It all comes full circle. The world knows him as Shang Tsung in the upcoming Mortal Kombat movie, but Singaporeans know him as the nation’s most recognisable Hollywood actor who made his name in Singapore’s first-ever English local drama, Masters of the Sea. It was where Chin Han started his acting career 27 years ago, after spending most of his youth acting in theatre shows until he was talent scouted fortelevision.
Now, after numerous roles in Hollywood blockbusters including The Dark Knight, Skyscraper, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and more,Chin Han is adding Mortal Kombat reboot film to his ever expanding resume. Reminiscing in an exclusive interview with Geek Culture, Chin Han is grateful that his professional career has landed him the role as one of the most celebrated video game villains to ever exist.
“I am very grateful. You know, I’m glad that I’m able to continue doing what I did. I started 30 years ago in theater in Singapore and years later I’m still here and I’m doing Mortal Kombat, a movie that I love back in the 90s. It’s very surreal but I’m grateful. It’s a very unusual kind of life,” shared Chin Han.
The 51-year old actor is a big fan of the 1995 movie, as well as the video games, which were key to his growing up in Singapore.
“I was a fan of the movie, first and foremost, back in 95 and then the arcade games. The movie was so wonderful. It was colourful, it action-packed with a great soundtrack and everything. I remember buying the cassette tape and then playing it over and over. It filled me with a lot of good memories,” said Chin Han. Now, only time will tell if his version will have the same impact on a new audience. Mortal Kombat will open across Southeast Asia on 8 April, two weeks ahead of the US premiere, which has been delayed.
Despite being a big fan of the series, Chin Han is aware that many things have changed in the franchise and with over 30 years of lore and history including video games, movies, TV series, web series, comics and books, the actor still did heavy research into the character in order to accurately portray the villain.
Before Chin Han stepped into the role, the villain was played by the renown Japanese actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in the 1995 film, and in subsequent games, and as a fan, Chin Han was committed to giving fans a great version of Shang Tsung, especially a version of the character that reflects the almost 30 year gap between the two big screen portrayals.
“The two most distinct things about Shang Tsung is his ability to shapeshift and that comes from his soul-taking and that has allowed him to kind of exist within all these worlds because he can also teleport interdimensionally so he fits in very organically with all the different timelines. You kind of find him in all these places and sometimes you don’t even know that he’s there because he’s shaped and takes on the personality of someone else. I think what we’ve created is consistent with all the lore and canon. Hopefully, we can add one more chapter to it,” chirped Chin Han.
He’ll know in a few days if audiences will embrace his version of the iconic character but after working closely with director Simon McQuoid to come up with the characterisation of Shang Tsung, he can only hope that fans will like it.
(As we’ve seen the movie, we’ll just put it here – Chin Han nails it.) We know for a fact that fans will appreciate the actor’s portrayal of Shang Tsung and although many video game adaptations tend to be a hit or miss, Mortal Kombat is definitely a hit that fans would not want to miss.
From its gorgeous costume and set design, impressive action fight scenes and of course, the iconic fatalities, the only thing that would serve as the cherry on top of Mortal Kombat is the famous one liners that every character speaks out when performing a fatality move. In the movie, Chin Han had the honour of saying out an iconic line that made audiences smirk in their seats – “Your soul is mine.”
Chin Han knows the iconic one-liners are something that audiences and fans will pick apart. The actor noted, “You think about the million and one ways you can do it, and then you kind of try it and you keep doing it until the director calls ‘Action!’ and then whatever comes out, comes out.”
“But before that, you’re thinking and you’re practising and you’re trying it in a million and one ways but there are so many lines like that right I mean, for Shang Tsung it’s not only that line, it’s also ‘It has begun’, ‘Finish him’. You constantly think about 30 years of history and you want to make sure that you kind of do that 30 years of history as well.”
While being in Mortal Kombat was an experience that he’s grateful for, filming it under the sweltering heat of Leigh Creek, South Australia was another thing altogether. According to the actor, the place they went to film the movie was “otherworldly, exotic and never seen anything like that before”, but it was also incredibly hot.
“The ground was cracked, it had smoke coming out and little bursts of flames and we had to be careful. And then it was so gusty, the winds were strong, it’s incredibly hot and wearing all that armor, then we had to shoot the scene,” recalls the actor.
Sent out across the dry desert on little propeller planes, Chin Han found himself in the middle of a massive abandoned coal mine but as it turns out, it was also the locale of several of his favourite scenes.
“That was not easy to film but that was also like one of my most memorable times because there really was one of those moments where you’re standing there and you can’t believe you’re here, it feels like an out of body experience, like nothing I’ve ever seen before.”
Mortal Kombat started filming in September all the way till December 2019, with a few additional scenes filmed during 2020. Given how filming took place during the peak of Summer in Australia, one can only imagine how hot it must have been to film under the hot sun, and under the costume too.
But believe it or not, the most challenging part of the role isn’t the location, heat, or honouring the rich legacy of the series. Instead, it’s with his costume that was a pain to put on.
As a sorcerer and THE big bad of Mortal Kombat, Shang Tsung’s costume consisted of many layers and heavy armoury. Chin Han recalls struggling when putting on his costume, since the costume is intricately designed and has to be put on in a specific manner to achieve the full effect. As complicated as it sounds, Chin Han did end up looking villainous and evil at the end of the day.
“It takes a village to put that on and there’s good reason to because you know the costume is actually made up of a lot of parts, right? You can’t just have a costume that goes on like this because that kind of costume limits mobility and then if you have to move or you have to fight or anything, it’s very hard to move,” explained Chin Han.
“You need to have a costume that breaks down into many different parts, so you can do it. It was designed that way and there are many many different parts and many many different layers of it so it takes a very long time to put on and there is a sequence to put it on too! I remember the first few times we did it. If just one hook goes in the wrong place or goes in place earlier than it needs to go, the whole costume can’t fit so it needs to put on in a very, very methodical and very, you know, kind of structured way.”
“And that’s before you even start acting!”
Chin Han plays Shang Tsung, alongside Joe Taslim, Hiroyuki Sanada, Lewis Tan, Mehcad Brooks, Ludi Lin, Max Huang, Jessica McNamee, Sisi Stringer, Josh Lawson, Tadanobu Asano, Elissa Cadwell and Matilda Kimber in Simon McQuoid’s upcoming and highly anticipated Mortal Kombat movie.
Mortal Kombat premieres on April 8 in Southeast Asia, and April 23 in the US.
This article was first published in Geek Culture.