Dojo Interview: Jason Ninh Cao
One of the most anticipated martial arts movie projects creating a buzz on movie forums, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media networks is Iron Monk. The brainchild of Jason Ninh Cao, Iron Monk promises to deliver something that fans of martial arts action crave to see; 100% Real Kung Fu along with Buddhist wisdom and philosophy. Iron Monk boasts an impressive cast including real life Shaolin Master Yanzi Shi as well as members of the JNC Stunt Team. Set to go into production in May 2015, Jason and his team are prepared to usher in a new era of martial arts action film-making which reaches back to the roots of classic kung fu cinema with modern production values, a strong stunt team, and a compelling story of a man trained in ancient ways seeking peace in a modern world.
Hello Jason, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us.
Q: Jason, can you tell us about your background?
A: Thank you for taking the time to interview me. I was born in 1974 in Saigon, Vietnam. I moved to London when I was 10 years old. I always loved movies and knew that I wanted to be involved in some way but I made some sensible academic decisions and studied a degree in Art and Product design. In 1995 I started acting.
Q: What was your first experience with martial arts movies?
A: When I was ten I watched “Enter The Dragon” and fell in love with both the movie and the action genre. I have been a fan ever since and have watched and studied movies ever since featuring all of the different stars, from Jackie Chan to Jet Li and Donnie Yen; the old style Kung Fu movies and the modern equivalent.
Q: What martial arts styles have you trained
A: I trained for some years in Wing Chun. Now I find myself so busy that I just keep myself in shape in the gym, but the intensity of martial arts training ensures that the moves stay with you forever.
Q: When did you know you wanted to pursue film work as a career?
A: As I said before it was when I first watched Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon” that I fell in love with film. I guess I dreamed of being an actor but as a teenager I wanted anything to do with it so I got a job working as a cleaner in a cinema because it meant that I could watch all of the movies as they came out. I would clean the cinema between each showing but while the films were on the screen I could relax and watch and dream that it was me up there on the big screen.
Q: You have worked with some pretty impressive people, what did you learn from the processes of working with them?
A: That is too big a question to answer in a short interview because I have learned so many things from each of the great people that I have worked with. Perhaps I can just give you an example of working with one man who I learned a lot from. I worked with Dustin Nguyen on a wonderful Vietnamese film called “Once Upon A Time In Vietnam”. If you watch it I think you will agree that he is a brilliant actor physically and emotionally but you might not realize as you watch that he was also the writer, director and producer too. What I learned from him was that it is not enough to know just one aspect of film making, such as acting or directing or producing, but that to really help make a film a success you need to understand many or all of the processes involved. Dustin is a master of that. His ability to switch from one role to another – one moment directing me in a scene, the next, acting opposite me. I learnt from him the important of being absolutely clear in what you need to achieve on a day to day basis, even a minute by minute basis, and to be prepared for the unexpected. Because I want to play an important role in the process of movie making I learned from Dustin that I need to understand every aspect and wear more than one hat.
Q: What led you to the idea for Iron Monk?
A: My friend Yanzi Shi is the “Iron Monk”. I have known him since he arrived in London many years ago. He is a Shaolin monk who traveled from China to establish a temple in Tufnell Park, North London, in order to spread the word of Zen Buddhism. Many of the students that come to Yanzi to learn how to fight and become strong to defend themselves. What they find is that the strength that they find is in the Buddhism that accompanies the kung fu, which in actuality is merely a physical dedication as much as meditation is the mental dedication of Zen Buddhism. Yanzi is a force for good, spreading the word of peace and harmony that the Shaolin culture has treasured for centuries. It was not very hard for me to create a fiction where a monk comes to London to establish a temple and do good but comes across violent opposition. “Iron Monk” is a film that will demonstrate supreme martial arts but the message of the film is not a million miles away from the truth.
Q: What special quality or qualities did you see in real life Shaolin Monk Master Yanzi Shi?
