RONIN AT LARGE: An Interview With Sunny Pang
|Photo: Arnold Wells|
Thankfully, friend and one of Canada's best stuntmen, Alex Chung took to this year's Toronto International Film Fest to screen Headshot for a review on our site. I also recommended it as a chance for him to meet Pang and the cast and unfortunately their meeting was too brief in the midst of the electricity in the room for them to have a proper chat, and I, for one, hope that gets rectified before long.
Sunny Pang: This year has been good to me, all thanks to 'Mo brothers for giving me to play a leading role in Headshot as Lee! I couldn't thank Timo Tjahjanto enough for giving me this opportunity, and I also feel fortunate to work with Iko Uwais and his team, and the other cast members as well! Aint it cool! [laughs]
A few months ago, I got to travel to Toronto International Film Fest and Fantastic Fest and make some new friends. I didn't know what to expect from audience's reaction with Headshot but it turns out to be a monster! They loved it which made my time in Texas and Canada all the more memorable. I, myself, was even excited to see the film because I have never played this big a role before and with big names, so there was some pressure to it - but I told myself that I could do this and do my best to not screw it up...and then I did! [laughs] I torn my right cuff muscle and brought whole shoot to a halt last year, and it felt real shitty but everyone was cool about it. After a month's rest, I went back and finished off my scenes for the final fight. I saw it for myself on the big screen, I was really happy with how well all the hard work we endured paid off, and on top of my injury and recovery thereafter. It was awesome and made this year great looking back on it all. I'm so very proud, pleased and humbled.
SP: Well, I started way back in 1993, first acting for televsion. Once I completed my mandatory two years of National Service (Army) - which every Singaporean boy is required by when they turn 18, my brother, who ran a talent agency at the time, asked me to join in and have fun, and so I did...just to try it out and see what is it like to be in front of the camera.
My first bit TV screen time... hmm....it's a blast from the past. I was sort of an extra and the director asked me to listen to a walkmen and sing some songs and so I did. The camera was just right in front of me and when he called "action", I just started singing "Be With You" by Mr. Big! It was the only song I could think of at the time [laughs].
Afterwards, I needed some money and so I took up another part-time job at a 7Eleven which didn't go very well, and so I end up working a full-time job for my brother-in-law at a travel agency as a ticketing officer. By then my phone started ringing again and the TV station representing a Chinese drama called me to the set to do some acting; Only on a certain occasions I would go back for an acting job until one fine day while I was doing some stretching, a Hong Kong stunt director walked up to me and ask me if I knew martial arts. I told him yes, and he added that they were looking for stuntman and recommended me to take some interest in joining them and give him a call. Needless to say, I did!
|Photo: Amandi Wong|
That moment was the start of a new career path for me as a part-time stuntman and a Grade D part-time actor in Chinese drama until early 1999 when I decided to quit show business because the roles I was given never allowed room for improvement or growth, and the stunt work potential kept dwindling. So I quit and went off to work as a bouncer for clubs, and soon after one year I became chief of security for a high-end club called "Club Eden" and I was even running security for a few clubs afterwards, but it didn't last for long.
In 2003, a celebrity friend of mine introduced me to a director who was also looking for an actor to fill in for an actor to play a foul-mouthed pimp in a movie called Perth A Geylang Massacre. That incidentally reignited my interest into acting again, and this time the big screen. I quit bouncing and went all out to try out different roles from short films, indie films and art films and in 2009, I was nominated for Best Performance at the Singapore film awards, so everything pretty much snowballed up to where I am now.
SP: Basically, anything that will get my mood going but I still prefer tunes from 80's, 90's and early 2000s. I use it to motivate myself or apply it to my acting when needed - I guess music does play a key role in every one of us. It will move us, cool us down, enrage or simply motivate!
SP: Martial arts has taught me many things about life itself and I used it during my years doing nightclub security. In terms of application and philosophy, I'm also a big fan of Sun Tzu: The Art of War and Miyamoto Musashi's Book Of Five Rings - those, too, taught me a lot of life lessons; Martial arts can be devastating if it is applied with one's own corrupt perspective - Things like bullying, for example, which I saw with my own eyes during my years in doing security, although one incident didn't turn out well for that one person who was abusing it at the expense of someone who had no experience with it.
Admittedly, even I have abused it at some point during those years in club security which I regret doing. I was young and naive at that time, and as such, I tended to allow my ego and emotions cloud my judgment. How dumb is that!?
So, I use what I read from those 2 books and learned to apply it on the job, and it really helped me, perfectly.
