Tony Wu Tsz-tung’s journey from ballpark to red carpet
The star of Hong Kong film Weeds on Fire talks to Asia Times about the similarities between baseball and acting
Under the blazing sun, a group of teenage boys wearing white t-shirts and blue baseball caps practice their moves over and over again − pitching, batting, catching, running.
This is a scene in Steve Chan Chi-fat’s debut feature film Weeds on Fire, which premiered at the 2016 Hong Kong International Film Festival, and successfully hit a home run at local box offices, not to mention garnering rave reviews, after its release on August 25, 2016.
Inspired by the true story of Hong Kong’s very first youth baseball team, the Sha Tin Martins, Weeds on Fire follows an underdog baseball team whose players learn to believe themselves through playing sports, then eventually beat a powerful Japanese team against all odds.
On the surface, the film looks like a typical youth sports drama about brotherhood and dreams, but on a deeper level it also tries to depict the city’s fate by putting the characters into the stream of history.
The story of Weeds on Fire unfolds in Hong Kong in 1984, when China and the United Kingdom signed a joint declaration stating that the city would be guaranteed a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after its handover to China in 1997.
At the time, the future of the city was gloomy and unclear – just like the futures of Tse Chi-lung (Lam Yiu-sing) and Fan Chun-wai (Tony Wu Tsz-tung), two polar opposite childhood friends growing up in one of the city’s oldest public housing estates and wondering every day whether baseball might change their lives and take them out of the “ghetto.”
Baseball did in fact change the life of Wu, who now sits in a hotel room fielding hours of scheduled interviews before the 11th Asian Film Awards ceremony.
Besides his nomination for the 11th Asian Film Awards, the professional baseball infielder-cum-actor was also a nominee in the 53rd Golden Horse Awards and the 26th Hong Kong Film Awards. And he scooped Best Newcomer at the 2016 Hong Kong Film Directors’ Guild Awards.
Speaking of his journey from being baseball to acting, the 24-year-old says everything that has happened so far is really “beyond my imagination”.
“People have been calling me famous, but I don’t see myself as a celebrity or a star,” he says. “These titles are too vague and empty for me.” Dealing with adulation for his performance, Wu chose to keep his feet on the ground. “I am a baseball player and an actor; these are what I really like and what I will be devoted to. These are the things that really define me.”
Recalling a childhood spent on baseball fields – at first accompanying his older brother to practice, then to practice himself – Wu laughs: “Weekends for a kid should be playing in the park and eating ice cream instead of practicing baseball all day long under the sun.”
Wu’s relationship with baseball started from a very young age: his parents are both hardcore baseball fans and he started playing soon after learning to walk. He would go on to play the sport professionally but says he hated it when he was little. At one stage, he quit, but after meeting an inspirational coach when he was 12, he decided to devote himself to it and made his debut for the senior Hong Kong team in 2011.
Wu describes his casting in Weeds on Fire as “a complete coincidence”.
“I first knew about Weeds on Fire through Facebook,” he says. “It was a post about the film project, saying that this is a story about baseball.” The post made little impression. However, “days after,” Wu recalls, “the director suddenly show up during practice, and asked the whole team if we were interested to cast for his film.”
Wu and his teammates agreed, “just for fun,” and the director later chose Wu to play the cocky Fan Chun-wai, commenting that “something in Wu’s personality” coincides with the character’s.
Wu accepted the challenge as he felt it provided an opportunity to let more people know about Hong Kong baseball.
Reflecting on his first days of filming, he recalls his first scene was a fight with Liu Kai-chi, a veteran actor who plays Lu Kwong-fai, the Sha Tin Martins’ coach, in the film. “The director told me ‘just do it – do it and you will know the way.’”
“I don’t see myself as a celebrity or a star, these titles are too vague and empty for me.”
It was Wu’s first time on a film set, and he says he did everything based on memories of acting in dramas in his childhood. “I liked to act and perform when I was little,” he says, “so it’s really great to have a chance to act again.”
In order to go further with acting, he accepts he will have to work on developing his skills and being able to interpret how a particular role should be played. “These will be my lessons,” he says.
Asked about the distinction between real baseball matches and filming, Wu says the biggest difference lies in timing and concentration.
“During the match, you can’t relax for even a second, you have to focus till the end, because anything could happen, and you only have one chance,” Wu explains, “but filming is different: you have the time to prepare and collect yourself in between shots, and do the same move over and over again in order to get the best one.”
Doing one’s best in order to get the best results is not, in fact, a new notion for Wu, however: it has been his mantra in baseball; it just happens to work for acting too.
Three years ago, while Wu was filming Weeds on Fire, he was also training for the 2014 Incheon Asian Games. “It was a very tough but memorable time for me,” Wu recalls. “We filmed when there was light in the sky, and when the sun went down I went to the baseball field for training.” Filming, training, sleeping: he was able to maintain that repetitive lifestyle for around a month, before being sent to hospital with dehydration.
“It was then that I found out you have to tell your teammates when you are pushed too close to the limit,” Wu says. Like baseball, filming is a team sport: losing a key player comes at a huge cost for the team.
“Although doing your best is important, you still have to find a balance between doing your best and over-stretching yourself,” Wu adds. “This is my life lesson,” he laughs.
“Being an athlete is to constantly face your own challenges, fail, and stand up again,” Wu says. “I think I will encounter many things similar to this as an actor in the future, but the most important thing is to tell yourself to keep doing what you love to do, invest a lot of time on it, and never give up.”
Weeds on Fire, the English title of the film, conveys the message that weeds – undesirable plants that grow wild – also have the ability to bloom, just like the baseball players in the film. Its Chinese title directly translates as “half a step,” which also serves as the proposition of the film.
In the world of baseball, wining is only separated from losing by the slenderest of margins, by half-steps or mis-steps. Even when at a disadvantage, taking the right step has the power to reverse a losing situation.
“While I was a baseball player, titles like Best Newcomer and Best Actor sounded like something out of my reach,” Wu says. “But now I became more than a baseball player, I am also an actor, this gives me a chance to get closer to these titles. I will keep walking towards this direction, one step at a time.”