Over the course of his nearly 20-year career in Hong Kong action movies, Philip Ng has run the full gamut of action movie-making, from stunts, to choreography, to leading man. Throughout his career, he’s worked with some of the all time greats of the business, including Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-ping, and Donnie Yen.
Western audiences know him best as Ma Yongzhen in “Once Upon A Time In Shanghai”, and for his portrayal of Bruce Lee in the Hollywood movie “Birth of the Dragon”. Phil’s latest Hong Kong vehicle to debut in the West is his 2019 movie “Undercover Punch and Gun”.
Alongside his friends, Andy On and Vanness Wu of “Ip Man 4: The Finale”, Philip flexes his strengths in both designing and executing action in a throwback to the ‘golden era’ of 80’s and 90’s Hong Kong movies that inspired him to jump into the business many years ago.
Today, Philip sits down with KFK to share a look into the making of “Undercover Punch and Gun”; of going through the wringer to make the movie, along with more of the challenges he and others in the Hong Kong film industry have faced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
He also gives a far deeper-dive, and personal insights, such as when he worked alongside legendary action king, Sammo Hung that you won’t want to miss! So, without further ado, please welcome Philip Ng!
Hi Philip, welcome back to Kung Fu Kingdom! Great to talk to you again, and hope you’ve been keeping well during the pandemic?
Hi Brad, glad to be here again, I’m doing well, thanks!
Philip on KFK’s Mission
Awesome! Well, before we dive in, our mission is to encourage 100 million people around the world to get into martial arts for all the positive benefits that it brings to individuals, physically, mentally and socially – what do you think about this goal?
I think it’s great! I think it’s important to get the martial arts culture correct, and there’s so many facets of martial arts, whether it’s combat, health, exercise, or entertainment.
There are a lot of different ways that martial arts can be used in a very beneficial way, and I’m very fortunate to be able to do that in different aspects, so having a platform like Kung Fu Kingdom to disseminate that is great.
Latest Movie: Undercover Punch & Gun
That’s definitely our goal! Okay, well, let’s kick off with how you became involved with the martial-arts, crime thriller “Undercover Punch and Gun”?
It was my project, I was one of the producers on it. Andy, Vanness and I all met on “Star Runner”, and it was a first for everybody.
It was the first time I was hired as an assistant choreographer, Andy won the Best Newcomer Award, and it was Vanness’ first big role in an action movie. It was a first for all of us, we were like freshmen in high school, and we all kind of stuck together after that.
Highly Influenced by 80’s & 90’s Hong Kong Movies
We always used to talk about movies from 80’s and 90’s Hong Kong that influenced us, and that’s part of the reason why I’m here making movies.
I was working on a movie that was produced by Charlie Wong, and I’m always vocal about my ambitions and intents, and he said, “Hey, do you have an idea for a movie with your friends?” And I said “Yeah, I do, and it’s in the vein of 80’s and 90’s action movies that’s kind of tongue-in-cheek.”
We went through a few directors and a few scripts, and we finally landed on working with Lui Koon-nam and Frankie Tam. They were first-time directors, but they’re very prolific, in terms of script writing, and they’re very good storytellers. I was in charge of all the action, and once it got to that point, it was just about involving all my brothers and getting everybody involved in making it.
So, what’s a standout story that you can tell us about the making of the movie?
There’s a lot of stories, man! It was an arduous journey for me. I was wearing a lot of hats, and it was the first time I’ve done something like that.
I have to thank Charlie Wong and Gordon Chan, the two other producers, helping with the financing and Gordon just bringing his legitimacy to the project from stuff like “Fist of Legend”.
Getting Ribs Broken by Andy On
I think the most memorable thing was that Andy broke two of my ribs making this movie, and I had to finish it with two broken ribs. We shot pretty much in-sequence, which is very rare, but it was just lucky that it worked out with the locations and everything like that.
When we got to the ending, Andy fights me, and there’s a sequence of moves that ends with a back kick. There was some misunderstanding with the props, and they weren’t able to get the stunt shoes with the softer padding on the sole ready for Andy in time. Those still don’t feel good, but they won’t break your ribs!
Andy was wearing thick boots, and we just decided to go ahead with it, and it just so happens that Andy slipped a little bit, and I lifted my hands to block, but instead of kicking me high, he caught me in the ribs. I didn’t fully know he’d cracked my ribs at first, because I’ve done that before, but I kind of felt like I had. I told my assistant “I think I broke my ribs, but don’t tell anybody!” (Both laugh)
The Show Must Go On…
We kept shooting, and I even did a wire shot after that where they pulled me into a wall really hard, but I was still okay. But then, I went into the make-up trailer, and because I was sweaty, I took off my shirt, got a blast of air conditioning and I started sneezing. On my first sneeze, I felt a pop, and it was gone. I told my boys to come in and check me out, and they said, “Oh, Phil, I think you need to go get an X-ray, and lo and behold, I had broken one rib and cracked another!