A: I would invite you to interview Yanzi Shi to see for yourself what he like because it is hard to describe him. There is an incredible calm about him. For one who demonstrated such strength and incredible fighting skills you would be amazed by his gentleness and philosophical depth. I think that I would say that he is a “good man”.
Q: The JNC Stunt Team is quite impressive. What type of action can we expect in Iron Monk?
A: As I suggested before the story of “Iron Monk” is one where good meets evil as our monk encounters the London based triads. As you would expect the triad members dish out a string of beatings and intimidation using brutal and unspectacular martial skills. The monk and his affiliates are forced to take on this force of evil. Much as they did in “Enter the Dragon” the cast includes a string of masters in their respective styles and the fighting that ensues will not be romantically enhanced but will demonstrate their incredible kung fu skills.
Q: Do you all have input into the fight scene design or is there a principal fight choreographer?
A: Having the expertise of so many top fighters starring in “Iron Monk” I expect that they will all have input into the fight scenes, because they all have different styles and skills, but we have one of the film industries top fight coordinators on board. Vincent Wang is a master of Wu Shu and has been involved with many movies including, to drop names, James Bond. Vincent and I want this movie to look real, not to look fantastical. With Vincent, myself, the cast and the director Mat Sunderland we would work out the fights to deliver old school kung fu.
Q: I like the idea of real kung fu on-screen, do you think there is a size-able market for 100% Kung Fu in today’s action market?
JNC: I think that any kung fu film fan has seen the films of Bruce Lee, and while they might enjoy the modern “flashy” films I believe that all of them (like myself) would list the old films among their favorites I want the action to feel real like in the old Bruce Lee movies, where the cameras were set back and you could see the real skills of the fighters. I want to give the viewers a real action experience, like the feeling I had when I saw “Enter The Dragon” and “The Big Boss” for the first time.
Q: Can you tell us a little about Master Yanzi Shi?
A : Yanzi Shi is a 34h Generation Shaolin Master, and head of the Shaolin Temple in the UK.
In summary he is a “good” man. If you quiz him about why he would fight when Buddha teaches that we should do good and not harm you will most probably get a question in reply. When you solve the riddles that he sets you in those questions you will find the answer and it is that a shaolin monk does not fight because he is angry or wants to hurt someone he fights to test himself. He will dedicate himself as much to kung fu as a physical equivalent of meditation. If he dedicates himself well he will demonstrate great fighting skills.
As the leader of the Shaolin Temple in the UK Yanzi has few opportunities to test himself on a fighting stage so this year, in January 2014, Yanzi accepted a challenge and fought on Chinese television in the fight competition ‘Hero Legend’. Yanzi won the fight within a few rounds to confirm what was apparent to all of us.
In years gone by he has also won several sanshou titles.
As far as other media coverage Yanzi has appeared on television with Fashanu’s Football, The Royal Variety Performance with the Wheel of Life Shaolin Monks and Richard & Judy, among others, so he is no stranger to performing for an audience.
Yanzi is not a trained actor but he spends his days delivering the Buddhist message to those who come to him so I have no doubt that he can play the role we have written for him. We have worked hard to create a character that will allow him to play “himself”.
Q: As fans, what can we do to help Iron Monk grow?
A : As a movie fan myself I am making this film for the fans. We don’t wish to make big profits from this film. We just want to make enough to continue to make more “real” fight films. To help “Iron Monk” become a reality you can support our Indiegogo campaign. We start production in May 2015 with a micro budget and any moneies raised by the Indigogo campaign will allow us more freedom as we produce the movie and help to lend this film the high production values that it deserves.
Q: Without giving away too much, can we expect more from JNC Productions and Master Yanzi Shi ?
A : If the first movie does well we do have plans for a trilogy.
Q: Thank You for your time Jason. Any last message for our readers?
A: It was my pleasure to talk to you about “Iron Monk” as it is a project close to my heart.
To your readers and fans I would like to thank all the Iron Monk supporters and everyone who has donated to our Indiegogo campaign to date. I look forward to be making Iron Monk next year and to sharing my vision with all of the fans.
Thank you to Film Fan Dojo for doing this interview.
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