Interview#12…Philippe Joly, actor, screenwriter and director

Philippe Joly is a Hong Kong based actor, screenwriter and director.  He has possibly inherited the coolest Chinese name 狼森 (Langsen) – meaning ‘Wolf’ and has appeared in many S.E. Asian films alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme (Pound of Flesh), Chow Yun Fat (The Man from Macau), Andy Lau (Mission Milano) and Jackie Chan (Dragon Blade), to name a few.

A Russian-born French actor he is multi-lingual (French, Russian, Italian and English), a martial arts background plus a master at card tricks too!  Often cast as the bad guy, I wanted to learn more about his acting and writing ambitions and how he views his Langsen image.

10 Q’s

You started your film career late – did you always want to be an actor?

As a kid, I watched a lot of TV. In France, in the 80’s and 90’s, the only shows available on TV were American TV series. I grew up watching Starsky & Hutch, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Fall Guy, The A-Team and so on. Then, when I started martial arts, I became fanatic about Bruce Lee, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and later Jackie Chan. I had posters on my walls, broken furniture from nunchaku practice, and a lot of magazines and video cassettes of action films.

As my English got better, I suddenly realised how terrible dubbing was (I wish France would follow countries like Sweden and would show everything in their original versions with subtitles). From that moment, I started avoiding dubbed films as much as I possibly could. I loved to learn monologues and entire scenes from American movies that I liked, and then perform these scenes to entertain my friends at parties (“You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg?…”) that sort of thing.

However, while I loved movies and was a very creative kid with a bursting desire to write, act and make films, it certainly was not a professional goal back then. It did not even present itself as an option for a serious career. It may be due to the fact that Europe is not a very stimulating environment to follow a creative career instead of a more traditional path set by a rigid education system and mentality. I majored in Maths and Physics, not Arts. I did not start my professional life in the film industry at all, instead, I spent a decade working in technology, business and management, working in various managerial and consulting roles in diverse countries, until I eventually got fed up with working for someone else, and decided to set up my first company. I then became an entrepreneur and have been ever since. I still have my fingers in a few pies. I love start-ups and find creating a product or service from scratch stimulating.

Leaving France early, and working as an expat in various countries, was probably the best decision I have ever made. It opened up my mind and completely changed my view on life. It also eventually brought me to Asia, and finally Hong Kong, where I ended up starting a new career in films. Better late than never, as they say. I love being on set. It makes me feel like I am where I am supposed to be. It’s a great feeling to be able to do what you love for a living, and I love making movies.

What brought you to Hong Kong?

I first arrived in Hong Kong with one of my companies. I was offering my services as a consultant to an Italian billionaire in Milan. He asked me to go on a business trip to Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai, Beijing, after he had bought two companies, the largest record label in Greater China called Gold Typhoon (now bought by Warner), and one of the biggest model agencies in the world, Elite. On my return from that trip, he asked me if I’d move to Hong Kong permanently to help bring both of these new acquisitions into the digital space in the region. I jumped on the opportunity, and that is how I landed in Hong Kong, 7 years ago. And because life is like a box of chocolate, you never know what you gonna get, so one year later, I was working on my first movie, and shortly after I was on set talking to Chow Yun Fat, then in that same film, I got killed for the first time under the expert helm of Andrew Lau (who directed one of my favourite movies INFERNAL AFFAIRS), and shortly after, I was on set with Jackie Chan, and then Jean-Claude Van Damme. It sort of snowballed from there. I realised that whatever seemed so impossible in old-school Europe, was very possible here, in the fast pace Asian film industry. There was an opportunity. I seized it.

What style of martial arts have you studied?

