From Sith Lord To Hitman: This Singapore Stuntman Aspires To Be The Next Donnie Yen
STORY: Farhan Shafie
24 September 2020
Fighting with knives? Check. Twirling a lightsaber? Check. Hand-to-hand combat as a hitman? Double check. It's all in a day's work for 23-year-old action choreographer, martial arts actor and film producer Jonathan Cheong.
He might have only ORD-ed from National Service this year, but Jonathan already has 7 film projects under his belt and started his own production company Raging Fire Productions.
If that's not enough, his martial arts short film "Coalition" was nominated for 2 Film Festival Official Selections and he most recently starred as a Sith Lord in a Star Wars fan film where he choreographed his own lightsaber fight scenes. It gained much fanfare and approval from the local media and even the notoriously hard-to-please Star Wars community. So wait, what were you guys doing at 23, again?
We sat down with the rising star to talk about his own action heroes, battling stigma as a stuntman in Singapore and how he willed his aspirations into existence by embodying the age-old mantra, "just whack only".
What inspired you to get into action choreography?
I’ve always been fascinated by martial arts movies starring the likes of Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen. Whenever I watch them on screen, I dream of being like them. The thought of being an actor and a star has always been at the back of my mind since I was a young kid.
But once I was in polytechnic in 2015, it really starts to hit you when everyone asks “What kind of career do you want to pursue?” It becomes sort of a reality check. That was the catalyst for me to tell myself “Why not follow in the footsteps of my idols and pursue fight coordination and see how it goes?” And next thing I know, it’s been 4-5 years of this.
How did you translate that dream into reality?
I had no film, acting experience or even a martial arts background starting out. So the first ever film I made took me a year to prepare. I gathered all my friends. We had a cameraman who wasn’t even skilful with his gear. Basically we were all amateurs.
But eventually I got trained in martial arts, started meeting new people and had the good fortune of being spotted by an agency which represented Mediacorp.
Subsequently, it was like a domino effect. I got more acting roles and got to know more people from the stunt community. This led me to doing this on a more professional basis. So even with zero knowledge and experience, it was just me diving headfirst into it. Just whack only, that was the mentality.
Is it scary doing your own stunts? Was there fear involved when you first started doing it and how did you overcome it?
To be honest, at the beginning it was very ballsy of me to the point that I even told the person I was fighting with to use real knives. It was just me imitating whatever I saw on screen and going, you know what, I’m going to do my own stunts. I’m not going to have any safety precautions or padding. I was just going to do it myself.
At that point in time I was exposed to a lot of Asian action films, not just from Hong Kong, but Tony Jaa from Thailand and Iko Uwais from Indonesia who starred in The Raid.
These people are known to do their own stunts and have martial arts experience. No CGI, body doubles or even wire work. Just them getting hit. Because of that mentality, I was prepared to get hit or injured. Just YOLO man. That has always been my mindset until today.
Is there somewhere here in Singapore that you can learn about stunt work and be trained in it?
For those in the stunt community here, we are all just passionate about doing stunts. We have a lot of different kinds of personalities. Some just want to form a stunt team while some conduct their own workshops or float around and pick up jobs on a freelance basis.
For me, it’s more of running my film production, choreographing fights on screen on a more legitimate basis. It’s a very broad range of people with different goals but there’s always an opportunity for collaboration and learning.
How do you get the financial backing to run your film projects?
I’m very thankful and lucky that all of the films that I've done so far are based on collaboration. Most of the time for the film budget, it’s self-funded and I’m always the producer or it will be shared between the collaborators. For example, I’d have an idea on this project and I’ll gather my own group of people as crew and that’s when I’ll cast the actors as well.
A film I did last year "Coalition" was the first one that got selected for 2 film festivals, the Canada International Short Film Festival and the Urban Action Showcase: International Action Film Festival (UASIAFF) based out of New York.
Subsequently, I’m looking for more sponsorship and festival selections to get more legitimacy so that the budget won’t be so draining on myself. But I still see them mostly as passion projects.
What are the challenges and stigma you’ve faced from being in this line of work?
Our society has a certain stereotypical perception towards artistes. They’ll always ask if you’re earning enough money. But truth be told, when this question comes up, I won’t be afraid to admit to them that I’m not earning money from it completely yet. But doing stunts, indirectly, brought me opportunities in acting, so acting itself brought me income.
It's really about challenging their ideas that this won’t last long or that you can’t do it because Singapore has always had a strict culture in terms of getting good grades, a good degree and then a good job as an engineer, lawyer or whatever.
So when you talk about pursuing an arts or sports career, especially doing stunts which is so unheard of in Singapore, that makes it a lot harder. Most of the time, we do not just have one source of income, we’ll usually have our own ways and means to make it happen.
What is the ultimate goal that you would like to achieve from doing action choreography?
The ultimate goal is really to be able to get sponsorship to churn out a feature length film. Right now because of the financial constraints and societal perceptions, we can only do it based on passion. In my case, to express this passion, it would be to self-fund my own passion projects.
So getting recognised by a film festival is a progression towards what I want to achieve eventually, which is one day being able to consistently make money from producing martial arts and action films at a high level that is recognised by the locals but is also able to sell Singapore to an overseas market.
What is one misconception that you want to clear up about doing stunts?
This is not just unique to stunts but with any art form. I hope that Singaporeans give their fellow locals a chance. Because unfortunately, a lot of us don’t seem to believe in our own talents. But there are people who are really passionate about their chosen fields. They think that we might not have the standards to challenge those from overseas but that’s not the case.
If you give us a chance, we can actually represent Singapore and bring us further in terms of the arts scene itself. Naturally, if there is a lot of local support, companies will want to invest in that particular talent and it becomes a ripple effect. More talents will then grow and more people who might be hiding what they want to express, will feel encouraged to do it.