Journey to the west

Daniel Wu in Into The Badlands.
Daniel Wu in Into The Badlands.PHOTO: AMC

After 18 years in Asia, Daniel Wu returns to the US with a martial arts series

As a child growing up in California, actor Daniel Wu did not have many Chinese stars to look up to in movies and on television. He names Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li and says: "Those were the guys that inspired me to want to learn martial arts. At that time, I had no idea I'd be getting into the business, it was just pure passion."

Now, after some twists and turns along the way, he gets his own martial arts series, Into The Badlands, which premieres on AMC (Singtel TV Channel 322) on Monday. It is loosely based on the Chinese literary classic Journey To The West and tells the story of a warrior, Sunny, and a young boy, M.K., making their way through a devastated future world controlled by rival feudal barons.

Wu, 41, both star and executive producer of the show, was speaking at the Television Critics Association summer press tour at the Beverly Hilton.

For the show to win over fans of the genre, "the action had to be kick-a**".

He says of the fighting styles: "We have homages, but there's also a new style, our style, that we've created for the show. In episode six, there's a fight that's a big homage to the Shaw Brothers era, but done in a more modern way so the formation looks familiar, but the way we execute the fight is totally different."

While there are about five minutes of fighting in each episode, he is careful to point out that it is important to also have a compelling story that can stand on its own.

He adds: "In this genre, the drama tends to be very melodramatic, so we've kind of adjusted that for Western audiences' tastes."

The series reunites the actor with Hong Kong actor and film-maker Stephen Fung, 41, who serves as both executive producer and fight director. The two had played illfated lovers in Wu's 1998 film debut in the gay romantic drama Bishonen.

Wu's show-business entry was entirely accidental.

In 1997, he had graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in architecture and was in Hong Kong to witness the handover of the territory to China. He went for a drink in a bar and ended up doing a TV commercial. And then, despite not speaking Cantonese or reading Chinese, he managed to complete his first film.

"On the first day on the set, I fell in love with the whole process. It sparked this fire in me and I just wanted to make that my career," recalls Wu, who has a daughter with his wife, model and TV host Lisa S.

Things have come full circle with him returning to America after 18 years in Asia - and with more than 60 movies under his belt.

"Everything I have now is because of what the Hong Kong industry gave me, and that gave me the opportunities to have opportunities here."

And when he gets told "Oh, your English is so good", he has a ready retort: "I was born here."

•Into The Badlands premieres on AMC (Singtel TV Channel 322) on Monday at 11am with a repeat telecast the same day at 10pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2015, with the headline 'Journey to the west'. Print Edition | Subscribe