As a kid, I touched various styles, Karate, Judo, Savate. Sport was a very important extra-curricular activity for us as kids, and the France that I grew up in, offered an easy access to a wide range of sports at low cost, a blessing for low-income families. After toying with various styles, I fell in love with Tae Kwon Do, and stuck with it for many years. Because I did gymnastics in my early days, I had a good head start with flexibility, which was very helpful in that particular high kicking sport. At age 14, I had already reached the red belt level (the one before black), and with the team, we were competing at weekends in various regional and national tournaments. My friends and I were taking our daily training very seriously. If TKD had been in the Olympics back then, then this would have most definitely become our goal, we were so eager. But the really great thing about us being so obsessed with our training, was that it kept us off the streets. I grew up in the bad suburbs of Paris, a semi-ghetto area (the burning car’s type), where you need an activity to focus on, if you do not want to fall into the lazy pattern of hanging out with idiots, doing stupid things, and ending up in jail, hospital or morgue. I got lucky in that sense, I skipped two of these. And later I got even luckier. Thanks to my mother, I escaped these damaged suburbs for good, as I got accepted into one of the most prestigious schools in Paris, which set me up for a much brighter future. With hours of commuting, a much more challenging education, a new group of healthier and wealthier friends, and some newly discovered teenager motivations, girls, the sports practice slowly faded away.

My interest in martial arts returned as a young adult. I discovered Muay Thai, travelled to Thailand, and pursued it for a while. When I relocated to Dublin, Ireland, in my early twenties, I found a little club with a cool Thai instructor. I trained with him on Sundays to keep fresh. But the training intensity and motivation were nowhere close to the ones I had as a kid.

To be honest, now, decades later, I am no longer a martial artist. I think it would be disrespectful to martial artists, who train every day on their art if I still called myself one nowadays. I do have a solid base though, which allows me to work in action films and understand well the dynamics of a fight scene, and have full on-screen fights. In fact, I am off next week to shoot a big fight in a film in China. You see, because I often play the bad guy, I do need to bring a certain physicality to those roles. So my past martial arts background certainly helps me a lot in action films. And being a bit old school means that I am not really afraid of getting hurt, so I commit to it and try to give it my best shot.

However, I have lost the flexibility that I once had so I cannot kick high anymore, and therefore, I don’t go for the kung fu kind of roles, instead, I adapted and found a more suitable fighting style. I like Krav Maga, an Israeli self-defence discipline (think Bourne Identity…that style). It is grittier, more street fight, more hand to hand, and therefore very suitable to the 42 years old me playing gangsters, spies, soldiers, terrorists and mafia bosses.

Other interviews on here have touched upon Hollywood ‘white-washing’ – is there the same difficulty as a white actor in the Asian market? Has the Langsen image held you back from other roles?

White-washing is a topic that interests me for its hypocrisy. Whenever it’s Award season in Hollywood, I feel it may just as well be called ‘hashtag’ season, for the amount of social media outrage, and controversies that it is filled with. In fact, as the prestigious awards announce their nominations, all eyes seem to be far more focused on who will be snubbed from the recognition list, rather than who will be celebrated.

Ultimately, the minorities left out every year are often the same, and the inequalities mentioned usually involve men versus women, or white versus the rest of the world, screaming at whitewashing, white privilege, and all sort of unfairness. And when it is not awards season anymore, then the target of the media outrage typically shifts to casting choices, which apparently must get the fans’ blessing in order to avoid a social media backlash. The Twitter trolls have become casting directors.

Recently, when British actor Idris Elba was mentioned as an option to play the next James Bond. Many agreed that he would probably be a great 007, except for the fact that he is black. A weak argument when talking about a fictional character, who in the books is British way before being white. While in the 70’s it would have been a hard sell, in 2018, a black British James Bond might be completely relevant. Following the outrage, Elba suggested that in fact, a woman could also play Bond, since this is a fictional character, of course causing even more outrage than before. Had he dared to suggest a black woman, then it would have been the end of the world and Twitter would have imploded.

JK Rowling mentioned that Hermione was not described as white in her books so a black actress could be cast, and it would not be a problem at all. Social Media exploded in outrage.

