendary fight! Well, as we sadly have to sign off, Philip, what message would you want to send to people who are keen to see “Birth of the Dragon” right now?
Well, remember that this is not a biopic or a history lesson, it’s more of a kung fu fable or fan fiction that tries to honor the spirit of Bruce Lee. And also, that it’s a fun kung fu movie and you’ll leave the theater smiling!
Can’t fight with that! Well thank you so much Philip, this interview has been an absolute pleasure. We all look forward to seeing your interpretation of Bruce Lee in “Birth of the Dragon”!
My pleasure, and thanks for having me today on Kung Fu Kingdom!