A Stomach Infection Causes Muscle Loss
People were telling me I should stop production for a bit, and I said “I can’t, all the locations are locked in, we’re doing the ending, and we don’t have money for pick-ups.” You can see that I’m pretty buff at the beginning of the movie, but I kind of shrink and shrink, because I got caught with some kind of stomach infection and I was puking a lot.
Desperation Causes You to Endure What You Need to
So the last week of production was full of all of that, so that was very tough, but you know, it’s testament to how desperation causes you to kind of endure what you need to endure. I learned a lot from that experience as an action director of what to do and not do, and I’m planning to do more. So I definitely learned how to make life a lot easier!
On Working with Best Buddy, Andy On
Was that your first time doing a fight scene with Andy where you were injured? You guys have done quite a lot together.
Yeah, he’s my best bud. I’ve fought him a lot and choreographed a lot of his movies, and that’s really the only time I’ve gotten injured doing it. Sometimes it’s nice when I go in for a choreography gig that I’m not acting in, because I can focus all on creating the action, but they still usually have me do a scene or two.
Like in “Zombie Fight Club”, they made me fight him for a scene. (Both laugh). But that’s the only time I’ve ever gotten hurt working with Andy, and it wasn’t really his fault. There was just a miscommunication with the props department, and I decided to just go ahead, and we were limited on time, so we didn’t have that much choice.
That really harkens back to the 80’s and 90’s, the reason why those movies are so good is because they’re so raw because of budget and technical limitations.
Bringing Back that Visceral Feeling
Even with a bigger budget and more ways of cheating certain things, I think I still would’ve shot it the way that I did with Vanness on top of a car, Andy shooting guns in people’s faces and me getting punched and kicked in the stomach.
I want that visceral feeling, a lot of movies today, they hire a pop star, train him for two weeks, and put him in an action role. People can tell, especially kung fu lovers, but I think when you see people like me and Andy fight, it’s aesthetically more pleasing, so we’re trying to put more of that out there.
So, what would you say is your favorite action scene or stunt in “Undercover Punch and Gun”?
I’m especially proud of the knife fight scene that Vanness did. We didn’t have a lot of time for it, but I gave them a lot of freedom with that. Andy, Vanness, and I all knew who our characters were, and what we had to play, but I gave them a lot of freedom in terms of what they wanted to do and how they wanted to portray their action.
Andy really likes guns, so I said, “Alright, Andy, you get to do cool gun-fu work!” And Vanness was like “I want to jump around and stuff”, so I said “Okay, let’s do some parkour.” When it came to the knife fight, he really wanted to use a Balisong, and “Well, those are hard to use, I can barely use one!” And he said, “Yeah, I’ve been training with it since I was a kid.” So I gave him a few weeks to practice, and he showed me some tricks that were pretty complex, and I said “Okay, let’s keep that in there.”
I tried to also make it aesthetically pleasing but also plausible, which is what I like to do with my choreography. My big influences are Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung, because the stuff they do, everything is stylistic but also plausible, where you see and understand if someone is skilled enough, they can do that in a fight. It’s like a helicopter armbar, it’s a technique that would rarely be used in competition, but someone really good can probably do it, so that’s the kind of choreography I like to do.
Andy came into the Hong Kong film industry as a beginner and has become a pretty talented martial artist, but does Vanness come from a martial arts background, or did he learn that for the movie?
Well, neither of them really had much of a martial arts background before making movies, but Andy is super-athletic and great at learning things on the fly. It took me like a month to get a 720-degree kick down, but after teaching it to Andy, he learned it in three days. I’ve been training since I was a kid, but Andy’s a quick learner!
Vanness is just a hard worker. He does things like wall-flips and all kinds of stuff all by himself. I told him the direction I wanted to take his character in, and he was in Taiwan at the time and I was in Hong Kong. So he put it upon himself to go train for a month so when he was on the set, we were ready.
On Being an Actor, Choreographer, Stuntman & Director
Is being an action director a role you’d like to continue with?
Well, throughout the almost twenty years of my career, I’ve been doing both acting and choreography. Before I was a choreographer, I was a stuntman, and then I was doing acting and doubling work at the same time, then I got upgraded to choreographer and then action director.
For my own movies, I’d actually rather do the choreography for that, because unless it’s someone I’m dying to work with like Yeun Woo-ping, or Sammo Hung, I think I choreograph for myself a little bit better, because I know my abilities. I think it’s the same for Andy, and Vanness, because I know them so well and we’ve worked together so many times.
