The title is the Cantonese word for Westerner and a politically correct version of gweilo (this and gwailo are usually translated as either white ghost or white devil). The first word is surprisingly infrequent among Hong Kong film fans despite the popularity of the Dragon Ball TV sagas (whose inspiration was Drunken Master). Wong Jing (a legendary film cognoscente) is such a big fan of Dragon Ball that he infused characteristics into three of his 1993 movies – Future Cops (a woefully overlooked satire), Perfect Exchange (a misunderstood parody) and Kung Fu Cult Master (an underrated masterpiece).
Hong Kong Superstars is the Holy Grail of H.K. film magazines. I only have issues because I was one of the club members when it began in the late `90s. I feel bad that many fans are missing out, so I decided to reprint the interviews so that future generations can have something to learn from (as an actor or just a fan). This article will concentrate on three Westerners – Thorsten Nickel, Michael Ian Lambert and Darren Shahlavi.
Stuart Cutler did an interview with Thorsten in 1999. When asked about how he became a martial artist and got involved to play the main villain in Thunderbolt, Thor replied:
“When I was younger, I studied Shotokan Karate but then later I got heavily into boxing. Once, though, I got caught by a punch in the ring that just blacked me out for a few minutes and that really scared me. I was still conscious, but I didn’t know where I was, what I was doing or even who I was for those few minutes. That basically was a warning sign to me about what can happen, so I stopped boxing thereafter. Now I train in Thai boxing mainly for fitness, and I do a lot of running. My first big break was when I was playing a character in the Jackie Chan: Kung Fu Master video game. Then, whilst I was working on My Father is a Hero, Gordon Chan offered me the role. It was to be the biggest H.K. production ever shot with a budget of U.S.$ 28 million and filmed on location in Japan, Malaysia and the U.S.A.”
When asked about the schedule of the production and the amount of driving that he did, Nickel responded:
“It lasted six months in all and I did most of my own driving, except for the dangerous stunts obviously. It was a strange feeling when it came out in Hong Kong because I attended the big première and experienced overnight fame. Suddenly, everybody wanted to talk to me, take photos and ask for signatures. Being a big blonde Westerner, it was hard not to attract attention; although none of this happened to me before Thunderbolt.”
When asked about what was next for him, Nick stated:
“I’m waiting for Thunderbolt to come out in the U.S. sometime this year. They keep saying it’ll happen, but then it gets put back on hold again. When it does, that should open a whole new market for me. I’ve recently made a movie in Canada called Crisis, which is an action/drama and I co-star with David Bradley. The temperature was 25 degrees below zero most of the time! I am also going to be starring in an action TV series entitled Puma in my home country of Germany for one of their biggest channels called RTL. Donnie Yen will be working on it as a fight choreographer. As much as I am proud of what I’ve already done, this will at least be something my parents can watch and understand properly; so I am looking forward to that. Perhaps Jackie will want to use me for one of his future projects too, because we got on really well together.”
Mike Lambert was interviewed by Chris Ducker in 1999. He explained how he became a mainstay of martial arts cinema:
“Obviously, the guys that inspired me to get into the business were people like Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Jimmy Wang Yu. Although, the one person that really made me think seriously about it was Bey Logan. One day, he said to me: You can get into movies, just pick what way you want to go – the West or the East. I chose Hong Kong because it was easier to get there, no Green card needed and all that, so that’s how I got to Hong Kong. Within two weeks, I was doing some work on a video game where they wanted me to do several moves and stances which were used to basically transform me onto the video game screen. After that, I got the chance at being in The Quest with Van Damme.”
This is no such thing as Silence of the Lambert when asked to differentiate between being a professional kickboxer and being a professional stuntman:
“In tournaments, you fight very close – everything is in close quarters. In the movies, you have to elaborate every single move, so it’s bigger and looks good for the camera. So yeah, there’s a big difference between the two. I’ve probably been hurt more doing movies though.”
The Lambert who didn’t get raped and killed in Alien had this to say about working with Chan on two movies:
“Well, it was great. Obviously, to be able to make movies with a guy you’ve looked up to for years is fantastic, so I enjoyed every minute of it. My part in Thunderbolt wasn’t a very big part, mostly stunt work, but the experience was second to none. The role I played in Who Am I? was a lot bigger. I was, in fact, due to have the end fight scene with Jackie, but everything ran behind schedule and they didn’t have enough time to set up the shots they wanted, so that scene was cut from the script. Jackie is a great guy, a lot of fun to be around and a fantastic movie maker; but if you get on the wrong side of him on a film set, he’ll go crazy. Movies are his life, so when he’s making one, he’ll put everything into it. He’s a nice fellow 99% of the time, but that other 1% – boom! But really, a really cool guy.”