"The ultimate aim of martial art is not having to use them"
~Miyamoto Musashi's Book of Five Rings
"The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting"
~Sun Tzu's The Art of War
With fighting styles, there are many that I like but they are either too expensive or I don't have the money to really pay for the lessons, and some are not even available in Singapore! Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Knife fighting, Kenjutsu, KFM, Krav Maga and Tai Chi - I hope in the near future I will get to learn these forms of martial arts. They are practical and straight forward means of self-defense which I like, and as for Tai Chi, especially, to understand the universe around you also plays a part of inducing one's own harmony which is something I really admire.
I have trained boxing, kickboxing and Shan Shou, traditional Chinese martial arts and weapons like the Broadsword and Staff. I do have a bit of knowledge on Muay Thai, knife fighting and stick fighting but it's not complete. As for regular training, sometimes I retrain myself with whatever I have learned but also do research on other martial arts styles.
SP: The most memorable moment for me was the near death experience that I had during shooting a scene for Chinese drama back in 1998 - the a final death scene.
It featured my character fighting with the main character, a cop, and in the course of that sequence we are both left holding onto a firehose at about five or eight floors high from a high-rise building. The cop successfully fights my character off and I descend down to the ground...but here is what happened: I was wired up for the stunt - I was in character, acting and performing the stunt as we tested the wire. It was one thin cable rig from my harness, and we tested it before and it was okay at first.
We started rolling cameras and they yelled "action", and the wire team held onto rope and began running while holding on to rope that was attached to the thin cable rigged onto my harness. The first take was alright as my feet were barely touching the small mats placed on the floor and those mats were intergral to my safety during that stunt fall. Everyone was pretty calm and didn't have much concern over anything that could possibly happen to that thin cable...but shit did happen!
We set up the stunt again and the wire work team pulled me back up to the same height as before, but about halfway up, I felt the thin cable make a small snap as if it were going to break off. Still, I brushed it off and convinced myself not to make such a big deal out of nothing. So, cameras began rolling and they yell "action" and the same routine, the wire team running while holding onto the rope while I act out the fall for the camera...only right then and there it no longer felt like I was pretending. The thin cable I vaguely felt snap actually SNAPPED and I fell full force onto the mats! I remember it clearly, reaching down to the mats during the stunt and then suddenly free falling flat onto my back. One of the wirework guys yelled in the background shouting that the thin cable snapped and one of the rollers or pulleys somehow hit one of the wirework team members's shins because of the pulling tension forcing it to yank back!
I was stunned for a moment! I sat upright and looked up and realized how fatal that could have been if the cable broke sooner. I walked over to look at the wirework team members to see if one of the female memebers was okay. She was crying like crazy because the roller nearly took her shins off, but I guess all her muay Thai training paid off for this moment [laughs]. She survived and she is tougher than I thought, and as bad as that stunt went, remarkably it didn't stop me from doing stunts or acting, and the following few weeks later I went and did a scene I did a scene involving getting me knocking down by a van while rolling down a cliff!
It does make an impact on me and it humbles me even more with the knowledge that life can be seconds away from death with just a snap of a finger..or in what could have been this case, the snap of a wire. So that really humbled me and gave more perspective about life!
SP: Well after those few weeks, I just went back to work without even thinking about happened that incident. Everyone was cool about it, but I did ask about the female wirework team member I spoke to and how she was. My stunt director said to me that she was okay and they brought her back to Hong Kong for a medical retreat, so I was then back to work as usual.
That night when I returned to work, I had to roll down a hill, run out to the road and hit by a Van, guess what, I injured my right side rib cage during the stunt getting hit by the van and it was on the 3rd take! [laughs] I guess you can called making up for lost time!
SP: I wish I can heal fast like Wolverine a little more then being a Human cyborg [laughs]! The fact is that I still feel pain but only when I reached home. All is fair and it's just another day at the office!
SP: I met Timo Tjahjanto back in about 2013 in Singapore, I was introduced to Timo by one of our mutual friends, Andrew Suleiman via Facebook if I am not wrong. Back then then we were talking about making The Night Comes For Us when it was in development and Timo wanted me to be part of it, and so I waited for a year or so until finally the day came and I met Gareth Evans, Iko, Joe Taslim and Yayan Ruhian.
I went for training and rehearsals on The Night Comes For Us for few months in, but unfortunately during the final stage of pre-production something went wrong and the film was put on hold. I don't know what the actual reason was but I guess luck was not on our side during then. It was all disappointing and I was very disappointed receiving the news as did the team. So before I went back to Singapore the night before, Timo came over to meet me and gave me his word that whatever he is doing for his next project will include me, and I basically told him that no matter what happens I was happy to have made so many friends and I appreciated that he has included me in this project, and to call me in the future and that I would be there. Lo and behold, after a year later, he buzzed me on WhatsApp and told me of his latest project at the time, Headshot and he had a role for me as the main, badass villain fighting Iko Uwais. I said, "Great! Let's lock and load man!" ...And the rest is History!