But let’s look at this another way. What successful white actors have been cast instead of actors of the ethnicity of the role and nailed it?

Morgan Freeman was not only playing in the SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, he owned the film, he was outstanding, and the film would not have been the same without him. In the book, his character was a white Irish guy though, so is it black-washing? Or does it only work one way?

In BLOOD DIAMOND, Leonardo DiCaprio excels as a white Rhodesian gunrunner. Brad Pitt excels as an Irish Gypsy in SNATCH. Al Pacino in SCARFACE was not Cuban. Marlon Brando in THE GODFATHER was not Sicilian. All these casting choices worked beautifully, despite the origins or ethnicity of the actor. This is what acting is about. If we take only the people from the places where the character is supposed to be from, or who already do what the character does, then where is the art of acting going? So I cannot play a psychopath? They should take a real psychopath out of jail and let him play the role? Of course not. Political correctness has gone out of hand, and the “I’m offended by everything” people have become a nuisance that needs to grow a pair of balls.

Anyway, that being said, it’s also about opportunities, and the voices of the screaming minorities must be heard, and inequalities must be addressed, but they must also be put in perspective. Have you ever considered that the racial inequalities that outrage Hollywood so much, might concern just Hollywood and the United States, but not necessarily the rest of the world?

There is a big buzz right now around CRAZY RICH ASIANS, with an all Asian cast, and the buzz is because it marks a significant opportunity shift. Until now, generally speaking, it is fair to say that Asian actors have been a minority in the US films, and white actors are the majority. It may seem a bit simplistic, but it does reflect a reality of the films that we see in cinema or on TV. Naturally, Asian actors in the US complain about being only cast in stereotypical ethnic roles or secondary roles as cooks, kung fu teachers, poor immigrants, prostitutes or triad gang members. Furthermore, the real ethnicity of the Asian actor matters little for US film casting directors and Hollywood, who see Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and so on, as just one Asian actor, who fits all Asian roles needs.  On the other hand, of course, the white actor is always the lead role and the hero.

But you asked me about the Asian market, and if we want to play the race card, then it must be in context. So let me give you a white actor’s take on making films in Asia.

In Asian cinema, the racial inequality follows the exact opposite trend as the US. An Asian actor is always the lead role and the hero, while a white actor would struggle to get cast in anything other than a supporting role. White actors are cast in stereotypical ethnic roles or secondary roles, relegated, nine times out of ten, to playing a bad guy, a villain, and ultimately someone, who will die at the hands of an Asian hero. Furthermore, just like all Asians were seen as “one type fits all” by Hollywood, in China, all white people are seen as “one type fits all” too. A white actor can be cast to play a French, German, English, American, Australian, Mexican, Iranian, Arab, Indian, and basically anything that is not Chinese.

For example, last week I had a small part in THE WHITE STORM 2: DRUG LORDS (扫毒2天地对决) directed by Herman Yau. And I played an Afghani. I am currently casting to play a Latin American drug cartel boss, I am also casting for a Russian villain part and a French part.

I think that in Asia, there is some pride in showing the western characters as bad, while the Asian character is shown as superior and ultimately the winning party. In Chinese censorship, the gangsters cannot remain unpunished and get away with their crime. And if that criminal is a white guy, then he certainly cannot survive, he must be punished, and death seems like a good punishment for his evil mind.

It makes sense though, as historically, the western societies have misbehaved so much in Asia, that that anti-western sentiment is understandable. You only need to look at how many expats behave when they land in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Manila, Bangkok or anywhere else in Asia. Many have a disgraceful and entitled attitude. But the locals are also fuelling that by exploiting that unbalanced socio-economic power. A combination of both leads to debauchery, arrogance, and ultimately criminality. So it makes sense that white people are often portrayed as such in Asian movies.