Lambert discusses Black Mask – a superhero movie which he was in:
“Great. Every movie you make, you learn something. I learnt a lot on that set. The action director, Yuen Woo-Ping, was great. The sets were great. I think my fighting was pretty good too. Jet is a fantastic martial artist although he, like Jackie, isn’t the best kicker in the world, he makes up for it whilst using props and weapons. Once again, a really nice guy to work with. I like that movie. If you work consistently throughout the summer, it can almost kill you. I was working on Black Mask and Best of the Best, an S.A.S. movie, at the same time. It was July, and I was going from one set to the other. I was losing about 9 pounds a day in fluids. When you get home, you’re so tired but you have to drink and eat to put the weight back on. Then, the next day, you lose it all again. It’s very hard. In fact, knackering!”
Mike goes from talking about working with Li to Lee (same pronunciation) in Enter the Eagles (which was originally meant to be filmed entirely in Prague):
“At first, I was like – My God, I’m working with Bruce Lee’s daughter in her first H.K. movie. Then I thought to myself – Just get on with it. The novelty wore off very quickly, but I think the scenes we did together were very good. Shannon was very good, especially for someone who only had limited training. She was very competent and able to hold her own. The movie starts well, the story is okay but, like many H.K. movies, they used the budget up too quickly, so towards the end of the movie – it drops off slightly. The cast is a good one, though. Also, Golden Harvest have done a good job in promoting it, so the movie will do well. Although I feel her next movie will be the best of the two that she is signed to do.”
Unfortunately, that movie never happened because she was homesick. After working with Sammo Hung and Corey Yuen on that movie, she would’ve benefited from taking some time off before working with Yuen Woo-Ping after his stint on The Matrix (albeit if Golden Harvest were savvy enough to follow through on this). Back to H.K. Superstars, Darren Shahlavi was also interviewed by Mr. Cutler in 1999. When asked about how he was lucky enough to play the main villain as opposed to the main Western villain in Tai Chi II, he answered:
“This movie all came about whilst I was in Hong Kong and I met up with Anthony Wong Wing-Fai, who was one of the producers. He promised me a role in their new movie and I just thought – Yeah, right. That’s what they all say! I was doing some work as a nightclub bouncer and I was called back by him to meet up with director Yuen Woo-Ping. I showed him a few kicks and stuff then he said he’d like to use me. At first, I think he wasn’t too sure what I could and couldn’t do, but when I told him I’d do anything – that’s when my role became much bigger and, as we were filming, it eventually evolved into the principal bad guy.”
He was then asked to talk about a Gary Daniels movie (titled Blood Moon) that had its world première on the HBO channel. He said:
“The director, Tony Leung Siu-Hung, based my character on Hwang Jang-Lee, so he gave me a long-haired wig and even tried to give me a moustache, but I said no to that. He reckoned the hair looked good in slow motion, plus Gary had just had his hair cut short for this movie, so we kept that.”
He was then asked to talk about the film after that – Hostile Environment. He confessed:
“We had to use police officers as extras for the fight scenes who we recruited by going down to their local gym. Considering they’d never done anything like this before, the fights turned out pretty good.”
Lastly, he was asked to open up about working with the notorious (if not exactly nefarious) Phillip Ko on Techno Warriors. He confided:
“We filmed for 8 or 9 weeks mostly outdoors, primarily on the beach, in full costume doing non-stop fight sequences and I suffered from heat exhaustion not surprisingly! They wanted to get as much footage on film so that they could make two films out of it for the price of one.”
In 1999, he turned down the chance to work with Cynthia Rothrock on Tiger Claws 3 because he didn’t want to play the typical martial arts villain that you find in American B movies. Additionally, a film project that fell through the cracks was a straight-to-video screenplay titled Embassy. The star was going to be Mickey Rourke. Unfortunately, Mr. Shahlavi died of a heart attack in 2015. What makes his death sadder is that, in 2009, he had mentioned in an interview about someone sabotaging him so that he wouldn’t play Patrick Lung’s role in Black Mask.
He didn’t mention the person’s name, but he said that he used to see him as a big brother. Lambert is a year older, whereas Winston Ellis is 7 years older. The former had more of a chance to shine than the latter, as Shahlavi slightly hinted: “It amazed me how someone can jeopardise a great opportunity for someone they know, mistakenly believing it will create a chance for themselves.”
Still not convinced? Mark Houghton mentioned in an interview that Darren used to live with Winston in H.K. because they already knew each other in England. Winston had initially hired Darren (then 17 years old) to work at his bodybuilding gym in Reading. It was Winston who is responsible for Darren having a movie career in the first place, because he introduced him to Bey Logan whereas the latter introduced him to Mark (who trained him how to be a stuntman and hired him for three movies in Malaysia).