[Article] Shin Koyomada: LAST SAMURAI to Last Monk in WENDY WU

I found an article about Shin made by Kung Fu Magazine. Pretty interstesing. Have a look :).

Every now and then a new martial arts film comes along that slips under the radar. It sounds puffy-wuffy. It seems intended for a different audience. So it gets largely ignored by the diehard martial arts fans wanting bone-splitting kicks, blood-spurting punches and big-time flexing by some muscle-bound former world champion of a karate or kickboxing association.

But sometimes these little films are truer to the soul and virtues of the martial arts than any hardcore bloodfest, revealing the importance of training and philosophical development that so many martial artists neglect.
WENDY WU: HOMECOMING WARRIOR is one such blip on the screen that warrants catching. Targeting a younger audience, it will be playing on the Disney Channel for the next month. Not only does it feature some solid action and a positive take on martial arts, it stars THE LAST SAMURAI's up-and-coming Shin Koyamada in a rare martial arts film role. What you may not realize is that the Los Angeles-based Koyamada is a legitimate martial artist who has chosen martial arts as a way of life rather than as a way of film.

"To me, when it comes to my life, I live my life as a martial artist," Koyamada recently told kungfumagazine.com. "And that it just isn't about kicking and punching, but understanding the philosophy of life around the arts. Through training I have learned focus, discipline, and then I can apply those things to improve myself as a person and as an actor, and to be successful in film roles other than just martial arts movies."

Koyamada began his training in the Okinawan martial arts (kei shin kai karate), and since moving to the United States has been absorbed in the Northern Shaolin kung fu. Northern Shaolin was founded by iron palm specialist Ku Yu Cheung, who passed away in 1952. One of the Five Tigers of Northern China, Cheung was noted for breaking 12 bricks with one strike and for killing a ferocious fighting horse with a simple slap.
"As I started training, I realized that it is important to understand where martial arts comes from, its history, and to know what you train and where that comes from too," Koyamada explains. "It is also important to know internal and external training, and how that is balanced. We spoke three years ago, and back then I didn't know these things. I'm still learning and trying to find out these things. Proper training changes your life, helps you see things, and hopefully makes you humble."

 As many an intelligent actor has learned, he strives to put himself in new situations, ever re-defining himself to avoid being pigeon-holed. Koyamada learned this worthwhile lesson from one of Hollywood's top box office draws, Tom Cruise.

"I know LAST SAMURAI was an action film," he shares. "But for me, 90% of my scenes were about acting and drama. Which is good, because since that film, my roles have been drama pieces, and so I'm not considered a martial arts star but an actor. If you look at Tom's career, he's done MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and then JERRY MAGUIRE. Plus, you don't want to choose a character that your fans wouldn't recognize and like. So this is how I wish to model my career, doing different things. Tom told me to always choose the right role and be wise. It is a simple yet very effective piece of advice."
Based on that advice, Koyamada followed LAST SAMURAI with CONSTELLATION (2005), a feature film in which he plays a young Japanese man who owns a paint company during tumultuous racial times in the deep south.

As for WENDY WU, Koyamada points out several reasons why he came out of the martial arts film closet to do it, the most important being to share a positive message specifically for children.

"And what better way to do that than to do a film for the Disney Channel?" Koyamada proffers. "Kids love comedy, drama for girls and action for boys, and this film has both. Plus, with doing a kid's film, I can grow with my fans over time. Time is equal for everyone. It's important to have a fan base following you all the way and watch you growing in the films as well. With Tom's film career, he has grown with his fans. No matter how bad or good a movie he does, fans like to see him because they've been with him so many years."

When you speak to Koyamada, he's jolly yet serious, theatrical yet grounded, a natural charmer; and though he has an air of confidence, it does not detract from the sincerity with which he tries to make a difference in the world. What's refreshing about Koyamada is that although he doesn't boast about his martial arts skills, he finds great joy in sharing his love of the arts.

"I have always wanted to do an action film," he admits, "and show my martial art abilities in a different way and to try to reach out to kids. I believe kids are getting spoiled nowadays and don't know the true essence of martial arts. Although the film is entertaining, one of the main messages for the kids is that kung fu is a way of life, and that it is not about kicking someone's butt."

Shot in New Zealand, WENDY WU is packed with some highly spectacular (if borrowed) martial arts action, Asian mysticism and sleight-of-hand humor. It is the story of an all-American suburban girl named Wendy (played by the lovable and bubbly Brenda Song; THE SUITE LIFE OF ZACK & CODY), who learns to accept her warrior destiny and embrace her ancient Chinese heritage. Originally proposed by executive producer Ralph Farquhar as a martial arts television series with a boy in the lead role, the idea developed over three years into a story for a television movie.

"Actually the pitch meeting was very interesting," Koyamada says with a grin. ?We went up to the Disney Channel floor, cleared the conference room for space, brought in all the Disney execs, then I whipped out two broadswords and performed a double broadsword form. I did it, it was successful and afterwards we talked. The next day they offered to do it."

