The art of fighting
By Walter Ang
September-November 2008 issue
Asian Dragon Magazine
All this is what Lester Pimentel-Ong, a freelance TV/movie fight director, does. Having started as a fight coordinator in "a small movie called `Ex-con' years ago," his latest choreography was featured in the recently concluded TV show "Palos," which starred Cesar Montano and Jake Cuenca.
Lester got his mettle as a practitioner of wushu, which, he explains, is actually the generic term for martial arts. "It's what we all used to call kung-fu," he says. His father Ong Chiao Hing, himself a practitioner, exposed Leter to the discipline. Lester started training at eight and by the time he started high school, he was already being groomed to be a national athlete.
"It was fun when I was younger because it felt like playing. I got a chance to copy what action stars Jet Li and Jackie Chan did in the movies," he recalls. "The training became a little more serious by the time I was a teenager, we had to train three hours every day."
Lester even spent a whole summer in Beijing, China to train with Chinese coaches. "You're not allowed to complain. You get the feeling that the Chinese coaches own you and all your waking hours are allotted for training," he said a bit grimly, then laughs. "It's just like in all those Chinese martial arts movies where they show children training!"
Lester brought home a gold medal from the 1995 Third World Wushu Championships held in Baltimore, USA. He capped off his competitive career with a gold medal from the 2005 23rd SEA Games held in Manila.
Meantime, he got his philosophy degree at De La Salle University-Manila and, after that, he attended a course in Wushu and Chinese Martial Arts Specialization Training at the Beijing Sports University.
During his trips abroad, Lester discovered that the athletes he used to compete with had already started the transition from athletics to choreographing fights in showbusiness. They encouraged him to make a similar shift.
"Joining my former co-competitors in their productions, I started out as part of the crew in Chinese movies that were shot in Singapore and China," he says. Since local productions usually hired fight directors, he was able to slowly break into the domestic movie industry.
His ability to speak Tagalog and English gave him the edge. "Producers in Manila used to have to hire a group of ten to 15 people from Hong Kong or China to execute fight sequences," he says. "But they would also need to hire translators. With me, the language barrier disappears. I can read the scripts and I can talk to them freely for better collaboration. In the end, when they work with me, they still get international quality stunts."
Lester's work has been featured in action, fantasy, and even romantic comedies. One of his funniest works was a tennis match scene for the movie "Ang Cute ng Ina Mo," which starred Ai-ai De Las Alas, where the players are contorted and bounced around every which way.
"I'm not a natural comedian," says Lester. That's why he applies the same rigorous preparations he has learned from his background in athletics to his work. "I make sure to research first and collaborate with the actors themselves to see what kind of movements will be funny and yet safe for the actors to do." He always keeps in mind that, unlike the action stars of Chinese movies who are usually "martial artists-turned-actors," most actors he deals with do not necessarily have the training to portray action characters or execute martial arts moves.
No matter the limitations, whether in lack of training for local actors or budget constraints, Lester is optimistic for the local movie industry to break through in the realm of action choreography. "We can certainly do it. We have the talent," he says. One day, he hopes to direct "epic stunt sequences with a thousand extras, like the scenes in 'Braveheart' or 'Lord of the Rings,'" just like his idol Yuen Woo Ping, the action director for movies like "The Matrix."
Lester also stays busy as the Chair of the Wushu Federation of the Philippine's Development Committee. He's also in the food business with his wife Rosette with whom he has two sons.
"I enjoy doing action choreography since it uses traditional forms from Chinese opera that have been transformed into filmmaking conventions," he concludes. "It's a chance for me to share a bit of Chinese culture with the Filipino audience."