Career and Jobs

How To Creatively Tell Martial Arts Stories In Film And TV

Martial Club is a filmmaking group and leading authority on Hong Kong-style action choreography. Martial Club was founded by Andy Le, Brian Le, and Daniel Mah, a group of martial artists who grew up with Hong Kong kung fu movies choreographed by the likes of Jackie Chan, Yuen Woo-ping, and Lau Kar-leung. They dedicate themselves to capturing the combat essence of yesteryear and infuse it with a dose of stylish modern flair to deliver a unique martial aesthetic for today’s action films.

The Martial Club has amassed a following of over half a million subscribers on YouTube with over 100 million views. Martial Club is working on building the new golden age of martial arts action cinema and here is how they have told their story and built their brand.

Goldie Chan: What has your career path been?

Daniel Mah: For eight years, I worked beyond full-time in the oil industry. I worked horrendous hours and maintained an unhealthy work life balance but Martial arts kept me sane during those times. Training, constantly improving as a martial artist and funneling my experiences into storytelling stoked the fire inside me. Relationships came and went but martial arts remained and it was Martial Club that sustained me. I worked and filmed, filmed and worked while Martial Club’s following grew. For so many years, I thought of what we were doing on YouTube as a glorified hobby. I was spread thin because I clung to the security of a full-time job but poured all of my free time into making martial arts short films with Andy and Brian. I feared the leap of faith that Martial Club’s burgeoning reputation was beckoning me to take.

All of that changed when The Daniels (directors and writer for Everything Everywhere All At Once) reached out to us. We did not understand all of their ideas upfront but we recognized that they were fueled by the same passion. They were filmmakers who knew what it was to search deep inside themselves and unapologetically present whatever came out to the world. Creating martial arts action on the feature-length scale alongside Andy and Brian changed something in me. I suddenly realized that, safety net or not, I needed to take the jump in order to fulfill Martial Club’s destiny. I am mid-leap and the plunge may end in failure but that fate is daylight next to the darkness of never having tried.

Brian Le: Ever since we were little, we’ve always gotten bullied and picked on at school. At the time, we were also exposed to many martial arts movies. We would come home from school and watch martial arts legends such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh who stood up to the bullies and fought off bad guys.

Andy Le: Seeing that at such a young age sparked a fire in me. We knew at a very young age that we wanted to be like the heroes we see on screen. It wasn’t until high school, we started taking martial arts very seriously. Throughout this journey, we met with friends who have run martial arts schools and would spare the time to teach us a bit. Our main source of inspiration was martial arts movies and the majority of our training was learning from YouTube and studying martial arts movies. We would literally watch movies and copy frame for frame, shot for shot how the moves are being executed. Over the years of practice, we learned that beyond practicing martial arts, it is also our responsibility to spread it and keep the martial art spirit alive in the modern world.

Brian Le: We had thoughts of opening up a school and teaching. Ultimately, we felt that it was right in our hearts to build and use Martial Arts filmmaking as a platform to tell our martial arts stories and inspire much like how the martial arts movie veterans of today have inspired us.

Andy Le: With our source of training and inspiration martial arts being martial arts movies, we naturally decided to start a team ‘Martial Club’ and a YouTube channel to shoot fun martial arts action short films and document our martial arts journey. Over the years, we noticed we started to gain fans, a few of our videos started going viral and our brand started gaining traction. With each independent project, we would push the envelope a bit more whether it be from the action, storytelling or filmmaking end, we eventually developed our own brand of martial arts filmmaking.

Brian Le: Naturally, we decided that this is what we want to do and eventually bring martial arts films back into the film industry with a modern flair. Our goal in doing so is to keep the Martial Arts spirit alive and inspire the next generation. Some of our most notable works we are proud of include ‘Fist of Fury,’ ‘Dance of the Drunken Gods’ and ‘Ip Man: The Intercepting Fist.’ Over the years Martial Club’s work has caught the attention of people from the film industry. We started doing small parts in music videos, TV shows, etc. As we started climbing through the ranks of the film industry, we landed roles on projects such as The Paper Tigers, Wu Tang: An American Saga, and more.

