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American ninja: Meet Tung Chung kung fu expert Tommy Caserto

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Tung Chung resident Tommy Caserto may not be the island’s only kung fu instructor, but he’s likely the only one able to boast going toe-to-toe with Donnie Yen. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

I don’t want to get hit by a bus either,” Tommy Caserto states rather obviously, though he’s not referring to an average commute to work. Tommy, you see, is one of those guys fighting it out in almost every movie with a digit in its title – and to be fair almost any movie. Tommy is the guy who takes the hits: he’s a stunt and fight performer. It’s a thankless job, and possibly a dying art, that we consumers of entertainment rarely think about.

But if you do stop and think about it, really focus on the fight scenes in the action flick you’re watching (rather than on Jason Statham’s face), you’ll be amazed by the way these stunt ninja types move. They do everything at lightning speed (jump, crouch, kick, turn) and, of course, they can take a punch. (Check out Tommy’s 2015 action reel at www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCEACy7xBH0.)

“It’s addicting, and an adrenaline rush,” Tommy says of fight performing. “But most people don’t want to do it, especially when you realise how you have to work your way up – and that you have to be the bad guy.”

Added to which, accidents do happen – the producers of The Walking Dead, Hawaii Five-0 and American Made are all mired in lawsuits due to stunt performer deaths. And as a fight stand-in, Tommy expects to make contact with his opponent, the very thing that originally set Hong Kong action movies apart.

“I usually come home sore and bruised from my action jobs; it’s usually never a physically easy job. Fun but not easy,” he says. “An action actor and stuntman’s job is very demanding, intense, and more times than not nerve-wracking, and we are forced to stay totally in the moment and focus, or else it could lead to serious injury.”

Fighting spirit

tommy caserto

A native of Long Island, New York who grew up in New Jersey, Tommy now splits his time between Shenzhen and Tung Chung, having landed in Asia in 2011 after nailing two auditions for a Kung Fu Panda live touring show. He headed to Shanghai for the final auditions when the show was abruptly cancelled, and decided to stay.

“I was coming out of a lot of years of partying and poor behaviour; I wasn’t doing great. I thought I’d stay in Hong Kong and get away from all that,” Tommy recalls.

Like so many filmmakers, Tommy started his career messing about with friends at home and appearing in indie productions. And like so many Hong Kong transients, he was visiting a friend here and found himself edging into a career.

“I became interested naturally, just from watching Hong Kong films,” he says. “Once I got here I was still auditioning and searching for a way into the industry, slowly working my way in.”

Now 31, Tommy has been studying various martial arts since he was 12, starting with taekwondo. Age 13, after renting a ‘drunken fist’ kung fu video from a shop in Chinatown, he turned to Shaolin kung fu (most famous overseas for being the school Bruce Lee avenged in Enter the Dragon). He trained under 34th generation Shaolin temple fighting monk Shifu Shi Guolin, learning advanced skills in sparring, aerial kicking and acrobatics, and apart from a short break to “chase girls” in his teens, he’s been at it ever since.

Action reel

tommy caserto

Tommy specialises in martial arts action, stunts, acrobatics, tumbling and parkour. He’s part of the Lau family stunt team and featured in Hands of Lau (2014), a documentary about Lau Kar Leung. He played a bodyguard in the film Helios (2015), directed by Sunny Luk and Lok Man Leung, and a Russian criminal in VOR: Trust Me I’m A Thief (2014), written and directed by Mui Wo resident Philippe Joly. You can also spot him in the final fight in Beef and Broccoli (2013), directed by American impresario Damon Dash.

At first glance, Tommy doesn’t look like an action star. He’s not a hulking mass like a Schwarzenegger stand-in; he’s slight and unassuming, drinks coffee, and has a soft-spoken, lowkey demeanour that loosens up the longer you talk to him. Not something you’d associate with action filmmaking. But after some extra training at Hit Hut Cinematic Action in Cheung Sha Wan and Hung Kuen Academy in Tai Kok Tsui, extra study with 30-year veteran Mark Houghton (The Legend of the Drunken Master) and meeting local industry doyen Mike Leeder, Tommy found himself on the road to an increasingly viable career.

Ironically, Tommy – who counts legends Bruce Lee, Lau Kar Leung, Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan as influences – appeared on the scene in Hong Kong just as the industry was pulling itself out of the tailspin that started in 1997. Things are a bit better now, and China’s industry (chock full of Hong Kong talent) is chugging along nicely, but motion capture and computer-generated imagery could be making traditional stunting and fighting a dying art.

As for his particular set of skills becoming obsolete, Tommy isn’t worried yet. “I feel like I have time to do what I want to do. I won’t be doing it forever; eventually I’ll move on to something else,” he philosophises.

Coming soon to a theatre near you

tommy caserto

Tommy’s experience in Asia could make him a valuable resource in Hollywood (he’s working towards a Screen Actors Guild card) but if he does decide to try something else, it could well be teaching. He’s dabbled in gymnastics training since 2009, and now side-lines as a Shaolin kung fu instructor for children and adults both here and in Shenzhen. Devoting himself to training others would be acompletely new arena, should his conscience demand it.

“Admittedly sometimes I do feel bad about making action films – all the killing and the violence on screen,” he says. “I’d rather do more stuff beyond fighting. It’s working well for me now – I’m a foreigner, and my level of skill and action fighting is good. It is what it is, and for now I’m just going with the flow.”

That flow will be coming soon to a theatre near you in what’s shaping up to be a strong 2018 for action movies. Aside from a Chinese television series and more web content, Tommy is set to kick ass in the forthcoming Indonesian actioner Buffalo Boys, sophomore director Kam Ka-wai’s Big Brother with Donnie Yen, and Abduction with Scott Adkins – both action titans.

In the meantime, Tommy will keep up his training in and around his Tung Chung home, basking in the calm of Hong Kong before heading back to the mainland to shoot another Adkins film in the spring. Wait, what?

“I find it very peaceful. Even though it’s fast-paced, I find it’s really chill,” Tommy argues of Hong Kong life. He knows that sounds strange, but after a recent trip back to New Jersey to catch up with friends and family, Tommy claims he found himself pining for Hong Kong’s singular charms.

“After maybe a month I started to miss it… I like Tung Chung. It’s quiet, there are lots of places to train. And,” he adds with a grin, “the clubhouse in my building has a karaoke machine!” Which, in its own way, is just as addicting as action filmmaking.

If you’d like to sign up for a private kung fu class with Tommy Caserto call 5579 7274, or email [email protected]

Images: Andrew Spires

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