Jackie Chan has complete trust in stuntman-turned-director Stanley Tong

It was director Stanley Tong's inventiveness and fearlessness that convinced actor Jackie Chan to work with him on their first film 25 years ago

In Police Story 3: Super Cop (1992), the first movie where Stanley Tong directed Jackie Chan, he had the Hong Kong actor dangling mid-air from a rope ladder off a helicopter, as downtown Kuala Lumpur whizzed by below him.

It was a flying start to a partnership that has spanned 25 years and six movies. During this time, Chan has leapt off a building, jumped onto a speeding hovercraft and swum with sharks.

In their latest work, the action- comedy Kung Fu Yoga, which opens here on Friday, Tong has him taking part in a thrilling car chase while sharing his vehicle with a less-than-pleased real lion.

Tong, 56, is now one of a small group of film-makers that the superstar has total trust in.

Coaxing the lion into the car was already not easy. Cajoling him (Chan) to get in after that was even more difficult.

DIRECTOR STANLEY TONG, joking about filming action superstar Jackie Chan in Kung Fu Yoga

 
 

In an interview with The Straits Times recently, Chan, 62, says: "I'm completely reassured when he's in charge, so I'll leave everything to him, from the script to the locations, and I need not look over the details."

They are honest with each other to the point that Tong can tell him to lose weight for a film.

And when Chan retorts that he is not the only one who has packed on the pounds, the director shoots back: "Da ge, it doesn't matter for me since I'm behind the camera."

That they have built a strong rapport over the years is apparent at this joint interview.

It was a different story on the set of Police Story 3. At the time, Chan was already a big star with gongfu hits such as Drunken Master (1978) and action-comedy fare including Project A (1983) and Police Story (1985). Tong, on the other hand, had just directed a small action film called Stone Age Warriors (1991).

It was Chan's godfather, the late Leonard Ho, famed Hong Kong producer and one of the founders of movie company Golden Harvest, who brought the two together.

Chan recalls: "He said he knew this young chap called Stanley Tong who had made a very exciting film for very little money. I watched it and thought it was not bad."

When Tong got the offer for his big directorial break, he did not respond for two weeks.

"I rewatched all of his films and racked my brains to come up with something new for him to do. If I couldn't bring something different to the table, I wouldn't have dared to accept it."

He came up with something no one had seen before all right, but how did he get Chan to agree to such an outrageous helicopter stunt?

Tong's background as a stuntman helped - he would demonstrate to Chan what needed to be done first. He says: "(Chan)'s such a big star and action choreographer that I can't be just sitting there pointing my finger and telling him what to do."

Both director and actor ended up with injuries during filming. Chan's right shoulder was accidentally sideswiped by the aircraft, while Tong broke his shin when he stood in for another actor for the helicopter stunt.

The director's inventiveness and fearlessness won Chan over.

"That was our first film so I had some reservations initially. But within a week, you know whether someone can make it," Chan says. "We're on the same wavelength."

Coming from a living cinema legend like Chan, this is a compliment of the highest order.

When they make a movie together, Tong says he has a template, but it is a formula that others would be hard-pressed to replicate.

His rule is to have five big set-ups and two smaller ones and all these action scenes need to be sequences Chan has not attempted before. And, oh yes, they have to be funny too.

This is why they collaborate only every few years as it takes time to come up with new ideas to propel their films to new heights.

For Kung Fu Yoga, Chan came up with the basic premise of bringing together Chinese gongfu and Indian yoga, and then left it to his trusted partner to come up with a script.

Tong dreamt up of a treasure-hunting adventure that had them filming in the ice caves and on the glaciers of Iceland, as well as in the intricate temples of India and the streets of Dubai.

At the same time, there is a link to their earlier work - Kung Fu Yoga is a continuation of The Myth (2005), in which Chan first played an archaeologist named Jack.

To up the stakes of a car chase scene in the new work, Tong decided to add a lion to the mix.

Tong says: "Coaxing the lion into the car was already not easy. Cajoling him (Chan) to get in after that was even more difficult."

Chan says drily: "I was bitten by a dog in CZ12 and had to get three shots. And now he's got a lion. I told him, 'Get a stand-in, I'm not doing this.'

"Of course I was afraid. When I first saw it in a cage, I didn't even dare to go near it."

He might grouse, but Chan definitely enjoys the adrenaline rush of his movie stunts, from water-skiing to underwater diving to skydiving.

"You get the best teachers; locations get sealed off; there are 800 people on stand-by. It's not possible for a regular person to experience this. Plus, you get paid," he says.

And after a lifetime of putting his life on the line to entertain his fans, Chan was finally recognised with an honorary Oscar last November.

He says: "Can you imagine a comic action actor getting an Oscar? No one would have believed it 20 years ago. Not just Oscar, but even Golden Horse Award, Hong Kong Film Award, Golden Rooster Award - no one would have given anything to us.

"But I love it, which is why I've persevered for so long. It turns out that when you keep at it for years, people do notice."

•Kung Fu Yoga opens in Singapore on Friday. See review.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2017, with the headline 'Partners in action'. Print Edition | Subscribe