Chan: What has happened more recently in your careers?

Andy Le: In the more recent years, we’ve been blessed to have been working with many of our martial arts heroes we grew up watching including Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh. A few years ago, we helped Jackie Chan Stunt Team veteran Andy Cheng work on a Jackie Chan commercial in which we did a bit of martial arts choreography for Jackie. Upon wrapping on the commercial, Jackie tapped my shoulder and exclaimed “Next generation!” as he walked off. This was a moment in time I will remember for the rest of my life and I vowed that day to carry on the torch of martial arts films. We are grateful to Andy Cheng for giving us an opportunity of a lifetime.

Brian Le: Martial Club has also caught the eyes of the Daniels who have said they’ve searched high and low for a group of martial arts filmmakers who would be able to bring back the nostalgic Hong Kong style action, but who also knew how to have fun with it. We were asked to do the martial arts choreography on the film as well as a featured action packed fight sequence against our kung fu queen Michelle Yeoh! We are grateful to the Daniels and A24 for taking a chance with us!

Andy Le: Among the list of notable projects we have worked on, I was lucky enough to have landed a role in Marvel Studios Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings as the villain Death Dealer. It was thanks to the late Brad Allan, Veteran of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team (most notable for his fight sequence against Jackie Chan in Gorgeous). Much like the Daniels, he found us on YouTube and asked us to help with the action team to elevate the action and push it to the next level. As soon as the character of Death Dealer was written in, he pitched me for the role right away. I submitted my reels and didn’t think much of it. Next thing I knew, I got a call that I landed the role and didn’t have to audition. Brad has always looked out for undiscovered talent and gave us a chance. And for that I am forever grateful and will do everything in my power to make sure he made the right decision with me, and I will continue to do everything in my power to carry on his legacy.

Chan: What has been your favorite project that you’ve worked on?

Mah: I’d have to say that the cliche holds up: “There’s nothing like the first time”. Everything Everywhere All at Once was a game-changer in so many ways. For starters, it was our first time working on a feature length film together as a team. On a deeper, more personal level, EEAAO was the catalyst that inspired me to quit my job and trust in Martial Club’s viability in the industry. I entered that project thinking that we were mere YouTubers sojourning in a foreign land known as the film industry and by the time pre-production ended, I knew that we were there to stay.

Brian Le: Like Daniel said, EEAAO was a very interesting time for us because the adventure continued into principal photography. Several of Martial Club family rented a room in Simi Valley during filming and it was a good time. Battling through the grind of a work day on set alongside my brothers-in-arms and unwinding with them back at the apartment is something I will not forget. The gym was our refuge and training was the cure to a stressful day. There are tough times complete with injuries and stress but looking back, A24 gave us great memories that will last a lifetime.

Andy Le: EEAAO was a unique experience because of the amount of creative freedom the Daniels gave us to choreograph and do our thing. Still, I can’t ignore the wild times that awaited me down under immediately after. Working on Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings allowed me to exist in a world where the heroes who inspired worked alongside me as peers. And I’m not even referring to superheroes! I’m talking about people like Michelle Yeoh, Yuen Wah and Tony Leung- the actors who starred in the movies I grew up on. Then you factor in that the world shut down while I was there and I became a prisoner in my hotel room. Life became a cycle of eat, sleep, edit and train. I was pent up for a good bit but when I stopped to think about it, I wouldn’t have had it any other way! Big shout out to Marvel for that experience.

Chan: What would be a dream project to work on?

Mah: In our younger years, the dream project would have been to work with Jackie Chan or Donnie Yen but as we’ve matured, we’ve come to realize that the true dream is to create something that is all our own (while still paying an homage to our heroes). Martial Club longs to produce its own movie. It will be a tale that captures the dynamic of our team as well as the spirit of martial arts. If we have our way, it will be an inspiration for the next generation of youth to aspire to be more!

