Willie Ying’s career as a stuntman was going really well.
But after one too many painful falls onto hard concrete, he looked over at the director’s chair and thought ‘I’d rather be sitting there’.
The Chinese New Zealander knew he had his own stories to tell and it was time to take his place behind the camera.
One of those stories could easily be his own journey from bullied little boy to martial arts master and eventually, film maker.
Willie was 12 when he moved to New Zealand from China. He couldn’t speak English and worse, he didn’t know how to play rugby. The other kids at Kelston Boys' High were merciless.
“Every time I got tackled, the kids were saying some bad words about me and I was pretty angry and got into a fight…one of my friends said ‘this is what happens at Kelston Boys so you have just got to learn the way to fit in’.”
Willie decided he needed to learn how to defend himself. He started training in his backyard with a sandbag and a secret weapon; the wisdom of martial arts champion, Bruce Lee.
He had brought one of Lee’s books with him to New Zealand and it soon came in handy in his quest to become “tough”.
He started training daily in Muay Thai at a Mt Albert gym.
“I was training really hard and after a few days of training, I would go back and I would challenge other boys in the school to test my skills.”
By 19, Willie knew a range of martial arts styles, including Kung Fu and Karate. He started working in the stunt industry, specialising in high wire acrobatics.
Willie worked a lot with Mark Harris, a 30-year veteran of the industry with his own stunt company. It was Mark who gave him one of his first big breaks – on the children’s TV series, Power Rangers.
Mark says stunt work take a lot of determination.
“It’s a hard industry because there are big gaps between work, there’s other people that obviously want to do the job, and you’ve got to be good and committed to keep doing it.”
The job includes fight work and lots of potentially painful technical falls.
“You might be doing that 20 times onto concrete and you’ve got to get up and just do it again and again. And the skill comes in doing it without hurting yourself and then getting it right the first time on camera.”
Willie left New Zealand for Beijing in 2012 after being offered work as a stunt co-ordinator. His painful epiphany came soon afterwards.
“When I did falls and all that on the concrete, I was looking at the director ‘yes or no’? The director could come up and say ‘can we do again?’”
It was then he decided it might be easier to sit in the director’s chair and he made that his goal.
The Final Blade
And now, four feature films into his new career, Willie is getting some serious attention. His action-comedy film, The Final Blade, has netted him 10 international awards so far.
The award that means the most is his “Remi Special Jury Award” from the 51st WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival. A previous winner had been his director idol, Ang Lee.
Awards aside, what Willie really loves is seeing audiences enjoying The Final Blade, a quest story in which a noodle shop owner and his apprentice must protect something called ‘the chicken cup’ from the bad guys.
He says the cup is the “key” to opening a cave, which contains a lot of treasure.
Willie comes home to New Zealand as often as he can and he misses our fish and chips when he’s away. Beijing offers him more opportunities right now, but he hopes to return here next year to make a movie.
And perhaps he’s come full circle – he now looks back at his time at Kelston Boys' High with some affection.
“If I didn’t go to Kelston Boys, I wouldn’t start doing martial arts, obviously. And if I [didn’t] start doing martial arts, it wouldn’t have given me a strong mind...
“Because in filmmaking we need a lot of [persistence] in what we do…so, I think Kelston Boys gave me that.”
But does he miss the life of a daring stunt professional? A little, sure. Willie says some of his mates have gone on to do some pretty impressive things.
“They [have] gone so far, as well. So, if I was one of them, I could do big Hollywood movies…but obviously at some point, you have to make a decision about what you really want to do.”
Willie Ying will return to New Zealand for the premier in Auckland of The Final Blade on 9 August.