In part two of our exclusive interview with director Yung Chang, where we look back at his documentary, Omega Man: A Wrestling Love Story, we explore the unique dichotomy of showcasing Kenny Omega's groundbreaking story with Kota Ibushi while filming in the old school environment of New Japan Pro Wrestling. In addition to this, Yung continues to highlight what the extended version of Omega Man would include and why wrestling continues to struggle to gain acceptance from the everyday fan.
The documentary, I think, more than most wrestling-related documentaries highlights the emotional impact wrestling can have on people. It shows that it can be just like films and theatre and have that same impact and relatability for people. Did you ever imagine that you would see this kind of impact in wrestling like the Ibushi storyline has on various communities? And do you think, also in a way, it eclipses Hollywood because that story in Hollywood is still played for laughs more often than not?
“Firstly, to think that he [Kenny] was breaking barriers and stereotypes within this kind of WWE world. Thinking of the general populace and how they react to wrestling in that kind of way, and I think to know there was another way to do it – the Kenny way of telling a story – that this was groundbreaking. When I still watch the replay of the ten-year saga, I still get a little verklempt (laughs). I do get a lump in my throat. It is very emotional to me. It is a purity and earnestly that makes it so real, and I can see how it touches people. I guess, in a way, it's also, oddly, I think about figure skating. What makes figure skating work so well, especially around the Olympics, is that you get the back stories to people and all the travails they bring with them to the ice and to that moment, and that is back story.
“Back story is, I think, crucial to telling a good character story, and that's what Kenny was very conscious of, and so that is what he did. He built a back story that we could watch and engage with over those ten years. It was in a way that method, the De Niro way of approaching a character, which is pretty visionary, I think, for wrestling, and he did a great job. To hear you say he eclipsed a lot of Hollywood tropes that we see, even today, I do agree, he has. Especially, let's face it, in the world of wrestling, there is a specific way that people think of it as, and he was pushing against that. That way of thinking still exists, but when you see something like All Elite Wrestling, and when I went to ALL IN, that was eye-opening. To see the fans lining up, just to touch and get close to Ibushi and Omega. To see that there is a world of people that connected because they felt like outsiders themselves, and to see that there was a community of outsiders within the popular wrestling world.
“You know, outside of WWE, there is a huge world of independent wrestling that is by far cooler than WWE. I remember one night, Kenny and some of us went out to have a post-filming drink at one of these Winnipeg sports bars, and WrestleMania was on, and it was horrible (laughs). It was like the lamest story that they put forth, and it was boring, and everything looked so contrived, which I know Kenny doesn't want what WWE does, but what he didn't like about New Japan was the camera coverage. It was too improvised, and that sometimes it would miss the details of what he was building in, and Kenny, I know, would have preferred to have a little bit of the WWE camera coverage worked out. So you could see some of the things he was doing in more detail, but other than that, he was not down with the WrestleMania approach.”
I think when done right, wrestling can arguably have a greater effect on people because it has this amazing combination of immediacy and intimacy, as you mentioned with the fans at ALL IN, and also the ability to have long-form storytelling. So it has the full combination of theatre, sports, and film. Would you agree with that?
“Hundred percent. It doesn't even have to be that much more than being live. My first experience with professional wrestling was in 2008, and I was travelling with my first film, Up the Yangtze, and I went to Mexico for a film festival called Film Ambiente, a travelling film festival. They took me to Xalapa, a place just outside of Mexico City, and one night they took me to a Lucha Libre wrestling event, and my mind was blown (laughs). I had never felt so excited with an audience. It's so visceral, the live performance, the participation that is required of you as the viewer. It's not passive, and that's what I think is so great about theatre, and wrestling especially, it breaks that fourth wall, and it requires your full participation as if it was a Coliseum-type vibe.
“A gladiator type thing and just the humour involved in it, the pathos, they were throwing fluorescent tube lighting and landing on it, and breaking tables over people's heads and falling into the audience. In particular, there was a woman, who was an obsessed fan of this Lucha Libre hero, and she had tattooed the guy on her bicep (laughs). I was like, that is next level. So I really dug all of that, and I can still remember that moment and how exciting it was. So yeah, pro wrestling can do a lot of what individual sports and arts and theatre cannot do, which is combining all of those things in one, and it is so exciting, I love it.”
Do you find it strange because it can do that and have such an effect that they [wrestling] still have such a stigma attached to them from Hollywood and places like that?
“I think with things like the series GLOW and our cultural majority these days, in a way, we can see the stigma is being broken down slowly. But I wonder, I question how much do we, we as in the fans of alternative wrestling, do we really want it to blow up and become something that crosses over? There is something special about loving the thing that isn't for everyone. That's why we love music that's not commercially pop music, you know what I mean?”