With a few exceptions to the rule, I only need to look at the roles that I have played to see a trend in criminal activities and an unforgiving death. There has been no sequel for me, as I die in most films. This year alone, I died strangled, I died in a car explosion. I got impaled and then the building exploded, and I got shot at, repeatedly. I basically have more lives than a cat. I die for a living so to speak. Sounds ironic, but it is a fact about being a white actor in Asia. It doesn’t mean that I die in all films, but I die in the majority of films, and if I don’t die, I still play a criminal or a bad character, and I get at the very least arrested.

But that is ok. I do not have a problem with the typecast. I am building a career on it. It’s called a market, and in a market supply needs to meet the demand. And I am quite happy to supply the bad guy that Asian movies demand. Call it voluntary typecast if you will and is fully compatible with my Langsen image.

Let me tell you how the name Langsen came about. Since I grew my hair and beard for a film, every time I was on set in Hong Kong or Mainland China, someone would come to me and says “You know you look like the Wolverine”, many times a day, at the hotel, the local store, even random people in the street. Somehow, I remind the Chinese of Hugh Jackman’s character Wolverine. I don’t see it, but I’ll take it. A. I like both Hugh Jackman and the Wolverine character, and B. It is a nice association to have. Last year, one of the producers of the Chinese action film ULTIMATE CODE (终极代码) called me Langsen (literally Wolf Forest) and it stuck immediately with everyone. The next day it was printed next to my English name on a promo poster for an event, then the crew began to refer to me as Langsen, then the media. So now, my Chinese name is officially Langsen, and that is what people refer to me as in Mainland China. I have had to learn to write it in Chinese too. One day, we were having a drink outside, and a group of young people came up asking for a selfie, as it often happens when you are the only white guy in a remote area. We were staying at the same hotel for months, so people knew we were making a film. We took a selfie, and 20 minutes later, the guy came back with the photos printed and asked for an autograph. That’s when I realised that it was time to learn to write those two characters 狼森

What benefits, as a multi-lingual actor, has this brought to your career?

There are definitely benefits in speaking multiple languages, especially having the look that I have. Playing a Russian mafia boss and being able to speak Russian, or playing an Italian mafia boss and speaking Italian, are all very real benefits that get me cast for roles.

Last year, I got cast to play “Enzo” in Hong Kong director Juno Mak’s next film SONS OF THE NEON NIGHT (風林火山) , where my character speaks only Italian in the whole movie. This is probably the biggest role that I can think of as an example, as it has a huge cast including Takeshi Kaneshiro, Lau Ching-wan (Sean Lau), Tony Leung Ka-fai, and Louis Koo.

On a smaller scale, in the independent film CAPTURED, directed by Ross Clarkson, I play a French husband, and I occasionally speak French with my French wife in the film, for authenticity. I also spoke long scenes in Russian in my own Independent film VOR about the Russian criminal world.

Out of the languages I speak, I think Russian is the language in most demand in films in Asia, as bad guys in the movies are often from that part of the world. There are a few good projects currently in the works, where my Russian will come in handy.

You have three writing credits, Paid in Full, My Name is Tanyusha and Vor – could you tell us more about these stories?

I wrote a lot of short films, and some feature films too. There are probably a dozen finished screenplays picking up dust in my computer. But the trick is to be able to turn a script into reality, which I have not been able to do yet with many of them, for various reasons including funding, experience, motivation, schedule, and people. These three films that you mention are the first ones that I managed to get shot a few years ago. Some more have been done since, and new ones are coming soon.

I discovered a few key things when producing a movie, and one of them is that sound is the most important thing to get right. Having to redo sound later in an ADR session is a real pain and not always possible, and it can completely stop the completion of your film in its tracks. Some of these projects are stuck in post-production for that reason.

