Interview conducted by Christopher Evans
In the pantheon of action cinema there has always been many epochal characters. These are actors or film makers who define a genre, style, or country due to their output of work.
For example ,if you think of Tony Jaa your mind is brought to Thailand and the bone crunching Muay Kotchasaan style he developed with the late great Panna Rittikrai, John Woo the Heroic Bloodshed/Gun -Fu genre, Jackie Chan is synonymous with comedic Hong Kong stunts, and Tak Sakaguchi with the heroic action genre of Japan.
Jonathan Cheong IS Singapore action cinema. Since 2015 this Ex-Commando Marine has developed and produced 10 short independent action films with his ‘Raging Fire Productions’ company and collaborate with several local film-makers. All of which, Jonathan has produced, acted, wrote, directed and choreographed in some capacity.
Now Jonathan is taking his cue from his idol, action mega-star Donnie Yen, and setting his sights on global success by working on several international short action films here in the UK and Europe ,with the intentions of increasing his profile as an action film maker and actor, and also highlighting the benefits of co-collaboration between other countries and Singapore in independent action cinema.
Jonathan kindly took the time to discuss his career so far, and what the future holds for the Singapore independent action film making scene.
Congratulations on the premier of your recent short movie Rogue Cop (2023) which was a crowd favourite at this year’s Fighting Spirit Film Festival in London England.
Why did you choose to remake your own movie Rogue Cop (2016) and how are the two films different?
The original Rogue Cop (2016) was my directorial debut. It has been on my mind for a very long time to see how I could develop the film further now that I have progressed as a film maker.
With Rogue Cop (2023) I wanted to focus more on the drama and the story elements, where as the first one was mainly straight out action orientated. Also this is my tenth action movie so it is a perfect number to reflect on my development in my film career so far and create something special for the viewing audience to enjoy.
Starting back at the beginning of your journey into the martial arts, what is your martial arts background, did you study any specific styles of martial arts that you use in your movies?
Predominantly western boxing, Muay Thai, Brazilian Ju Jitsu. I have studied Chinese Kung Fu in a style called Chow Gar Fist. I have not had a chance to use my classical kung Fu in my films , but I have used it when choreographing fight scenes for Singaporean TV productions. I am definitely open to showcasing more of my classical kung fu fighting in my movies if the role requires it, but at the moment it is more of the contemporary styles that I use.
Singapore, due to it’s location has traditionally been a mixing pot of cultures and influences Malaysia, Hong Kong, India and Korea. What memories are some of your early film and television influences and how did they include your film making?
I grew up with Hong Kong action movies, the stable classics of Jackie Chan, Jet Li and of course .. Donnie Yen. I have always gravitated towards the police procedural or cop dramas, which I like more than kung fu movies. I am very much fanatical about those films. in fact, it was my ambition to be a police office growing up, so that has always influenced my filmmaking, the criminal element and the good guys versus the bad guy’s element. The heroes’ triumphs over the villains in the end in the movies, which isn’t necessarily true in real life.
You initially started out looking to work in a career in the hospitality industry, and then by a chance had an opportunity to audition for a top Singaporean director. You didn’t win the role, but the experience spurned you on to develop yourself further as an actor and film maker. Can you explain a little bit about your journey into the world of film making, did you take any specific acting or film making classes ?
At first, I only wanted to be an actor, but I decided if I had complete control over the whole process, then I wouldn’t have to face setbacks, rejection or having to compromise on my creative vision. I didn’t formally study or take any classes as film-maker, I just did a lot of research, borrowing books from the library. Alot of film makers tend to over think things when they are starting out or developing projects for the first time. For me I didn’t really know what to expect, other than I just wanted to make a movie. I got a few friends together and it all progressed from there. After a while I had pretty much a clear idea of what works and what doesn’t. Confidence in yourself and your creative vision is very important and the determination to make the project work is key.
Early on you modelled your on-screen persona on Donnie Yen. What was it about Donnie you liked and what is currently your favourite of Donnie’s films?
Donnie Yen, even to this current time is still an inspiration in every element of my film making… not to stay there aren’t other martial artists that I admire, but there is something about Donnie’s intensity and the way he carries himself as a person that really appealed to me. In the back of my mind there is always a part of me saying ‘What would Donnie Yen Do…?’ when I am planning and creating my action movies. Also, off screen the things that he had to do to get his projects made, the journey he made when no one wanted to see his films, and the sacrifices that he endured so that he can become the global superstar that he is today, influenced me the most. I have to say my favourite Donnie Yen film is Flashpoint (2007).
If the opportunity presented itself, would you jump at the chance to work with Donnie Yen or any of his stunt team e.g. John Salvitti, Michael Woods?