Yeah, of course.
“There is something about that world too that I like. That is why I love art-house movies. It's something I can feel very close to and nerd out on, but not everyone else feels that way.”
I think maybe it's not so much that we want it to blow up, but I feel like there is an embarrassment that people force on you, so when they kind of look at you and say, “Oh, you watch wrestling?” Then you have to defend it, and that's something that's not really attached to something like art-house films.
“Yeah, totally, I see that. But in a way, you have these crossover stars like The Rock and [Chris] Jericho, and you have people that are accepted in mainstream. But I think as fans of wrestling, I do think there is a stigma attached to it. I think it's because there is this idea of, “Oh, it looks so fake,” or whatever that means, and I think it's hard for people that don't have a bit of a fascination with the idea of embracing the real and the fake, embracing kayfabe, you know what I mean?”
“They'll never get it. You can't convert people to that mould. It's a Meta leap, and that's what I think is so fascinating with wrestling is you play off of that, and that is part of the fascination with wrestling. It's like knowing that there is pain, there is injury, but it's also kind of in jest and fun. It's not real in that way that it's like war.”
So you're argument is that some people don't like the in-between of the make believe and real?
“Oh, I think they're completely confused by it (laughs). You know what I mean? And that's why I think it'll never be totally embraced by people because the cross of performance, artifice, and reality is not for everybody. But that's what I love about it. I think it'll always have a specific audience and the coolest audience (laughs).”
(Laughs) We can take that, I guess. Another thing I find fascinating about Omega Man is it has this strange kind of dichotomy. We talk about Omega pushing boundaries and this evolution of incorporating pop culture, but at the same time, you were filming in Japan, where you were not able to show much backstage footage because they're very old school in that regard.
“Yeah, in somewhere like WWE, kayfabe is a little more open and is an accepted idea, but in Japan, you cannot even do that. That was what was so hard at the time when we were filming. I think Kenny would be more open for us to show that kind of clip where he's backstage plotting. But I think at that time, he was still a part of New Japan, and they are just so severe about it, and also for us to break into that organisation, it was crazy (laughs). It was so hard.”
Was that frustrating for you as a filmmaker. Not having the freedom to explore? For example, your film on Robert Fisk, there was a lot more freedom.
“What was so hard about making this film was gaining the trust of everybody. You bring up Fisk and that world of filming with the army, and that world was, in a way, so much easier (laughs). There was just a lot more scrutiny. Firstly, New Japan is a private corporation. You're dealing with a corporation that is built around the mythology they build with their babyfaces and their heels. It's so real, and you have to keep it that way. Fans would revolt if that wasn't maintained, so we had a lot of work to break into that. There were a lot of challenges getting Kenny on board in the beginning. We didn't know if it was going to happen, but we one-hundred-percent gambled, and we committed to picking up and going to Winnipeg when we knew Kenny was there, and we just landed ourselves in the hotel room where we were staying.
“We set up our interview set, and we interviewed Callis. We interviewed everyone around him, and we were like day three of a three-day shoot, and we were nervous that he wasn't going to show up because we didn't hear from him. I think Kenny was sort of like, I don't know what he was doing. I have to say I don't know what he was doing. We had to change our flight, and at the eleventh hour, he showed up. He walked in, sat down, and he gave us a three-hour interview. That's how we locked him in. There was a lot of touch and go in the beginning to make sure he could understand that we were not about to, you know, do him harm. But he really came on board and was very generous with us after. But I do think there was always this complexity of like, “How much are we allowed to show? How much can we not?” But I really do feel like we were able to do a pretty good job, especially at ALL IN. What we were able to get backstage there and film all of that stuff and get great footage of all of those wrestlers backstage. It was just beautiful, and it was so exciting to be back there.”
I think, in a way, not being able to see the backstage stuff earlier in the documentary made that ALL IN footage even more special.
“You know, I wish we could do the feature version because there is so much more we can show…”
Oh, really? You're getting me excited now; I want to see more (laughs).
“You should start a petition and get people to write to the producer being like, “We need a re-cut of this movie.” I think one of the challenges for this film was that it was made for television, for a general audience, and so if you were to dive too deeply into something, the fear was that the executives would fear it would go over the heads of others. The general populace. But I really wanted to keep going and digging into that, and I do think there is that feature version where we play it out. We let you see all the build-up around ALL IN because there was a gamble there too. They didn't know what to expect out of that, and it worked out so amazingly well. Obviously, we know how well it worked out, and then you have Kenny's very secretive process of figuring out what to do next. Was he going to stick to New Japan? Was he going to leave? We know the outcome now, but at the time, it was all under wraps, and there was nothing we could do to break that open (laughs).”
I think I'll put something in this interview. Let's push for that feature version (laughs).