PAID IN FULL was born out of an idea based on a true story with a homeless guy, whom I met when I was living in Ireland. It’s a paying forward story. I got the idea on a Saturday, wrote the screenplay on Sunday, had half of the cast and crew recruited by Tuesday, and by the following Sunday, we had finished filming it in two locations, and it was wrapped. It was a fun experience and a very efficient way to take action on an idea. But then Post-production proved more challenging. Now the film is edited and I am very happy with the end result, but there are still some sound issues to resolve before it can hit the film festivals. It needs a finishing touch, on which I am working right now.

MY NAME IS TANYUSHA was a story that a Ukrainian girl, Svitlana Zaviolova, had in her head. She asked me for help to write her story into a screenplay. With two other writers, Harry Oram and Lisa Wayne Belcher, we co-wrote the screenplay and helped produce this feature film, in which Svitlana played the lead character. The story revolves around a poor innocent girl arriving in Hong Kong from a remote village in Russia to participate in a famous talent show. An underdog story. However, after production was finished, everyone went their separate ways, and I am not sure what the status is on this film now. Last I heard, it was edited and ready to come out on DVD, but who knows? I am no longer in touch with most of the producing team, and to be honest, it doesn’t really matter, as it was more of a training ground for bigger projects. My only regret is not to be able to see a particular scene in that movie, which we shot with my daughter and my good friend Temur Mamisashvili, who played one of the leads. I asked for the scene, but it seems that everyone just moved on and left this film to rust behind. Pity.

VOR was the very first screenplay that I decided to go ahead with and film. I assembled a group of friends, who were willing to spend their next three months working on this project with me. This was by far the best filming adventure for me, my first time directing, my first time producing, my first time everything in fact when it comes to making my own film. It was a huge learning curve, and it created friendships that will last a lifetime. It basically created a family, the Vor family. There were more than 40 people involved, in and out, between cast and crew, and what started as a short film, soon grew into a much longer project and ended up being a feature film length. One of our dear friends, Lee Batchelor, shot a behind the scenes documentary of us making that film “Guerrilla: The Making of Vor”. That’s a one hour and a half documentary available on YouTube, which brings such fond memories every single time I watch it. The story behind VOR, was that of a Russian criminal organisation led by me, clashing with the triads over territorial issues and loyalty in Hong Kong. When editing the film, apart from the obvious issues of sound, out of focus shots, missing transitions, and other things that you discover too late and are hard to fix in post-production, I realised that it didn’t really have enough pace to make it a good 90 minutes feature film. It was more a good 60 minutes format for TV, or maybe was more suited to become an episode by episode type of Web series. I am still thinking about the best format for this film to come to life and give our hard work justice. Maybe it was too ambitious at the wrong time, maybe it was just a learning curve to use a stepping stone to bigger and better adventures. Regardless, I love the process of making films, the bonding, the teamwork, the satisfaction after a successful shot or a great performance, and as a writer, the pleasure to see an actor perform something that came out of your head exactly as you had visualised it, if not better.

Now that I have acquired more experience and connections to see my films completed efficiently, and distributed or submitted to film festivals, in a short period of time, I have plans to direct many short films next year. I want to really get a good grasp of being behind the camera, as well as in front of it. My passion for films doesn’t stop at acting, I like the whole process. My first hit and miss experiences in making Independent films taught me that there is a formula and that if I can apply the formula right, I can make a film efficiently and at a low cost. The process definitely stimulated the producer in me, and I am looking forward to applying the formula to many more Independent short films and feature films in the future.

Do you have any theatre ambitions? Writing or Acting?

I fell in love with films, not with theatre. I think I still have to really appreciate theatre, and commit some time to that discovery. Many of my friends are theatre actors. And every time I see them in films, I observe how their theatre acting translates to their film acting. It doesn’t always work smoothly. I assume the reverse would be true for me as well if going from film to theatre. I have had proposals, and I am open to give it a go some day in order to broaden my experience and knowledge, but it is not on my priority list.

Looking back at your career, what’s your greatest achievement?

I hope that my greatest achievements are still ahead. My career has not been long enough to be proud of some significant achievement yet. However, I am happy with two main things that I have done over the past few years.

Firstly, I managed to climb my way up the ladder rather fast, as I am now getting cast in more and more important roles, and in larger productions. This was not easy to break out of the rigid mould that exists in Asia, in which all white people are considered the same, and are often seen as extras, even when they are not. It is hard to break free from that perception. With the help of some people, a good work ethics, and a bit of luck, I managed to become known as an actor and get cast in much bigger roles. I have a few big films coming up at the end of 2018 and early 2019.

Secondly, I would say that I have achieved to be able to do what I love for a living, and that often meant being able to turn down things that were not right. A lot of people take every role that comes their way, as they need the money. I am not in this for the money. If I want to make money, I run businesses. I am in this because I want to be an actor, and if it means famine rather than feast most of the time, then so be it. But I have a goal, and it implies having the discipline to stay in the niche that I created for myself. I turned down many roles that I felt were not adding any values to my goals. And that means being late on rent sometimes, but it is the difference between a goal and a dream. I have a goal. I actively pursue my objectives, work on my skills, look for new ones to learn, and try to stay ready for the next call. And slowly but surely, staying focused on doing what you love for a living, begins to become a good life, both personally and professionally.

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Looking forward, what projects do you have coming up?

There are three important films coming up soon, that I am looking forward to:

The first one, later this year, will be ABDUCTION, a Roger Corman produced film for iQiyi (a Chinese equivalent of the Netflix concept), starring Scott Adkins, Andy On and Truong Ngoc Anh. I had already worked with the producers Henry Luk and Mike Leeder, and director Ernie Barbarash on the movie POUND OF FLESH with Jean-Claude Van Damme. So ABDUCTION was a sort of pleasant family reunion with a great team. I play the Russian gangster Mogilov, and have a bit of a fight with Andy On, which was a great memorable day. I was aged for this role, and the very next morning, I had to go onto another set in China to be made to look younger for another role. Within 24 hours, I got to be 10 years younger, and 10 years older. It was a very busy but fun week.

The second film that I am looking forward to is SONS OF THE NEON NIGHT (風林火山) by Hong Kong director Juno Mak, who was praised for his previous film RIGOR MORTIS. The SONS OF THE NEON NIGHT is a much-anticipated movie scheduled for early 2019 I think, with a very big cast that includes Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Lau Shing-wan (Sean Lau), and Louis Koo. I play Enzo, an Italian character in the story. In fact, I speak Italian in the entire movie. I am really looking forward to seeing the end result. The film visually is stunning. It had a mood that reminded of the French film THE SAMOURAI with Alain Delon. I think this film will be praised by both audience and critics when it comes out.

The third film that is coming out soon is a big Chinese action production ULTIMATE CODE (终极代码), in which I play a lead role as the main villain Mr. M. This has been the biggest experience of my career so far. We worked very hard with the Chinese production team and the lead actors in making this big action film across various stunning locations in China. On that set, I also met Parkour founder and fellow French actor David Belle. We clicked immediately, probably because we come from a similar upbringing in the suburbs of Paris, and a strong friendship is born out of it. In fact, we are currently working on a new project together, and I believe that our bromance might produce a lot more cool film projects in the future.

Apart from these movies coming out soon in cinemas, I am currently working on a number of short film projects, that I wrote and plan to direct before the end of the year. Recently, one short film that I worked on with my good friend Owen Fitzpatrick, THE ANGEL, won Best Suspense Short at the Chain NYC Film Festival. It’s not quite the Oscars, but it is still good that our film got an accolade out of the 140 other films in competition.

I am also working on a TV show called GWEILO RFC on the Rugby Asia Channel, which airs on Setanta Sports/NowTV. It is an original comedy idea by my friend, former rugby player, and fellow actor, Semiquaver Iafeta, who recently fought with Donnie Yen in the film BIG BROTHER, during a big locker room fight. He runs the Rugby Asia Channel and wanted to do something different to entertain the 50 million TV households that we reach across Asia with the show. It is a fun comedy sitcom about a rugby team of misfits that we will follow, episode by episode, through various adventures. We have aired two episodes already, and are now producing the third one. We are also looking for sponsors to keep the momentum and leverage on the traction that the show already got.