I would jump at the chance! It is still my biggest ambition to work with Donnie Yen, to see his creative process, even just to be on set with him would be enough to see how he puts the various elements together to form a fight scene. Hopefully, this ambition will come true some day!
How did your Star Wars Fan Film Legend Of Hope Come about?
Actually, the Star Wars fan film – Legend Of Hope (2019) wasn’t for my Raging Fire Productions, but for another company, but it was the first to gain more world wide exposure due to the interest of the Star Wars fan base. I definitely had a lot of fun doing that movie, and got to react my inner Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen`s character in Star Wars Rogue One ) fantasy. It was very exhausting shoot, but a great result, many Sci-fi fans enjoy this.
You started your film production company Raging Fire Productions back in 2015.Was Raging Fire Productions initially just projects for yourself or do you produce other people’s movies as well?
Raging Fire Productions was set up mainly to make my own personal movies, as a director and star, but I am very open up to collaborations, and help promote the Singapore action movie scene, as this is needed for the health for the long-term survival of the movie scene here in Singapore
You are the face of independent action movies in Singapore, do you think the scene will evolve further as your films become more well known, or will it continue to remain a niche industry?
It is very humbling for you to say that I am the face of Singapore action cinema!
I can’t really evaluate the overall scene or surmise what the future of the action industry will be in Singapore, but my main goal is just to make the best films that I possibly can with the hope that the interest in these films will inspire others and cause people to raise their level of film making. I will continue to represent Singapore in my own ways and my own style, and am proud to provide an accurate example for others to take inspiration, and hopefully things will continue to grow from there.
You were called to do National Service and you had put film-making on hold for two years. Were you hesitant about starting film making again after you were repatriated back into civilian life, or did you always have a long-term plan?
Actually, my acting career continued simultaneously during my national service. Thinking back to the Star Wars Fan film (2019), I would carry out my service duties during the week and film the Star Wars movie on the weekend. I never stopped film making at all during that time., it was very exhausting, but rewarding at the same time.
Did national service change your approach to action film making?
I still held my own vision and goal of what I wanted. National service just made me more determined to make my goals happen and gave me the tools to resolve problems that arise when working on new projects. Not to be defeatist, and to focus on what needs to be done to get the film made.
Do you think the west’s misguided perception of Singapore e.g. thinking about Singapore’s tough stances on fines, banning chewing gum in public, draconian human rights laws on certain behaviours tolerated in the west, could stop potential investment in the Singapore action movie scene?
Every culture has their own social norms, and ways of behaving., it is not necessarily an east versus the west. I don’t think outside misconceptions will hinder the growth or stop any potential investment, as it is the quality of the film making and the end result of the action movie that will speak for itself. As the international awards that I have won for my films show, there is an appreciation for Singapore action movies and so potential growth for collaboration and investment in the independent movie industry.
Do you plan on making a full length feature any time soon?
It has always been in the forefront of my mind to make a full-length feature movie. But it has a lot to do with finding the right bunch of people to work with, the right story and the right opportunity. I don’t want to make a full-length movie for the sake of making a full-length film. I won’t say it will happen soon or further in the future, but it is definitely on my mind, so yes one day there will be a full length Jonathan Cheong action movie, so watch this space ..!
You are currently in the UK and Europe filming your first collaborative movies outside of Singapore. Do you plan to do more of these types of collaborative projects?
Yes, definitely, collaboration is key for me. As they say, flowing water never goes stale! That is why I travelled to the UK, as it has so much talent to offer and many creative like minded people willing to give their all to make a project work. Thinking back to the Fighting Spirit Film Festival there was so much creative talent in that room, and a lot of networking potential which is an amazing thing to experience. Hopefully as film makers we can encourage each other, support each other’s projects, and learn new techniques along the way. This definitely an exciting time for worldwide independent global action movies.
Is there a dream project or film style that is on your list of movies that you would like to make?
I have many dream projects, but I don’t want to reveal them in case someone tries to steal them! There have always been ideas on my mind, remaking or taking elements of my previous movies and developing them further as my techniques grow, and expand the potential plots or action of the movie. Hopefully, these current collaborations will lead several of these projects to become reality.
Finally, for fun, if you had a time machine and could work with any actors or characters, either living, dead or fictional in a film, who would you work with , what would the title of the film be called and what would be your film pitch idea?
Well, it has to be Donnie Yen! I can`t think of a title off hand, but the premise would be he is my mentor of some kind, and he forms an Expendables group of Asian action stars like Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais and Veronica Ngo from Furie and they showcase their action acting talents. So, an Asian only Expendables.
Thank you, Jonathan, for your time, hope your collaborative journey filming in the UK goes well and we look forward to seeing your latest movie releases in the forthcoming months ahead.
My pleasure, thank you very much Christopher!
Checkcout Raging Fire Productions here https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtIwoLtjAZ-GO_ZEebae1wQ