Through our dream project, we want to express to the world the spirit of martial arts. We want to tell the story of our martial arts journey. The world will feel our passion for the it. We speak on this subject amongst ourselves all the time. We lovingly refer to this dream project as ‘Project A’ in honor of the collaboration between Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. We are honored to hear that many people compare us to that tremendous trio. We are the modern ‘Dragons Forever,’ the trifecta that aims to scale the mountain that is martial arts cinema.

Chan: What is your favorite quote and why?

Mah: There are so many quotes that inspire me but I think there is a single quote that has imparted the most wisdom to me. It is a Chinese proverb that says that ‘learning is like rowing upstream. Not to advance is to fall back.’ It is this truth that has fueled my martial arts training for the past two decades and I suspect this same truth will keep me going for many more.

Andy Le: My favorite quote is “Pain is temporary, film is forever.” If the martial arts warrior spirit were to be translated into film language, this quote expresses that sentiment. As artists and filmmakers, we approach our projects with such life and passion especially when we know that all the hard work, pain and suffering will be immortalized forever on film. In one of my earlier short films, I was trying to capture an action shot that was physically difficult, almost impossible to perform. By the end of the day, I settled with a take that was “good enough” even though I had more in the tank to do more takes. When the finished product came out, that shot haunted me forever. I kept wondering “what would it have been if I kept fighting for that perfect take?” Even if I tried my very best and failed at least I knew I tried my very best and walked away with no regrets. From that point on, I embodied this philosophy of “Pain is temporary, film lives forever.” We’re willing to go over 1,000 takes if it means using up ever ounce to fuel in the tank to get the perfect shot and I carry the same idea when I train as well.

Brian Le: My favorite quote is “You must tap into your warrior spirit!” It is a quote that I came up with while shooting a “How to do the Splits” tutorial for YouTube. The concept of Warrior Spirit is something I learned from a mentor of mine, Philip Sahagun. During one of his training classes, I was fatigued, mentally drained, beat up, and I felt like giving up. At the very moment of wanting to give up, Philip told me that when our physical bodies can no longer fight, your spirit can. I all of a sudden felt peace, and in that moment of zen, a second wind of energy that seemed to have come from within. Suddenly, I no longer felt fatigued, I had the momentum to keep going I now carry this concept with me whenever I encounter difficult situations in life. With the goal of spreading the virtues and ethics of martial arts to the world, I carry the “Martial Art Warrior Spirit” with me throughout the journey.

Chan: Who inspires you and why?

Mah: Many people have contributed to the person that I am but I would say that the single person who laid the template for how I would conduct myself both as a man and as a martial artist is Wong Fei Hung. He was a martial arts master and a physician who lived in China during a time when the people were oppressed by foreign powers. Wong used kung fu to defend and to heal and he is the epitome of the righteous hero. He inspires me to approach all things with a martial mentality and to carry myself with the same dignity that I would when I am training.

Andy Le: I am inspired by many different forms of art, whether it be film, music, movement, etc.. or the combination of all the above. What I am inspires me at the moment also speaks to the stage that I currently am in in life. For example, during our ‘Fist of Fury’ homage originally done by Bruce Lee. That film was inspired by the energy of ‘Chen Zen’ the protagonist: the story of a growing and hungry martial artist who has something to prove. I felt it in my heart that I wanted to make that homage because I was so inspired by the character and what he stood for and I resonated with him because I too felt like I had something to prove. The fire of the character carried into my training, my writing, development and the whole filmmaking process. The energy of that character became my lifestyle.

With that being said, the overall philosophy as a filmmaker is definitely inspired by Jackie Chan. His story was to break the mold and do things unconventionally, ultimately allowing him to express himself through art of martial arts filmmaking. With the Warrior Spirit. The idea that ‘pain is temporary, film lives forever’ and daring to go against the current. That is our philosophy.

Brian Le: Being known as the raw energy within the group, I always find inspiration within films that are over the top comedic/irreverent. Films and shows such as: Shaolin Soccer, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, South Park, Inglorious Basterds, The Interview, for example. I naturally add these elements of extreme intensity not only to my style of martial arts, but into our story telling and action design as well. I believe adding these elements give the perfect balance within Martial Club’s dynamic as a team and in our craft.

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