He may have started out a mild-mannered teacher in Illinois, but Philip Ng has set his sights on becoming an international martial arts movie star. And if any film can help make that happen, it’s “Birth of the Dragon,” in which he plays Bruce Lee, the greatest martial arts megastar of all time.
The film, which premieres in theaters Aug. 25, tells the true tale — shrouded in secrecy for decades — of a martial arts showdown between a young, brash Lee (Ng) and a mysterious kung fu master from China named Wong Jack Man (played with an intense stillness by Chinese actor Xia Yu). Little is known about the no-holds-barred battle — not even who won — except that it changed Lee, who soon after leapt to superstardom in a series of films (including “Enter the Dragon”), single-handedly popularizing kung fu in the United States.
Ng, 39, was born in Hong Kong, raised in Chicago, and then moved back to Hong Kong 15 years ago to pursue his dream of breaking into the martial arts movie biz. He succeeded, working as a stuntman, fight choreographer, director and actor (“Wild City,” “Zombie Fight Club”). This film (in which he performs his own stunts) marks his North American debut. He’s currently shooting a television series in the middle of rural China.
How big a Bruce Lee fan were you before shooting this film?
Big. He influenced my path. My own sifu — that is, my own master, the person who taught me Wing Chun [a form of kung fu] — actually trained Bruce Lee. They were close.
Why was Bruce Lee such an outlier in the world of martial arts? He ticked off a lot of traditional practitioners by teaching westerners, incorporating street fighting, and treating it as something secular rather than a religious pursuit.
He saw kung fu as a pragmatic skill, like cooking or chopping wood. There’s a specific goal — to incapacitate your opponent — using principles of simplicity, efficiency and directness. It’s like basketball players — they’re all playing basketball, but they have different styles that suit their body shapes and athletic abilities. Bruce Lee thought the same thing — find what works for you. Whenever you’re revolutionary, you’ll be seen as an outsider. But 40 years later, his ideas are prevalent in sports like MMA [mixed martial arts].
You’re raised in America, get a master’s degree, then start off as a teacher — what subject did you teach, by the way?
Really! So you’ve got art on one side of your resume, mortal combat on the other.
Yeah. [He chuckles.] My father owns a martial arts school in Chicago. He’s an accountant. [He laughs harder.] That’s his main job. But we own a martial arts school. For us, martial arts is like brushing your teeth.
It’s like brushing your teeth or taking a shower — you have to do it. It’s part of life’s routine. Of course, it’s a lot deeper than that.
What’s a big misconception about martial arts movies? To the uninitiated, they seem like just a series of fights.
The fighting is actually dialogue — each punch is a way for you to deliver an idea. Those fists and kicks tell a story. Like if I’m in a scene protecting somebody, but scared of my opponent, I’ll deliver that punch differently than if I’m a bully picking on a small kid. The action you see in movies today, the fisticuffs, the fighting — a lot of those techniques originated in the Hong Kong cinema, in the 1970s and ’80s, starting with Bruce Lee, and on up to Jackie Chan.
So you had the grad degree, the art teacher job — but you give it all up and move to Hong Kong in the hopes of . . . becoming a martial arts star. How tough was it to make that leap?
In the beginning, you’re like, OK, OK . . .give yourself a few years to see if it works out. But when you get over here, you realize you can’t just try, you have to give it your all or quit. I got lucky — I started as a stuntman and worked my way up. Was it hard moving here? Yeah. But . . . if you’re moving forward, not backward, then you can keep pursuing your dreams. When opportunities come up, treat every single one like it’s the biggest thing ever, and you’ll get where you deserve to be. I’m a firm believer in that.
Well, it seems to be working for you. I’d say “break a leg” on your next project, but that doesn’t seem the best thing to say to a martial arts expert.
Yeah. [He laughs.] But it’s a well-wishing thing, so I appreciate it.