Fight star wants to knock out films' image of Asians
Fight star Cung Le wants to kick out the film industry's attitude towards Asians
When Cung Le first turned to acting, he knew where to find the intensity he needed to mix it with the more established action stars on set. "I only had to reach inside," the Vietnamese-American says. "I feel driven by the opportunities that are coming my way and I want to show the world there is so much more to Asian actors, and to Asian people, than they have been seeing in movies and on television."
Le, 42, was already a martial arts star in the United States when he started picking up small parts as a sideline to his career in the ring, appearing in small-budget films at first, just testing the waters and, as he puts it, seeing how many filmmakers liked his skill set.
"I had come to a stage in my fighting career where I was looking around to see where else it could lead me," Le says. "I had the confidence in myself and in what I could do to know that eventually someone would see me."
Le landed supporting roles in action film Pandorum (2009), alongside Dennis Quaid, and in Channing Tatum vehicle Fighting (2009). While both films were flops, some people had tuned in.
"One day I just got a call from [producer] Bill Kong [Chi-keung] who said he had heard about me and had seen what I could do," Le says. "He brought me out to China and gave me a good part in True Legend [belatedly released in 2010]. So I met [martial arts choreographer and director] Yuen Woo-ping, who was directing it, and I worked hard. There was good word of mouth about what I did, so that got people out here interested."
While Le was on the set of True Legend - director Yuen's historical martial arts epic starring Zhou Xun and Jay Chou Jie-lun - word of his work reached action star Donnie Yen Ji-dan, then building his team for what would become the critically acclaimed box office smash Bodyguards and Assassins (2009).
"That really started everything for me from there," says Le. "Donnie saw my work and requested me, and the next thing I knew I was on set."
The fight scene between Yen's policeman and Le's thug proved pivotal to Bodyguards and Assassins - which hit cinemas before True Legend and collected about US$45 million in box office receipts, as well as eight Hong Kong International Film Awards, including the gong for best film.
Yen saw what Le could contribute on screen and off as they worked together choreographing the fight scene as well as helping to train the other actors and stuntmen on set.
"It was all pretty wild. The best action sequence to come out that year I think. People kept telling me that," Le says. "From there, the work has been pretty constant - just one movie after another."
The past five years have opened Le's eyes to the possibilities presented by the action film industry - he threw in another memorable cameo in Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster (2013) while earlier this year he starred alongside Dolph Lundgren and Vinnie Jones in straight-to-video actioner Puncture Wounds. But he also sees the restraints the industry places on the Asian talent it uses. Hence, he is now setting his sights on producing.
"That's the main thing ahead for me," he says. "It's tougher for an Asian actor and especially tough for an Asian guy in action movies because it's all about making the white guy look good. We are always stereotyped as the triads or the gangster, the guy who looks like a nerd or the guy who gets beaten, and that has to change."
His desire to change people's perceptions was first ignited when he arrived in Monterey, California, as a five-year-old refugee, having escaped Saigon with his mother just days before it fell to the Vietcong. They had passed through camps in the Philippines and Guam before making their way to the US and when Le made his way to school, he was in for a rude surprise. "Yeah, there was a lot of bullying. At the time people didn't really understand the war at all. They only saw people they knew being killed and injured, and they took it out on us."
Martial arts was Le's way of defending himself, first with taekwondo and then - after a successful career as a wrestler that saw him pick up All-American honours as he made his way through high school - he turned to the art of sanshou kickboxing. The rise of mixed martial arts as a sport helped Le take his career global, and he will now be headlining the Ultimate Fighting Championship's "Fight Night Macau" on August 23, facing off in a middleweight bout against British fighter Michael Bisping on a 10-fight card.
Le was part of the behind-the-scenes team that helped train and support the UFC hopefuls in the organisation's first series of its Ultimate Fighter China television reality series earlier this year.
He is also in discussions with the likes of producer Kong and action star Sammo Hung Kam-bo about future film collaborations, which will coincide with a project Le is developing with US stuntman-turned-director J.J. Perry.
"Everything for me now is busy, and it is all about film as well as about the fighting. I have been working with Chinese athletes and mixed martial arts, and there is always excitement given the history of martial arts in the country. The cool thing is they have sort of adopted me … but I am just proud to represent all Asians and to help the sport grow throughout the region," he says.
"It's an exciting time to be here and to be involved in this sport, just like it is to be involved with film here. Things are only going to get bigger. I'm here to take care of the Asian guys - and let the world know we're not the bad guys you see in the movies. We're going to whup a lot of ass out here."