If anyone knows how to pack a punch, it’s Brillante Mendoza—one of the Philippines’ most renowned directors and a Tatler’s Asia’s Most Influential honouree. His latest movie is a boxing biopic, based on the life of physically disabled boxer, Nao Tsuyama who dreams of becoming a professional boxer despite having a prosthetic leg. Hoping to gain success overseas after being rejected in Japan, he travels to the Philippines—to General Santos city or Gensan—in the hometown of boxing legend, Manny Pacquiao to train.
The movie premiered at the Busan International Film Festival where it took home the Kim Jiseok Award, receiving praise for its strong story of not only a hero’s path to victory but also of the relationships formed along the way. Marking a new leap in his career, Okinawan-born actor Shogen took on the role of Nao. Fighting prejudices in his own country for not being Japanese enough, the movie propelled Shogen to become an in-demand rising star.
Gensan Punch recently screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival and Tatler had the chance to sit down with Shogen to talk about how he prepared for the physically demanding role, the similarities between Japan and the Philippines and why he considers working with Mendoza as his life’s treasure.
Gensan Punch is filled with heavy boxing sequences. How did you prepare for your role? Did you have any specific diet?
Since I started this project by myself, I had time to prepare—unlike the Japanese industry. I started to constantly work out a year and a half before filming started and I went to train five to six times a week. I found a couple of Nao Tsuyama’s real fights on YouTube so I know about it and I tried to do it as he did. But director Brillante Mendoza said that it’s not necessary to copy Nao’s style. The movie is inspired by his life story but I had to bring myself into the movie. I did some training to fight like I had a prosthetic leg.
There’s no particular diet I had to do because I’ve already spent time training, like a real boxer. Nao is also of similar height as me, maybe just a bit taller. When he fought, he was 63 kilograms so it was my goal to weigh around the same. Before filming, I was just training to lose weight but that’s all.
Did you also meet the real Nao Tsuyama to prepare for the role?
Actually, when I started this project, I already met Nao and I got his permission to tell his story about seven years ago. We’ve been friends for 10 years already. I got inspired by his life and I thought it’s a great story to tell. I also have a lot of sympathy for him so I asked him when we were drinking that one day, I’d like to make a film about him and he said yes. And now we’re here. It’s overwhelming, at the Tokyo International Film Festival, we’re just standing on the stage together around our friends and families and everyone seems so happy.
You filmed Gensan Punch in both Japan and the Philippines. Since you’re from Okinawa, I’m curious how the filming experience was in Gensan?
I’m lucky because Brillante gave me time to immerse myself in the environment. I had time to stay in Gensan for a couple of weeks—one day, I’d just hang out, the next day it’s location scouting and then they’d usually just leave me alone and I stay there. I also spent time training with the real local boxers, hanging out with them and eating together. I appreciate that time because it allowed me to feel a connection with them, learn their culture, their life and even a little bit of the local language.
This film will encourage people to pursue their dreams and to never give up— Shogen