KUNG FU YOGA Singapore Press Conference

One day, he was lying in a London hospital after an unexpected five-hour operation; the next, he was in Iceland with 60 pounds of weight around his waist plunged into the ice-cold waters of Iceland.

Even at the age of 62 and being the worldwide celebrity he is who had just received an honorary Academy Award last year, Jackie Chan was the consummate professional and ‘Big Brother’ through and throughout.

“I could have taken six months to rest in hospital or at home and postpone the entire filming process,” he says without any hint of arrogance. “But the whole cast and crew of ‘Kung Fu Yoga’ were already waiting for me in Iceland, so I decided to get back to work immediately.”

(Producer and star Jackie Chan with his 'Kung Fu Yoga' director and screenwriter Stanley Tong)

Recounting how it all unfolded, Jackie described how it began as a pain that his longtime great friend cum ‘Kung Fu Yoga’ director Stanley Tong had dismissed as a ‘lumbar infection’ earlier on. That pain only got worse when shooting for ‘Kung Fu Yoga’ took a break and Jackie went to London to shoot his Martin Campbell-actioner ‘The Foreigner’ with Pierce Brosnan, eventually becoming so severe that he was almost doubling over and pretty much told Campbell to do without rehearsals for the day so he could complete his scenes and seek medical attention. 

What was meant to be a checkup became an emergency operation when the extent of his ailment was diagnosed – not only had his skin and muscle around the abdomen area within rotted, his intestines were ‘all over the place’. Shocked at the extent of his condition, Jackie’s assistants spent the five hours he was in the operating theatre crying – and they broke down once again at the end of the next day’s shoot in Iceland when they saw his bloodied abdomen (from blood oozing out of the wounds) and his belly button pretty much covered in blood.

Just to be sure, Jackie had never intended to make a big deal out of it; in fact, all this would not have been in the news were it not for the fact that his co-star Aarif Rahman let slip while during the movie’s promotional tour in Beijing. Even more awesome and admirable is how Jackie never became less of a ‘big brother’ on set right after his operation, personally supervising the rest of his co-stars – including Bollywood actresses Disha Patani and Amrya Dastur – as they filmed their parts under the same freezing conditions.

(From left to right - Jackie's 'Kung Fu Yoga' co-stars Mu Qimiya, Disha Patani and Amyra Dastur)

Indeed, if there is one thing he has come to be known by over the years from one film set to another, it is how he never fails to be the ‘big brother’ on each and every set, making sure that his co-stars were doing ok and helping out whenever and wherever he could in ways big and small.

“It doesn’t matter how harsh the conditions are, Jackie is always there before everyone else,” says Disha. “I think Jackie is superhuman – he was showing me how he has one broken bone at the back of his shoulder that he never got fixed and that he just pushes it back inside every time it pops!”

“I learnt a lot from Jackie [on the set of ‘Kung Fu Yoga],” says Amyra. “One thing I picked up was to be environmentally conscious, because Jackie would go around picking up the plastic bottles around the set, crushing them and collecting them for recycling.”

To his ‘Kung Fu Yoga’ director, Jackie was not just a ‘big brother’ but a personal buddy and professional muse. Their partnership goes 25 years back, when Jackie had picked the then young and upcoming Stanley to direct the third instalment of his iconic ‘Police Story’ franchise (the one with Michelle Yeoh). Since then, they have worked formally and informally together, the former on Jackie Chan classics like ‘Rumble in the Bronx’, ‘Police Story 4: First Strike’ and ‘The Myth’. In fact, Stanley reveals that it was Jackie who had brought the idea of ‘Kung Fu Yoga’ to him to develop into a full-length feature movie.

“I consider it fate to be able to work with Jackie. I’ve watched his movies growing up as a kid, and loved his mix of action, humour and positive energy,” says Stanley. “So when Jackie came to me with the idea for ‘Kung Fu Yoga’, I saw the two elements as embodiments of Chinese and Indian culture respectively – kung fu as representing respect and values, while yoga as representing the spirit of how we treat one another.”

Asked what drives him to look for such creative partnerships versus developing a movie on his own (like he did with ‘CZ12’), Jackie explains that he would not have been able to make so many movies that he had wanted to make did he decide to direct every single one.

“I used to make a movie every nine months to one year,” says Jackie. “I probably wouldn’t even have made ‘Rumble in the Bronx’ if I waited to direct it myself, so I look for directors to work with me and I think that also adds variety to my repertoire.”

If that seems more difficult than it sounds, it is – especially because, as Stanley says, each new movie has got to have something new for the audience. Crediting it in part to changing audience expectations, Stanley explains that it is also the reason why he decided to film the movie in such exotic locations as Dubai and Iceland.

Whereas Iceland lent its own harsh and somber character to the movie, Jackie did a lot of borrowing in Dubai from its princes. Oh yes, it was in this country of royal wealth and extravagance that Jackie’s ‘big brother’ came in handy.

“I was most afraid of hearing a ‘bang’ from the US$1.5 billion dollars worth of sports cars we were using for filming in Dubai,” confessed Stanley. “And one day it really did happen – we had a Ferrari, a McLaren and a Lamborghini crash into each other.” But thanks to Jackie’s weight with four of the kingdom’s princes, they were more than willing to lend the film crew yet another from their stable of about 400 luxury sports cars.

“All they wanted was a picture with Jackie [because their children were such fans] and/or lunch with him,” says Stanley. It wasn’t just the cars that the crew borrowed; there were also hyenas which a businessman kept as pets in his house, a sprawling residential compound that apparently housed a zoo which Jackie claims is probably bigger than Singapore’s very own national one. 

But amidst the obvious extravagances, it was the much more intimate act of dancing that Jackie counts as the most challenging aspect about making ‘Kung Fu Yoga’.

“I could never grasp how in Bollywood dance you could do one thing with one hand and another with the other hand, like drawing a circle with your left and tracing a square with your right!” says Jackie in mock exasperation. “So I eventually got the choreographer to simplify things for me, and I ended up remembering the moves in the form of relatable actions such as ‘flying a kite’ or ‘chopping wood’.”

What Jackie said he failed to master was the art of moving just your head from side to side, which he says is essential to the flavor of Bollywood dance. And yet, if you’ve seen the Indian version of the trailer below, you’d probably think that’s Jackie being humble as he is – a suspicion somewhat corroborated by how Amyra praises his dancing and divulges that the choreographer had dubbed him ‘Jackie Jackson’. 

Humility has been, and we hope will always be, one of this ‘big brother’s’ defining traits. As consistently as he has always been, Jackie thanks his fans for their support all these years and says that his films are the best presents to them.

“I can’t shake hands or sign autographs for everyone,” says Jackie. “But I hope with my films to be able to come up with something different for them every year – so you’ll see me in a much more serious movie coming out at the end of this year [a la ‘The Foreigner’] and then again in a light-hearted movie after.”

“All I hope is for people to remember me first as an actor, like Clint Eastwood and Robert De Niro, and not just an action star or even just a celebrity.” 

Text by Gabriel Chong and Photos by Linus Tee

Our review of KUNG FU YOGA right here