SP: I play the role of a drug lord named Lee, a man with a twisted mind who kidnaps kids and trains them to become his killing machines and to build his empire as the most notorious in the region. Basically a father from hell! [laughs]
SP: I don't speak Bahasa but most of the cast and some of the crew do speak English, so communication wasn't too much of a problem. Others among the crew don't really speak English but we were still able to understand each pretty easy as a team working together on Headshot.
Speaking of Iko Uwais, he is a down to Earth person and easy to work with. He is also a very focus person once the camera starts rolling but occasionally Iko likes to joke around which is great, and even through tight schedule shoots. He even landed was injured during the shoot, but he still keep himself pretty cool and there was no pressure. Absoutely none. Me, Iko and his team guys became close friends. Our levity and chemistry were fantastic and I am looking forward to working with him and his team again.
SP: Yep, my calf muscle tore while shooting the final fight scene with Iko. The doctor advised me not do any more big movements and I needed to rest for like a good two months before commit to shooting again. I didn't listen and instead, I went ahead after a month rest to shoot the final fight scene. It didn't change much of the choreography, save for only some minor adjustments - basically what you see on screen is 98% of the actual intial choreography for the final fight.
SP: Ah! The Collector with James Lee, old friend of mine! He was the one who started off everything for me being in action flicks. To this day I still want to work with him someday on an action film although luck has not reached our doorstep yet. Still, I believe someday it will happen.
With Headshot, that was really a game changer. In term of scale, storyline and action, it took to a whole new level reaching worldwide audiences and I never thought would happen with me, per se. Nonetheless, I wanted to work on something that people can remember and appreciate with the craft that I have to offer and wanted to believe somehow that it happen, and now my career is really moving up a notch. Still, reality is not all friendly because no tree grows overnight, but surely I felt like going all out to make it happen, trying my best to climb to the top of the mountain.
The best thing of all... I got to make new friends during production of Headshot, working with Mo Brothers and producers, interact with the audiences and make new friends at the festivals that I went to, and also learned new things about filmmaking. It is a rewarding trip for me on this journey with Headshot and I appreciate this opportunity that was given to me by Timo Tjahanto and Kimo Stamboel, and for their trust in me and my performance for a fine film that I hope fans will love, and I am looking forward collaborating with the 'Mo Brothers again very soon.
SP: Exactly! And I cannot say what role in case you're wondering but I can honestly say it is freaking awesome!
Can you tell us about it?
SP: Diamond Dogs! It's a project that me and director Gavin Lim had been waiting to work together on for the past one year, it's a low budget indie action drama flick about a debt collector who found himself having cancer and he is trying to earn more money for his stepdaughter as well as pay back his own debts. The doctor that he goes to recommend he partake in underground fighting to earn cash only to find out that he is fighting for something way more than money.
My Ronin guys are involved as well, but there's a challenge for the director, myself and Ronin, which is to shoot a film within a limited amount of time and budget. I take it as a challenge and so far it's been smooth.
SP: Having been a stunt person, I feel that I need to use whatever I have done and learned before and put it to good use. So I set out to I find a group of individual people to come together and form Ronin Action Group! One of them is Jun Wen, a former member of STAR (Special Tactics and Rescue Singapore Police) something like you could say "SWAT". The other guys are is John and he's a former DART member (Disaster Assistant and Rescue Singapore Civil Defence Force) which he went over to Aceh Indonesia to Rescue and recovering, and Aaron, a former pro Muay Thai fighter that fought in Thailand and MMA in Europe and has a 12-2-2 record.
Most of the team are martial artists and some of them were my former students who have fought before in real life. However, living in Singapore is very expensive so it's like an extra income for them and they love fighting on screen, so why not? And we also train actors and actresses who want to learn how to fight on screen as well.
Ronin Action Group is now pretty active, having done some TV shows and a few feature films though nothing big-scale yet, but there are things coming up and brewing as we speak.
SP: Yes I did. I competed in boxing during my army days but I got knocked out in my second match during my quarterfinal round. Then in 1995 I joined the Nah Wah Pai Martial Association Sparring Competition and I became champion and after that, I took rest for a year. There was also the Singapore National ShanShou competition which I trained for but I an accident happened where I was doing a stage show for Nah Wah Pai where I used to train and dislocated my right shoulder dislocated. I was one month away from the competition and this happens! So I was told not to go on and on the same day I broke up with my girlfriend! [laughs], ah well, shit happens.
After that, I never competed again but instead I opened up a kickboxing sub-club for Nah Wah Pai before ultimately leaving Nai Wah Pai in 2001 due to a conflict of interest.
SP: I believe I would be dealing with security line kind of work if I am not working on my current career. Apart from that, I probably wouldn't change anything because I have come so far out with all the work I have done. I love playing different roles, being in different situations and environments, meeting different people, living out different stories, I kinda love it! Whether I play a protagonist or as an antagonist, it doesn't matter, as long I like the story or role, I will go for it. Why? Well, as an actor and in my view, we are pretty much immortal. Whether we grow old or pass on, we are pretty much alive on screen still, no matter what. People remember you for what you have done on screen [laughs]. It's sounds pretty silly maybe.
