After migrating to the United States, Cambodian-American D.Y. Sao became interested in martial arts, hoping to protect himself and the others he cared about in the refugee camp. Surprisingly, his curiosity led him on a path to the Hollywood film industry.
“As a little boy, I really wanted to learn martial arts just to protect myself,” he said. “So, I asked my dad to show me something. He didn’t know much. He just knew a bit about Kun Khmer and whatever he showed me. It was only a few movements, including punching, kicking, and elbowing.”
Back then, people in the refugee camp were more concerned with survival than learning martial arts, the Cambodian-American born in Battambang recalled. His family relocated to the United States to escape the war in Cambodia when he was two-years-old.
When he was seven-years-old, he became interested in martial arts and began to practice whenever he could. Even though there was no Kun Khmer coach in America at the time, he considered himself lucky to be able to study the martial art through YouTube and Facebook.
“I’ve learned martial arts, as much as I can,” the 43-year-old said. “I’ve been practicing martial arts for 37 years, so I’ve learned and enjoyed a lot of different styles.”
Having mastered various types of martial arts has enabled him to work comfortably in Hollywood, where it is an advantage to be familiar with all forms of martial arts.
“When people take me to work in Hollywood, you can’t just know one style. They also mix styles,” he said. “We cannot discriminate, and we have to know every style, including Cambodian, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean.”
As he lives in the US, mastering martial arts has been a challenge for him. He was only able to study from afar as there were no teachers close to him. In addition, to learn new movements and styles, he had to message martial artists on Facebook.
The experts are happy to share with him the name of movies featuring certain styles and answer any questions he has, he said. He added that Cambodian support has given him motivation to keep going and continue to train and spread the Cambodian name.
Besides protecting himself, Sao said he was encouraged to learn martial arts to also protect the people he cares about.
“I think as a man, not only me, you have to be physically able to protect the people you care about,” he said. “What if something happens to your child? How are you gonna protect them if you don’t know martial arts? I don’t know why everyone doesn’t do martial arts, you have to do it.”
He added that martial arts makes people stronger, both physically and mentally, and adds to a healthy lifestyle through regular exercise. Moreover, training can help make people more emphatic.
“Everyone should learn a martial art,” he said. “Man or woman, it doesn’t matter. It will make you a better person.”
Journey to Hollywood Started with Martial Arts
Sao didn’t embark on his journey to Hollywood at a young age like many. Instead, it started with him selling his martial arts talents when he was in his 20s.
"When I was 27-years-old, I decided to go into the film industry. They didn't want me to do anything but they wanted my martial arts,” he said. “So, I started as a stuntman. I was fighting and wearing a mask.”
Eventually, he climbed the career ladder, going from a stuntman to coordinating the show. However, he knew that he had to step into acting as he yearned to do more than kick and punch all the time, realizing at some point, he will age.
Sao added that in America, there are little opportunities for someone like him to be a hero. “Before, there were only a few Asian actors in Hollywood,” he said, noting recent years have seen more Asian actors in Hollywood.
“So, I’m very lucky that the America project wants me to be a hero,” he said. “I think they only want me because I can do martial arts.”
Currently, he is focusing on acting rather than coaching as he believes it will benefit his country.
“When I coach Michelle Yeoh, it’s good, but if I do that forever, they will never know the Cambodian name,” he said. “I have to be in front of the camera if I want the world to know about my country.”
Sao enjoys practicing martial arts and is never afraid to do so. However, he will need time to adjust to acting, much as he did martial arts, which took him 10 to 15 years to master.
He said he is appreciative of people who are good at acting. “Acting might take a long time, but at the end of the day, if I want to do something important for my country, I have to do it,” he said. “So, I take it a little bit at a time.”
He also hopes he can inspire a generation of young Cambodians to follow in his footsteps. “I will just take it a little bit higher and the next generation will carry it on,” said Sao.
In early 2023, the martial arts movie, ‘Shadow Master’, which features Sao in the main role of An Voaen, hit cinemas in Cambodia.
His Project will be Rolled out Next year
Sao plans to shoot a martial art film in Cambodia next year. The film will focus on Bokator to introduce the world to Cambodia and its treasured, ancient martial art.
He aims to raise the bar for the Cambodian film sector by filming, producing and editing the movie to the high standards seen in America. Currently, he is collaborating with a Cambodian-American producer to make the film.
The ambition of making a film for Cambodia is not something that can be accomplished overnight. In fact, it has been a long-held desire for him and his friend, who have been waiting for decades for it to become a reality.
“My goal to make a film in Cambodia started 15 years ago since I decided to go into film when I was 27,” he said. “But he [his friend] decided to go into the film when he was six-years-old. So, he’s been patient for 40 years.”
After a long wait, their dream of bringing out a best-selling film for Cambodia is about to become a reality, as they are almost ready after extensive preparation. He added that it is hoped the film will be ready for the shoot by early-2024.
“We are almost there and we are very excited. It’s the perfect time because of the Cambodian spirit. Everyone is very supportive right now,” he said. “We promise, the world will know about Bokator.”
He said while the film is a big project, it’s not on the scale of Hollywood blockbusters. In addition, the timeframe will be longer than previous films shot in Cambodia. For example, rather than taking nine days for shooting, they plan to take one month.
Sao also believes that his team will be able to create one of the best martial arts films, showcasing iconic Cambodian monuments, such as Angkor Wat, to the rest of the world.
“We bring the best things from Hollywood to Cambodia, a country that is so beautiful and has a lot of aesthetic value, including the countryside and culture. But, the world has not seen it yet,” he said. “From my perspective, it’s not just for Cambodia. It’s for the world to come and enjoy what Cambodia has to offer.”
Besides that, he believes he can represent different styles of martial arts since he has the talent in designing his own fighting style and directing his own actions. This makes him stand out from other actors who are unable to create their own styles, he said.
He also hopes that once the film is released, people will see Cambodia has a good action film landscape.
“No one will be us, maybe Hollywood, but no one else because I come from the best film in Hollywood. That’s basically what I am,” he said. “I’m from Hollywood to Cambodia and I’m so excited.”
Coaching Well-Known People
Prior to being cast in the Hollywood film, Sao was well-known for coaching martial arts to famous people, such as Simu Liu in Marvel's ‘Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,’ and Jamie Lee Curtis, Ke Huy Quan, and Michelle Yeoh in ‘Everything, Everywhere, All at Once’.
He said he was never afraid of coaching famous people in Hollywood and treated them as his students. However, it was tough for him to coach Michelle Yeoh.
The Malaysian actor recently made international headlines when she became the first Asian to win Best Actress award at the prestigious Academy Awards for her role in superhero comedy, ‘Everything, Everywhere, All at Once’.
“When I was a kid, I was surrounded by Kungfu shows. I learned martial arts from her too, and now I teach her. So, it’s a little bit weird,” he said. “But it only takes a little bit of time, and I treat her like my student. I’m respectful of my students.”
In Hollywood, people are treated pretty well, he said, adding that he is grateful for the experience coaching those people as it has taught him that he is capable of achieving his dreams.
Becoming a Director is a Long-term Goal
Despite his desire to direct films, Sao acknowledged he needs time to develop himself and study the skill first. He understands how hard it is to direct a film and has respect for those who can.
“Maybe, it will be 10 to 20 years until I do that. I want to learn from a great director,” he said. “I think ‘Everything, Everywhere All at Once’ has two directors. They are the best directors that I have ever known.”
He said it is important to observe how directors work. For instance, he said, the director of ‘Everything, Everywhere, All at Once’ is open, nice, and gentle. “Even though they are introverted, they come out to be a good leader and instruct people how to act,” he said.
“It’s something I believe I can do, but it will take time,” Sao noted. “Right now, I have a lot of plans already, such as performing, directing the actions, and then acting and pulling it out.”