"Seven Dragonballs must be found
For all mankind's fate will be bound
to battle faces of death and fear
and command Shenron to appear..."
Chow Yun-Fat stands in the center of an Asian prayer temple, twirling his bo staff while reciting the above verse, over and over again.
"I think you need oil," he says to the camera operator after the fifth take. He's referring to the tracks the camera is mounted on. The sequence stars framed on a full-body shot and pushes in gradually for a tight-close up by the end of the verse. They can't seem to time the tracking right, so Chow smiles and gamely recites once more, this time subbing "Dragon God" for "Shenron".
I'm guessing this could be the opening sequence of 20th Century Fox's movie 'Dragonball: Evolution', setting the stage for the mythology in a neat little poem, delivered by Master Roshi. If so, it's a tiny bit ironic then that this is also the actor's last on-camera work for the film.
We met Chow earlier in the day, near the very beginning of our visit to the set in Durango, Mexico. We're gathered near one of the green screen stages at the Jeans Factory facility. Chow walks past wearing kahki cargo pants and a red Hawaiian shirt over a long-sleeved yellow T-shirt. He offers the gathered reporters from various U.S. websites a friendly smile before moving on.
Moments later, Chow returns for some second unit filming on the green screen stage. He lounges in a cart that rests before a floor-to-ceiling backdrop. Stage hands bounce the cart as wind machines blow and cameras roll. Chow plays Roshi happy and relaxed, as if he's enjoying a drive in a convertible on a summer day.
We'll find out later that these close ups are for a training sequence in the kung-fu film. We're asked to imagine that Goku (played by Justin Chatwin in the film) is running along the cliff-tops, carrying Roshi's enormous turtle-esque backpack. Bulma (Emmy Rossum) follows on her speeder, pulling Roshi in the cart behind. The scenery will be added in post production.
Chow takes a break and they reset the stage with large mats for stunt falls. When Chow returns he's joined by a puppeteer who wears on her right hand the massive white claw of the Oozaru. The Oozaru is the beast form that sometimes overtakes young Goku.
In the anime the Oozaru is very simian in form, with brown fur. The character models and animatronics we've seen on the set suggest something slightly more alien, with pale skin and no fur.
The puppeteer has to stand on a wooden box so that she can be taller than Chow. Then the Oozaru claw strikes and Master Roshi goes down in a heap. Chow falls on the mat, pauses a beat and stands up to do the shot over, and over again.
As we watch, we're told by the publicist that the actor will be able to chat with us after they've completed the shot. There's no time to set up a conference room, as Chow is very busy, so he just wants to hold the chat right there on the corner of the green stage.
We're told to gather around Chow's chair as the filming of the Oozaru swipe wraps. All the reporters sit cross-legged or kneel on the stone floor. I remain standing until the last possible minute, as a knee injury is acting up and kneeling for very long will become painful.
Chow picks up the wooden box that the puppeteer has been using and strides towards us, smiling warmly. He notices that I'm the only one standing and offers me his chair. Chagrined I tell him, "I'm not going to sit in your chair, Mr. Chow." I kneel on the floor with the rest.
Chow pushes his chair aside. He instead and sits down on the wooden box, so as not to hover over us like a school teacher over little children.
Just as the questioning gets underway, Chow notices that we're all straining to extend our recorders towards him, so he pulls that chair back in close. He gathers up our recorders and places them on the chair.
I'm struck by how considerate the man is towards us. Now we can all comfortably enjoy a conversation with Mater Roshi, Chow Yun-Fat.
Q: Who is Master Roshi?
Chow: Master Roshi...have you ever seen the cartoon?
I had a chance to see all the cartoons and the comic books. Based on the story itself, from the script, Master Roshi is a very funny guy, with a sense of humor. He's the master of a superpower.
Because Master Roshi has a lot of superpowers, and he has to carry on his good friend Gohan, so he has to take care of Goku.
I like the master and student relationship. It's not like the traditional Chinese kind of sifu, master and student. It's more like he's my friend.
Q: What made you want to do 'Dragonball'?
Chow: I think the character itself. I've never had this kind of character from the comic books. For me it's brand new. Comedy, drama, action, all the CGI.
Q: Were you a fan of the 'Dragon Ball' anime?
Chow: Honestly, when they released in 1986 or 85, that period I was so busy. I was in Hong Kong doing all of John Woo's movies, so ...[laughs]... but I can catch up later.
Q: Are you getting good at working with the CGI by now?
Chow: No...first time. First time.
I did some wire work in 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon'. One or two shots were CGI but this movie, more than 40-50% is CGI.
Q: Do you do Martial Arts as well?
Chow: A little bit. A little bit. More or less it's a superpower. I do the action and they will do the CGI.
Q: How would you describe Master Roshi's sense of humor?
Chow: Sort of the ingredients were already written in the script. Sense of humor is from the cartoon characters.
Q: So, in the comics he's actually kind of a dirty old man, very lecherous. Does that translate in this movie version?
