Wushu interview: Antony Szeto

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Former martial arts student and stuntman-turned-director Antony Szeto talks to Edmund Lee about his new film, Wushu

You should never judge a film by its synopsis, it seems. I went into the screening of Wushu privately bemoaning that it was yet another martial arts movie, and came out feeling rather entertained by the film’s down-to-earth charm. Following five childhood friends from the same school of wushu (the art of combat, which is also a performance sport in China) who are training to be the best martial artists in the province, Wushu’s unashamedly straightforward story partly reflects its director’s own history.

“I started working as a stuntman in Australia when I was 19,” says Australian-born Antony Szeto, whose only previous feature-length film was 3D animation DragonBlade, also an action film. “It was a lot of fun… I was young, and it’s a great pickup line when you talk to girls: ‘hey, I’m a stuntman.’ And it works!”

Szeto was introduced to wushu through Jet Li’s movies, and got the chance to meet up with the star when his school in Australia served as the official security for Li’s wushu team. “I was quite impressed by the moves he had, and then I found out that his background was wushu. That’s when I started thinking maybe I should go learn it. A year after that, I enrolled myself in the Beijing Sport University.”

So how much of Wushu’s story reflects his experiences as a student? “The whole subject matter is there because I went to martial arts school. The original story came from that seed in my head, and it developed into a story unto itself. Also, it’s a father-son story maybe because I’m a father of two boys myself.”

Wushu opens with a train journey by a widowed martial arts teacher (Sammo Hung) and his two nine-year-old sons. As a bully refuses to vacate a seat for an elderly lady, the two young boys combine to empty heavy luggage from the seat with consummate skill. This brief prelude sets the tone of the film: obstacles are easily overcome in generally light-hearted fashion, and the characters are so nice and likable that it’s hard to visualise them beating up anyone. In fact, I find the film terribly sweet and innocent. When I tell Szeto this, he just chuckles, “well, the film is aimed at a younger audience.”

Really? “Yes, really. There is an innocence and a simplicity to life in the film. For starters, Wushu is a story about kids growing up. I don’t see it as a martial arts film; I see it as a coming-of-age film. Of course, there’s fighting as it’s set in a martial arts school, but that’s not the main theme. People may want to go and watch beat-‘em-up [from] beginning to end… [but]this is not that sort of film. This is a story-driven film.”

Unlike many martial arts films set in fantasy worlds or as historical period dramas, Wushu has its narrative firmly rooted in reality, and, more importantly, features real-life martial arts champions performing their impressive crafts. “It was part and parcel of the whole idea of the wushu film,” explains Szeto. “When I pitched this film, the one thing I kept emphasising to the investors was ‘I am going to cast real martial artists to play these roles, because it’s going to be real martial arts.’ I want as little wire [work] as possible. And all the executions were done for real, so things like high jumps, the 720-degree twist… they nearly always use wires for those sort of things. We didn’t – those kids really did that stuff.” Szeto adds: “For anybody who is a martial arts fanatic, [watching this film is like] going back to the 1980s when you saw Jackie Chan [who, by the way, executive-produced Wushu] and Jet Li really executing those kicks and fights.”

Speaking of Chan and Li, I put it to Szeto that there is no new generation of Chinese action stars to inherit their mantle. “I think people are always looking for surprises in that somebody who’s going to be a star,” he says. “When Jackie Chan came around, he had comedy martial arts that wasn’t [being] done anywhere [else] – so he had his thing and he went up. Jet Li had wushu – up to that time nobody [had] ever seen wushu before – and he went up. So my guess on what’s going to happen is, the next martial arts star will be somebody who’s going to take a new twist, who’s got something no one’s seen before.”

Such as? “From a Jackie Chan interview – I could hear him very clearly and I agree – it could be somebody who puts in song and dance, cause there’s the hip-hop culture and all that. So if somebody who’s a great fighter can also really move to music, and talk the talk, walk the walk, perhaps that’s the next star in the making.”

Wushu is in cinemas now: Broadway, Grand.

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