Working with Yuen Woo-ping
You worked with some of the best in the business; Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen, Yuen Woo-ping etc. What have you learned from the different experiences of filming action with them?
I learned a lot working with Yuen Woo-ping on several projects, but obviously, the one we worked the closest on was “Once Upon A Time In Shanghai”. There’s a lot of rules in filmmaking that are made, so that when the movie is edited together, it feels really smooth for the audience.
However sometimes, you break the rules because that might make things look better in that case. There was one where the director, the DP, and I all thought “Okay, this punch should come from here”, but he looked at it for 30 seconds or so and said “No, it should come from the other side of the camera.” And we’re all like, “Alright, you’re the master, you did ‘Drunken Master’ and ‘The Matrix’!”
Or just “Insert kung-fu classic here”!
Yeah, and you see in the final edit, he’s absolutely right. And it’s not a big, big, big deal, but little things like that. It’s a testament to someone’s experience, because you don’t learn that in school, but just by making billions of movies.
Working with Sammo Hung
Sammo, in Hong Kong, is known as “Dai Goh Dai”, which means “Big Brother Big”, he’s just known as the senior guy. And I’ve worked with other famous people in the business where people work well together in the moment, and then kind of chuckle at each other behind their backs. But not Sammo, because everyone respects Sammo. He can probably do your job better than you, even if you’re just doing lighting or sound design, he knows every aspect of movie making.
Sammo Respects a Person’s Given Role
The cool thing about that is when he’s the director, he’s very strict, which is well known, but when he’s an actor, he will not impede on your position, which he could do and no one would say anything.
I’ve known other actors and other action stars who will really intrude on your filming or choreography, which is fine if they’re good ideas, but sometimes, they cross the line.
In movies I’ve been in with Sammo where we’re just actors, when other people are choreographing for him, he says nothing. He’ll laugh and maybe make a few jokes, but he’s very cooperative, and that’s something I really admire. Sometimes, when I’m on set and I’m not the choreographer, I feel the need to put in my two cents, but I know where to draw the line because of guys like Sammo.
Philip Ng’s Love Affair with “Drunken Master”
What is your all-time favourite martial-arts movie?
My top, top favourite, for many reasons, is “Drunken Master”. I remember watching it on VHS when I first immigrated to America as a kid, and back then, I was wondering “How do I find my own cultural identity and be proud of who I am?” And it was through kung fu.
My dad was a big, big kung-fu movie fan, and he used to watch movies with me and point out not whoever was in the lead, but everyone besides him.
He’d be pointing out, “Oh that guy, he knows Preying Mantis” or “That guy, he’s a Judo black belt, and we used to party together.” And I used to think “I wish I could be one of those guys”, and not even the main guy, but somebody where some kid’s dad tells him “Look, that guy Phil, he’s good at kung fu, man.”
The Perfect Kung Fu Movie…
He used to rent films, and one he brought home was “Drunken Master”, and I think that’s the perfect kung fu movie. All the tropes are there, and everything is done perfectly. You have the naughty student who’s based on a real historical figure, and you have the strict-but-funny, strange, kung fu master where you have to kind of find out about his past, and then the main super-villain (Hwang Jang Lee) who does crazy kicks.
It’s super funny, and the rhythm of the fights might not be what people are used to now, but it’s still amazing.
If you ask Andy his favourite, he’ll say “Drunken Master II”, and I love that era, but the first “Drunken Master” influenced me so much. When they did lines in Chinese back then, they also used to rhyme, everything would be like a little poem.
I remember Yuen Cheung-yan, Yuen Woo-ping’s brother, was reciting the lines on set once on a movie we were on, and I had to correct him because I knew it so well (both laugh)!
So that’s testament to my love of “Drunken Master”, and you can imagine my fanboyism when I filmed a movie with these guys, but especially something like “Once Upon A Time In Shanghai” with Yuen Woo-ping!
I remember seeing that first teaser for it with the red background like from Shaw Brothers, with all the guys dropping in, and just thinking “Whoa…when is this coming out?!”
Fun & Leisure
So moving to fun and leisure now, what’s one geeky or interesting thing that people don’t know about you?
I think everyone knows how geeky I am! (Both laugh) I’m a big comic book nerd, I’m the most knowledgeable nerd ever, really! Van’s pretty nerdy too, but every time there’s a superhero movie, there’s a huge discussion where I explain everything to Andy and Van, which is great, I love it.
I remember being on set when “Avengers: Endgame” had just come out, and I was pulling aside other cast members and telling everyone else “Hey, we’re talking about the ending, spoilers, don’t come over!” And of course, I have a Shang-Chi poster right over my shoulder.
Shang-Chi: An Asian Superhero…Finally!
When I was young, I didn’t have a lot of friends outside of kung fu people, and I read a lot of comics and played a lot of role-playing games, and my friends were big on Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man.
