It was one year ago this month that we lost our dear friend Ju Kun in what has become known as the biggest aviation mystery in history. I remember the day all too well. It was an early Saturday morning, March 8th, when I drove from my rented townhouse to Pinewood Studios in Johor Bahru. We were still in the prep phase of Marco Polo, so Saturdays were glorious ones dedicated, by some of us, to martial arts training at the stunt tent.
When I arrived at the tent on a typical humid morning, my friend and stunt coordinator Brett Chan was overseeing the training of Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy. I remember being proud of young Lorenzo for being in there early on a Saturday, and prouder still when I watched him executing a step-behind sidekick into the pads. His form and delivery were excellent and Brett was smiling as his guys ‘Little Jet’ and ‘Handsome’ held the pads and coached our ‘Marco Polo.”
After I warmed up on the mats Brett came over and offered to stretch me out, and it was while I was lying down and Brett leaned into my leg for a deep hamstring stretch that he whispered something about a plane. “Yeah,” he said. “There’s a plane they can’t find, and we think some of our people might be on it.”
“A plane they can’t find” did not instantly spell disaster in my mind. I assumed, and hoped, it was some kind of radar issue. “Ju Kun was on that flight,” Brett said. I remember the look in his eyes. Brett is good at maintaining grace under fire and keeping strong for his crew and the cast, but there was something in his eye that told me he was deeply concerned. While he was stretching me out with one hand, his other had his cell phone and he was checking incoming texts — with quiet urgency. That’s when I immediately cut my workout short and hurried out of the tent to the nearby offices.
Inside I found a small crowd gathering in our line producer’s office, all of our creative team huddled around several laptops. It was that high-adrenaline 9/11 feeling in the room, and as I came in I was quickly brought up to speed, all while seeing CNN and airline images on the computers. Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 had definitely gone missing and it was serious. However, I was told, our wardrobe people who had been booked on the flight cancelled at the last second. So there was clearly a feeling of some relief in the office. And then I said it. “One of our main stunt guys was on the plane.” I remember the air going out of that office, the looks of dread all around. “Ju Kun,” I said. “Our Assistant Fight Choreographer.”
Our line producer Richard Sharkey was certain that any flight booked by our company had been cancelled. “Yes,” I said, “But Ju Kun booked his own flight. Brett is positive that he was on that flight.” That’s when faces went a pale shade and Sharkey dialed a number, trying to confirm.
Just a day before, I had been working out at the 6am conditioning session with the stunt team and Ju Kun was there, smiling at me when I was hitting the focus pads and fighting through 5 on 1 aggression drills. I loved seeing him there for so many reasons. One, he was one of the senior guys (even if in his young 30’s) and a cool, calming presence. Two, he was a brilliant classical kung fu man who could move with more poetic elegance than any martial artist I have known. