Andy Cheng has earned tremendous kudos as the fight choreographer of the bus scene in Marvel’s recent “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” The scene took nearly a year to plan and execute, and serves to demonstrate Simu Liu’s previously-hidden skills to an open-mouthed Awkwafina, and has since been released by Marvel as a standalone YouTube clip.
Cheng is now hard at work trying to shape the next Asian superhero as action director, stunt coordinator and fight choreographer on “Knights of the Zodiac: Saint Seiya,” a live action adaptation of hit Japanese animated property “Saint Seiya.” The film wrapped up shooting last week in Budapest, Hungary.
“We don’t have the same amount of time or available budget as on ‘Shang Chi.’ But the goal is absolutely the same,” Cheng told Variety. “To craft something very unique that is rooted in Asian culture and has universal appeal.”
The property began as a 1980s comic book series (manga) about five mystical warriors known as saints, who wear special outfits and have sworn to defend the reincarnated Greek goddess Athena who is threatened by the other Olympian deities. Toei Animation adapted it as various formats of animated series (anime) and as three anime movies.
The move to give “Knights” a live action dimension is also backed by Toei Animation, part of one of the oldest and most powerful Japanese movie studios. The company regards “Knights” as the first part of a film franchise that could run to six or seven separate movies. It has endowed it with an unconfirmed budget of close to $60 million.
While still in production, “Knights” already secured global distribution (excluding Japan, China and the Middle East) through Hollywood studio Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions.
Working from a script by Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken, the film is directed by Tomasz Baginski, the Polish animator and special effects ace who previously worked on “The Witcher.” It stars Sean Bean, Famke Janssen and Madison Iseman, with 24-year-old Mackenyu in the title role as Pegasus Seiya.
Mackenyu is the Los Angeles-born son of the late Japanese action star Sonny Chiba, and has to date had a career focused mainly in Japan. His breakout there was in the “Chihayafuru” action trilogy, with recent highlights including roles in “Rurouni Kenshin: The Final,” and his previous biggest English-language title “Pacific Rim: Uprising.”
Hong Kong-born Cheng, who for many years was part of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, and has credits including “Rush Hour” and Netflix action hit “6 Underground,” says that the performer and the new role together have what it takes to launch the next Asian super-hero, and propel Mackenyu to major international stardom.
“Mackenyu is the full package. He is handsome enough to work with little makeup, has a fantastic body, and, thanks to his father, has been steeped in martial arts since an early age,” says Cheng. Unlike many other Asian martial artists who have flickered on the international movie scene, Mackenyu performs in English as a native speaker.
Cheng says that the film world has room for more than one Asian superhero and for those hailing from outside the Marvel comic universe. “I don’t care where they come from. Superheroes are important for all races. They are something for kids to look up to. But in this department Asia has been under-represented,” says Cheng, who believes the industry is already shifting its outlook. “China is now the world’s biggest box office market. Asia is where the money is.”
Cheng says that “Knights” is Asian-made, rather than a product of Hollywood. At the same time, the producers and screenwriters have been careful not to overwhelm Western audiences by throwing every detail of fantasy from the comics and series onto the screen.
“This is definitely a first movie, one where we introduce the hero. We deliberately try not to make the story too big,” says Cheng. “I was given a huge amount of creative freedom, even as an editor, and it is a responsibility I take seriously.
“We chose to create a look that is close to the original material, and a story line that is adapted from the originals. But the action is not the same. It simply cannot be as fast as you see it depicted on the pages of a comic.”
“In the West, martial arts films have for too long been seen as B-movie content. ‘Shang-Chi’ may be helping to change that. It was like the first bullet in favor of Asian film culture. ‘Knights of the Zodiac’ may be the double tap,” says Cheng who says has no other current plans than to work on the next films in the franchise.