My mother bought me a volume of the Marvel Universe Encyclopedia and it had an entry on Shang-Chi in it. And I remember thinking, “This is great, but if they ever make a movie about this, they’ll probably get someone else!” (Both laugh)
I hope Simu Liu kills it though and knocks it out of the park. It’s good to have an Asian superhero out now.
Goes to show just how big superhero movies have gotten, keen to see Shang-Chi on the big-screen later this year…
Perfect question to segue into here, if you could be a superhero, who would you be and what superpower would you most like to have?
I think I’d like to be like Wolverine and have regenerative powers.
As you get older, you start having more problems with your body, and you just start to think “Man, I wish I could be like Wolverine and just grow stuff back – but without the Adamantium, so I don’t get metal poisoning!”
Philip’s Future Goals
Good idea! So, what other dreams, goals and ambitions are you keen to accomplish?
I think at this stage in my career, I’m focusing more on production and producing. Every goal I’ve set out to accomplish I’ve achieved, and I didn’t have it easy. I’d been in the business for 8 years before I had my first leading role, and some people wait even longer.
I think my childhood dream of people pointing at me and saying, “Oh, that guy is good at kung fu”, that’s happened to me on the street with kids coming up to me, and it’s very rewarding.
I also wanted to establish a relationship with Andy and Vanness that would be, if I may be so bold, akin to Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung. They make movies on their own, but when they make one together, you’re preeeety excited about it! I think when the three of us get together, a lot of people kind of think back to “Once Upon A Time In Shanghai” when Andy and I were in it.
As you know, I also played Bruce Lee in “Birth of the Dragon”, and that wasn’t really a goal, but it was a great experience. I’ve worked in TV and done choreography, so everything I’ve really set out to do, I’ve done. Right now, I think I’m focusing more on production, producing movies for myself and being a content creator.
The Covid Effect
Especially in times like now with COVID, when you’re a content creator, it’s easier to control your destiny a little bit, and with streaming services, no matter where you are, I can film here and sell my product to Netflix or Amazon or streaming services in Asia.
That’s mainly what I’m working on right now, and because of COVID, a few of my projects have been postponed or just flat-out cancelled, which is a blessing in disguise. For the last several months, me and my writing partner have been developing at least five projects, and we’re in the midst of shopping them around.
My goal is to start actual production, principal photography before the end of the year, and I’m confident by the way things are going that we can do that. I don’t ask for high budgets, but I think I can give pretty good value for what people do give us.
So perhaps “Once Upon A Time In Shanghai” where we see Ma Yongzhen break out of jail…
(Both laugh). I don’t know if that’s gonna happen, but maybe a fan-fiction film!
Right before COVID hit, I was also actually back in the States around Chinese New Year, and I was supposed to head back to Hong Kong in February last year to start working on some projects. But those all got postponed for good reason, and I ended up staying in the States for about 8 months.
I’ve had a few things come out since like, “Once Upon A Time In Hong Kong” that I did choreography for, and right now, I’m just focusing on developing these projects. God willing, I should go into at least pre-production by the end of the year.
Warrior Wisdom: Don’t Miss All That Heavenly Glory
Well, we wish you all the best of luck with that, and hopefully, the pandemic will be under control enough by then. So, what warrior-wisdom or philosophical quote has helped you become who you are today?
I think, especially now with COVID, Bruce Lee’s quote in “Enter the Dragon”, “It’s like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” I think that’s an important quote right now, to focus on what’s important, and everything that’s not, is going to keep you from your goals or from observing the beauty in your life.
It’s harder than ever to do that, but at the same time, I think it’s more important than ever to do exactly that. That kind of wisdom never gets old, but I think it’s especially significant now.
Philip’s Message to Kung Fu Kingdom Followers
Yes, absolutely! Well, as we sign off Philip, what special message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom followers and your fans around the world right now?
I’d just like to say to fans of martial arts to continue supporting kung fu movies and movies with action. I think 87Eleven had to shop “John Wick” around to eleven studios before they got to Lionsgate, and thank God for guys like them, because they’re opening the market for guys like us.
I also know some of the guys involved in “The Paper Tigers”, and it’s a lower budget movie, but a lot of people have really liked it. I think kung fu movies carry a universal language, and movement is a universal language.
Everyone knows what it’s like to bump your head on something or want to punch someone in the face. Those emotions and actions are universal, and I think kung fu movies can bridge the gap between different cultures whilst also spreading a message worth spreading.
Very well said, Philip! Thank you so much for the privilege of speaking again today, it’s been a real pleasure. We’re looking forward to hear about the progress of your forthcoming action projects in 2021. Keep in touch, xie xie!
My pleasure Brad, and thanks for having me again on Kung Fu Kingdom!