Wendy is an average, popular American teenager whose life is turned upside down by a visit from Shen (Koyamada). Shen, the last of a fading group of Chinese monks, tells her that she is the reincarnation of a powerful female warrior, the only person who can prevent an ancient evil spirit from destroying the world. Shen's job is to prepare and train her mind, body and spirit for the ultimate battle.
When I caught up with Brenda Song, she shared with me that WENDY WU hit closer to home that one might think. Song is half-Thai and half-Hmong (indigenous peoples of the mountainous regions of southern China that cross into northern Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand), something easy to forget when you're born in California and raised under the watchful eye of Hollywood and all that goes with the entertainment industry.

"This is the first time I've played a real character," Song reflects solemnly. "The stuff I do on TV is usually over the top, but on this film I learned from this character. In the film we're telling kids not to lose their heritage, and the irony is that it occurred to me that I was losing mine. So when I returned to California, I asked my dad a million questions about our heritage. Everything happens for a reason, and it seems this film was telling me what we were telling kids. I'm 18, but it's never too late to learn."

Similar to Koyamada, this film offered Song a good opportunity to show fans her background in martial arts.
"I have a black belt in tae kwon do from about eight years ago," Song reminisces. "I wanted to take dance, but my brother was doing tae kwon do, and my mother said she didn't want to drive us to two places. I never thought I'd do martial arts for film because I did it as a hobby. But for this film I had to learn Shaolin kung fu, some wushu, stunt fighting and wire work. And since Shin and I have different martial art backgrounds, we were able to share the ins and outs of each other's arts.

"Because of my dad, I grew up watching old kung fu films like THE FIVE VENOMS, IRON MONKEY and Jackie Chan's first DRUNKEN MASTER, so I was excited that in WENDY WU we tried to incorporate these old school fights into the film. I don't mind doing more martial arts films. It was invigorating every night to know you had nailed a scene."
Veteran stunt coordinator and visual effects unit director Koichi Sakamoto (POWER RANGERS) choreographed the fight scenes using what he calls a "modern traditional" style of kung fu based on five different animals: snake, dragon, tiger, crane and leopard. These were the kind of martial arts nuances made popular in the 1970s kung fu movies.

Song muses, "We trained three months before shooting, and when we got to New Zealand, Koichi gave us the choreography 10 minutes beforehand, because he wanted it raw and real. So during training, it was not about learning choreography but how to do techniques; then Koichi would put them together on set.
"It was the first time I did wire stuff, and on day one when they shot me up, I spun and kicked three times. Because we all got excited that I nailed it, they dropped me down a little hard. When I landed on one foot, we heard a huge pop; my ankle double-rolled and I tore a ligament on the back of my ankle. It was an old injury from when I used to compete in tae kwon do. It was scary. I was in a motorized wheelchair for two weeks, and the fights had to be rescheduled toward the end of the shoot. Even though I'm a girl, I'm used to pain from previous training, but this taught me about my limitations."
For Koyamada, it was the second time he had done fights for Koichi since working together on POWER RANGERS: WILD FORCE. In fact, when WENDY WU was pitched to Disney, having Koichi on board as the fight director was part of the deal. So how was working on WENDY WU different from LAST SAMURAI?

"A lot different," Koyamada says with a laugh. "We shot LAST SAMURAI in eight months, and this was done in 24 days. It was so crazy. Koichi is so quick, doing 100 shots a day. He shows us what we have to do, rehearse a few times, then bam, shoot it. So after the shot, I'm saying, 'What was the move again?' (laughs) We all thought there was no way we could finish in 24 days. But we shot 12 hours a day, six days a week and finished on time. I at least had a little advantage with my martial arts background, and that was good, because I was able to focus on the storyline and do research on Chinese culture."
 One of the most impressive things about these two up-and-coming young actors is how they are aligned in standing for important causes and principles, rather than being all about, "me, me, me."
"I find kids are becoming more uneducated and being distracted by other things," Song says with concern. "Some kids worry more about wearing the coolest outfit or having the coolest phone, and don't know about politics or what's going on in the world. To me, it's important to reach out to kids and let them know that an education is very valuable. You have to follow your dreams, and you can do that with education. No matter how pretty you are or how good you are in basketball, without an education, you can't go anywhere and you won?t be satisfied. Regardless of what happens in life, they can take away your boyfriend and career, but no one can take away your knowledge."

Koyamada adds (echoing what Song mentioned earlier about the importance of not forgetting one's identity and traditions), "But accepting another culture isn't meaning that you are forgetting who you are and where you come from. Also, when you move to, say, England or America, you need to adapt yourself to that culture, language and new environment. When you know yourself, it helps you to be humble; and although your lifestyle changes, it doesn't mean that the inside of you has to change.
"I also believe that whatever makes you stronger, believe it. Some people say Scientology is not good. How do you know? It can give someone something to believe in and empower them. So I believe in myself. I tell young people to pursue their dream, and maybe with martial arts, you can do that. Furthermore, it's essential to say that martial arts is not all about helping yourself, but helping other people."



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