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Acrobatics Meet Glamour: The High-Risk, High-Reward Life of a Professional Stuntman

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We have all heard of Tom Cruise and Jackie Chan performing their own death-defying stunts, but rarely hear of local talent making the headlines. For starters, Jonathan Cheong is one of the few Singaporeans to make it out of anonymity and into coveted limelight.

Journey to fame

Cheong started out with small-scale martial arts choreographies, such as Rogue Cop (2016) and Rebound (2017) under Raging Fire Productions, which is his own film production company, garnering little recognition for his efforts.

But it wasn’t long before he finally got his big break.

In 2019, he released yet another martial arts short film, Coalition, about two hitmen from two different factions sent to hunt down a rogue hitman.

This time, much to his amazement, the short film was officially selected by two renowned film festivals: the New York Urban International Action Film Festival and the Canadian International Short Film Festival.

Furthermore, it won the “Script Selection” award from the Urban Action Showcase International Action Film Festival, the premier action and pop culture entertainment platform supported by the likes of WarnerMedia and HBO/Cinemax.

The two protagonists featured in the film (the hitmen from the two different factions) were Jonathan himself and an esteemed local stuntman, Kasimir Poh Cieslak.

A well-received foray into the world of fan films

Yet, despite Jonathan’s sudden breakthrough as an action choreographer/stuntman, he did not stop there. Instead, he went on to plan a Star Wars fan film for a year (since 2019) before finally releasing it on YouTube in the first week of May, much to the overwhelming approval of the space opera franchise’s fans.

Legend Of Hope: A Star Wars Fan Film is a speculation of the events following the enactment of Order 66 by the Sith Order in order to topple its Jedi antithesis. In this 20 minute-long film that tells the story of two surviving Jedis, stunning special effects blend seamlessly with synchronised and well-timed battle movements adjusted specially for the lightsaber.

This was a bold departure for Jonathan from his usual martial arts routines and a refreshing sight for the Star Wars fandom.

The risk factor of stunts

When asked if he had had any fear going into stunts at the start of his career, he replied, “To be honest, at the beginning it was very ballsy of me to the point that I even told the person I was fighting with to use real knives. It was just me imitating whatever I saw on screen and going, you know what, I’m going to do my own stunts. I’m not going to have any safety precautions or padding. I was just going to do it myself.”

Even Jet Li, the veteran martial artist/stuntman whom Jonathan has always looked up to, has racked up a number of serious injuries over the years, with one of his worst injuries being a fractured fifth vertebrae while he was in his twenties.

Behind-the-scenes preparations

While a stuntman’s fluid action sequences may exude unfaltering confidence on-screen, a large amount of hard work and preparations are what actually go on behind the scenes.

Peps Goh, an actor and fight choreographer who has worked for Universal Studios Singapore and theatre performances, would spend almost a day just to perfect his imitations of fight scenes from Avatar: The Legend of Korra before filming them.

This was his way of keeping himself busy during the circuit breaker in the first half of the year.

Ironically, the most tedious part of his videos’ production lay in his sourcing for stunts, from the animated series, that were realistic enough for him to perform.

In fact, he would require anywhere from two hours to two days to film a clip that was about half a minute long, depending on the complexity of the sequence being performed.

Do Singaporean stuntmen have what it takes to make it in Hollywood?

According to Mark Wahlberg’s stunt double, Sean Graham, working as a stuntman in Hollywood requires tremendous “courage, instincts, timing, strength and dedication” amidst a highly “competitive business”. He further adds that having talent alone is not enough and that stuntmen must utilise it properly in order to stand out from the crowd.

He also provided the example of how he had had to change his body weight along with Mark Wahlberg’s for most of his 15 years as the famous Hollywood actor’s stunt double, illustrating that sacrifice is necessary on any stuntman’s part.

Gene LeBell, the stuntman who had worked alongside Bruce Lee in the 1966–1967 edition of The Green Hornet, gave a reality check to all martial artists out there aspiring to become successful stuntmen in the unforgiving movie industry when he said that they must be able to “drive cars…drive motorcycles; do rappelling, scuba diving and high falls; deal with fire….”

He also suggested that they attend stunt training provided by trusted academies to learn these requisite skills.

From the looks of it, Cheong and his contemporaries may need more than just guts and sheer passion for martial arts choreography to capture Hollywood’s attention.

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