“Yeah, let's do that petition on…”
Change.org, I think, is one (laughs).
“Yeah, let's do that (laughs).”
Going back to the sort of explaining wrestling to people. You have this great little intro in the film, where it has Kenny introduce himself, and then you go to Don Callis, Dave Meltzer, etc., and everybody is trying to explain professional wrestling and what it is. Callis gives that really great example of dancers saying something to the effect of different dancers do Swan Lake, but it's still Swan Lake.
“Yeah, exactly, and he references Rudolf Nureyev, the great Russian ballet dancer, and it is true. I think people also say that about Bruce Lee. He was like Muhammad Ali, and Muhammad Ali was like ballet, and it takes us back to that artistry. The artistry, the beauty, the poetry of something that is seemingly arbitrary. Seemingly just flailing and kicking, and as we know in pro wrestling, there is just so much detail that goes into the performance, the execution, the movement. It becomes art, and I love taking something that is seemingly crass and basic, like pickup trucks and that sort of vibe and flipping it, saying no, no, no, this is high art. I love that idea.”
I find that because I'm in between writing about film and writing about wrestling, and these are the two worlds I'm immersed in, I still find it fascinating for this constant need to explain wrestling. I get it on one hand, but I also think it's amazing because wrestling has been a part of pop culture for so long.
“It's true. But I feel like, as the outsider and not the two feet in super fan, I wonder about it because for me, what is fascinating is the origins of wrestling, which is related to the carnival and also the magic side of it, the sleight of hand. The suspension of disbelief is what makes magic work, right? So part of the challenge is wrestling is magic, and part of it is like getting people's heads around the fact that this is magic. You can have the Penn & Teller version of explaining how the magic works, which actually kills it, but I would prefer the David Blaine version of magic where you're just mystified. How did he levitate?”
When you're given a broad overview as opposed to the intricacies?
“Yeah, or just say that's the idea. The suspension of disbelief is what is lacking in the people that don't understand wrestling. You kind of have to let go too. You have to let go and indulge in the high jinks. You gotta indulge in the magic of it because otherwise if you don't, it's going to be boring. You're going to be like, “This is fake,” but that's the beauty of going to ALL IN. Everyone's in on it. You're in on the magic, and you're having a blast. It's a party, and it's beautiful, and it's fun, and there is still the unexpected because you don't know how these matches are going to play out, you don't know. Man, it's just so cool. Then there is like that whole world around – as much as there is fans around comic books, comic con, anime, and Manga, you have that whole world built-in, around wrestling too, and I love that. I love going to the meet and greets and walking around the tables and seeing these legendary wrestlers there hawking their wares. Just the fandom around it, it's just so fun. I love the gear. I love the t-shirts. I've got this amazing t-shirt that Andrew Shallcross gave me that is a one-of-a-kind Kenny Omega t-shirt that only his company made. It's so special that I don't wear it.”
It's like memorabilia.
“It's a perfect piece of memorabilia. I think it's super rare. I love all of that. I love the independent wrestling, like city leagues that you have in each city and all of that stuff. Man, it's so cool. If I had more time, I'd be like two feet in, truly.”
I feel like you could almost explore this in a film as well. The community of the independent wrestling scene.
“Yeah. A hundred percent.”
You had an awareness of wrestling going into those interviews with Meltzer and all those guys breaking down wrestling. But coming out of those interviews, and if today you went to a non-wrestling fan, how do you explain professional wrestling?
“I hundred-percent learned. It was a great learning curve, and I would take from the film. If you look at how Jericho describes it, and I think I liked how Kenny talked about it. Wrestling is like imagining stunt people performing theatre, but then there is stakes. There is real life involved. There is injury. I think that is part of what is so fascinating about it. I've been to matches here in Toronto, and I've seen local wrestling organisations put on these matches, and they are bloody (laughs). It's so cool to be there, and you feel people rallying, and I think part of it is this idea of breaking the fourth wall. To me, wrestling is like the hybrid version of everything you'd want in a visual art, a visual athletic art. So it's everything wrapped in one, as you described earlier too. It's like movies, music, performance, theatre, and athletic sports stunts – everything rolled into one. And it's heightened, so it can be super emotional. It can be humorous. It can be sad. It can be moving, and it can actually cut through to in a metaphorical way and talk about our contemporary condition. Like how Kenny and Ibushi do it with The Golden Lovers. That, to me, is the high bench for that kind of thing of where wrestling can go. That's why we highlighted it in our movie because I think that was the ultimate level of wrestling kind of meeting up at a perfect place.”
Check out Part 1 of this interview here.
If you're interested in the unreleased extended version of Omega Man: A Wrestling Love Story, feel free to share your support on social media.
Follow Yung Chang on Twitter.