I read on your Facebook page that you entertained a homeless person with a card trick recently, it really touched me and I think gives an insight into the person beyond the acting mask. What made you do it?

This is not the first time that I sit down with a homeless and have a chit chat, I just wish that I took the time to do it more often. We do not take the time to stop often enough if we ever do it at all.

Some people want to save the world and save everyone, and that’s great, but that is not me, and it is not what is asked of most people. What is asked of everyone is simply compassion and treat people well? If some can take it a step further then great if not, it’s OK too. The way I see it, when you see a homeless person, you have four choices: One, is to ignore that person completely and pass by without acknowledging him/her at all, the second is to throw a few coins into their cup and continue walking without a word, the third is to take the time to acknowledge their existence by saying hello, and the fourth is to actually take the time to stop for a chit-chat, or bring them food, drink, and other essentials and make them feel valued for a while. That day I chose option four. I did not change his life, but I changed his day, and maybe if you change their day often enough, you will somehow be able to change their life. Food for thought.

As for the magic, It was just a way to break the ice. I have been doing magic since I was a teenager and I find it to be the most useful travelling tool especially where language is a barrier. I have done magic over the years in many places as a way to break the ice and have a bit of fun. I could tell you anecdotes about doing magic in France, Ireland, Italy, to Morocco, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, but I’ll stick to one fun experience I had in China.

A few years ago, I was filming the Jackie Chan movie “DRAGON BLADE” in a remote area of China, a small town called Aksai in the Gansu province. It’s a Muslim part of China, and a very interesting place historically and culturally. I stayed there for about a month. Every day, I used to go to the same small store near the hotel to buy beers, cigarettes, food etc… there was an obvious language barrier if I wanted to take the conversation further than just the numbers that I knew to pay for the goods. After a few days, we started greeting each other, and I became a regular customer if you like. Then, I thought I’d try a magic trick with money, just to see the reaction of the shop owner. The woman burst out laughing and called her husband. I then repeated the trick (a big no-no normally) to the husband, who burst out laughing and called the kids. I bought a deck of cards and spent the next 2 hours entertaining that family. What a great way to spend the evening in the middle of the Gobi desert. Needless to say that the next day when I came by, I was upgraded from a regular customer to friend. By the end of the month, I was helping the kids with their math homework, and having my dinner in their living room with the family. They were curious about me, and I was curious about them. It was a fair deal, and it was enabled by a simple magic trick.

More recently, I helped TV producer Robert Chua to organise a commemoration dinner for the 45th anniversary of Bruce Lee’s death. We had invited the famous little Bruce Lee fan, Ryusei Imai, an 8 years old kid from Japan, who performs a Bruce Lee routine with nunchucks on TV all around the globe. We were seated at the same table that evening, but we had to rely on a translator, which was not ideal. Once again, magic came to the rescue, and a magic trick was worth a thousand words. The kid’s reaction was priceless, and as a result, I bonded well with the kid and his lovely family and we had a good time. We are still in touch.

Going back to the homeless, to be honest, seeing how much some charities do, I feel that choosing option four once in a while, is pale in comparison. I ought to do it more often. But as I said, not everyone wants to save the world and everybody in need, I know I don’t, but I do believe that the little steps count too. So I would finish by saying: choose option four as often as you can, but if nothing else, then a simple “hello” goes a long way.

Thank you so much, Philippe, for taking the time to answer my questions so thoroughly. May I wish you all the best with your upcoming projects and hope to see you in HK next year.

** UPDATED: As thanks for the interview, I will donate to The Red Cross.


Philippe’s website – updated February 2019

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