SP: Well, there's not much of action on film in Singapore but there are some people trying which is a good thing. The action genre is not as easy as everyone think it is, and people in Singapore are rather new to this but not for me and my Ronin team are risk-takers and we will be going all out to do it!
There are somethings in the mix which I can't disclose yet until the paperwork is signed. Really, I do wish to do more action films with my guys, although I don't wish for us to be bottlenecked into doing strictly action projects or films with just entertaining action, rather. There must be a soul to it!
SP: The hardest part is when I am at the airport and knowing that I will be away from my family for weeks or months, but I know it's for the best. Sacrifices need to be made or there's no future ahead for us, even if it means my kids asking me "When are you coming back?" and "I'm going to miss you!" It stops me in my tracks and gets me everytime they say those things, though luckily I manage to correspond with them and I can Skype with them whenever I'm in the hotel for hours and hours. Thank GOODNESS for Skype! [laughs]
Whenever I finish work, the first thing I do is go online and Skype with my family and see their faces. It always put me at ease and the day passes easier for me. The bad part, really, is having to tell my wife when I am injured; Moments like back in 2011 when I shifted my back during a fight scene from a fall that I did for The Collector, and the same year with my knee from a wirework stunt fall on the set of Petaling Street Warriors just a few months later. It swelled like a balloon. I Skyped with my wife and she knew somehow that I was injured because she can read it all over my face! [laughs] She has strong intuition when it comes to me, although it's hard for her still because she gets worried sick, but I do tell her that it's fine and I can handle pressure.
A few days later again on Petaling Street Warriors, I got kick in the face twice by accident and my nose bled, so she was like "What? Again!?! What happen to your nose!???", and I said to her "Occupational hazard!" [laughs].
After that, she grew accustomed to all these injury of mine, knowing that my line of work does carry risks. Sometimes she did try to recommend me to just act in more drama projects with less physical risk, but I told her, and she knows as well, this is part of what I love to do too. I am not young anymore and so if I don't do it now, I might not get the chance to do it, especially with all the trust people invest in me. She knows and understands how important this is to me and all that and I truly love her for it.
At any rate, when I go home, it's always fantastic. Life is simple. I have family - brothers and friends, martial arts, films, other work and PC Playstation games! [laughs] I love it. I love my life and my family.
SP: [laughs] My son has trained in Aikido before but he took a long break cause of his primary exams and never continued, but aside from it, I taught him basic boxing, kicking, takedowns and ground-and-pound, which he ended up putting to good use one day. He was his way to school on the bus when he was being bullied by a boy and he had enough, so he took the bully down and defendee himself. The school principal called me and told me what happened, and after bringing my boy back home and I telling his mother about it, as his father I had to question him and I asked him WHY! He told me that the boy was being a bully. His mother stated to him that he shouldn't be fighting in school no matter what, but I defended him and I said NO, and that boys should fight for what's right!
His mother walked off and I turn to my boy and ask him, did you win or lose? He said he used the takedown and ground-and-pound that I taught him. I had a big old smile on my face when I heard that! [laughs]. I asked my son why he needed to fight, and he basically told me that the bully had been harassing him since the first week of school and he had enough, and decided to take him out. My son told me how he tried to walk away and follow what I told him but that bully kept on harassing him. I have also taught my son beforehand to defend himself physically as a last resort before the problem snowballs and too much. And yeah, he did what I said! [laughs]
I show my son PrideFC, UFC, Boxing, Muay Thai and Shanshou fights from time to time, but nowadays he is more interested in parkour and hopes one day to join the special forces. I acknowledged him and basically said "Your choice.".
SP: My girls are not into any martial arts yet but they love music and dancing so maybe someday they will pick it up by watching my movies or being inspired by other martial artists. I guess, basically, let nature run it course and see what happens!
My girls have been a big fan of my work especially in our local TV series, Code of Law which ran 3 seasons. They saw the Headshot trailer and asked me when it was coming out because they wanted to watch it, but I am not sure should I let them since it has so much content that isn't for young children and kids. [laughs]
SP: I will be going to Indonesia for the premiere there but I am not sure about other territories as for now. However, I do hope to go to the U.S. again so I can meet some more of friends in the states and of course you, my man Lee B Golden! I will hope I can meet up with you and have a good chat over coffee! You never know!! [laughs]
SP: Thank you for this interview, Lee! I really hope that I go to the states and meet you! Let's keep our finger cross, and no matter what and for all those who are age-appropriate and love action on film with a great story, please check out Headshot! I hope you and more people from the states will like it! Enjoy and thank you once again!