Chow: I think [director James Wong] did a very good job, to balance the east and west. They know the audience in West or Europe, they don't accept this kind of over-the-top...you know...maybe not shootable for R-Rating
[Chow laughs hard as if imagining the more profane Roshi from the manga or anime]
If Master Roshi is the character from the comic book, that will be very crazy, you know? Impossible!
I saw the script, which is very very appropriate for my character now. Not too much. You can sense it a little bit. For instance, in the cartoon, Master Roshi more than 300 years old. He's a dirty old man with white beard. This is sort of different.'
Q: Can you talk about working with James Wong?
Chow: James Wong is a writer and director and he controls everything. He knows how to play every single scene. He gives me a lot of room to create Master Roshi.
I realize that sometimes -- not sometimes -- all the time, I'm over the top. He's telling me, "Mr. Chow, too much. Too much. Pull back," which is good because this is the first attempt for actor and director to make a movie, which is not a United States comic book. It's from the east.
So East and West coming together -- you have to think about it. You have to use some technique and some skill to make a balance: Yin and yang.
Q: How do you like working in comedy as opposed to action?
Chow: Action is more physical. Comedy, more or less, is difficult for all actors, except Jim Carey. The timing for comedy is very difficult. I try. I try. I hope you like it.
Q: But you're more comfortable with two guns in your hands, right?
Chow: Not exactly. As an Asian actor in Hollywood I'm a minority.
So every part in here, some part in there: A killer. Comedy. Kung Fu Master. Whatever. I just want some more exposure.
Q: Can you tell us what you'll be working on next?
Chow: Next will be a drama. It's called Shanghai. It happened in 1940 when the French, British, American, Japanese took over Shanghai. One of China mainland's actress Gong Li, John Cusack and Japanese superstar Ken Watanabe. It's very serious drama with love, with betrayal and friendship. Everything in one port.
Q: How many 'Dragonball' sequels are you signed to do?
Chow: I don't know, because the control is not in my hands. It's my wife. [laugh] If she's happy to let me go on and on I will take Roshi another 40, 50 episodes.
I don't know.
Q: Are you comfortable acting in English as opposed to...
Chow: Honestly, I'm still learning every day with my coach. My English bad.
If you stick to Hong Kong, making all the Hong Kong dramatic movies, sooner or later you come up with a good idea and Hollywood will buy you out and replace the director and put some good actor in and release it in English.
I think it's a good opportunity to let me learn more English in here, more opportunity for my age. If I'm acting in my country, it will be a very limited character for me, because I'm already over 50. This is the fact. You have to face it.
If I explode in the Western world, there'll be more opportunity for me.
Q: What's the relationship with the other actors? Do Justin Chatwin and Emmy Rossum ask you questions? Do you ask them questions?
Chow: They more or less respect Master Roshi as Chow Yun-Fat.
We have a lot of fun on the set. You know Emmy, she knows how to sing and dance, and Yamcha [Joon Park] is a rap singer and Justin loves music. Every day on the set its like a party. Lot of fun. Even though I'm over 50 I'm still like 25.
Q: What are you learning anything from them?
Chow: Energy. And crazy thinking. Not ordinary.
Q: Can you tell us what you were doing in that cart scene? Where you were going?
Chow: This is traveling with the bike. I'm in the trailer. Bulma is driving all along the desert and I'm watching over there...is Goku, carrying a big backpack and running towards the mountain. It's a kind of training.
Q: So there's going to be mountains on the green screen.
Chow: Yeah. I just act to the air. Funny.
Q: What was the most challenging scene in 'Dragonball'?
Chow: Opening scene. The opening scene. You have to make it funny. Make it serious. Tell the younger generation that Bulma and Goku are coming to my home looking for the 'Dragonball'.
Finally I have to tell them the background story.
Q: Have you done comedy in your own language?
Chow: Oh yes.
Q: Is it harder when you do it in English?
Chow: Absolutely, because I don't have the English sense of humor. In my language I have tons of it. In English you get down to the slang...to the culture. It's not easy.
Q: Is 'Dragonball' more about physical comedy?
Chow: Yeah, yeah. Funny things. Mostly use the body. What can I do?
Q: So you're not cracking too many jokes.
Chow: No. I only use my dirty hands.
Q: Because you're a lecherous old man.
Chow: Yes! Exactly! Exactly.
Q: As an Asian actor, in Hollywood you have a lot of stereotypical roles...
Chow: Gangster or waiter or mafia drug dealer...
Q: Do you feel like this is a nice change of pace for you, in terms of your acting career?
Chow: For an actor its a great opportunity to let the audience see another side of Chow Yun-Fat. Maybe you can see Yun-Fat in 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon', or maybe you can see 'King of Siam', but he's carry two guns. He's always a killer.
So more or less, as an actor, at a certain level or certain stage, you really want to change. Not in the money way or the working way. It's the temptation of the characters. I want more different direction.
Q: Is there an ideal role that you'd want to play?
Chow: A character without speak a word. That would be fine. I don't need any kind of coach at all.
Fans can check out Chow Yun-Fat's not-so-filthy Master Roshi in 'Dragonball: Evolution', opening in theaters April 10th.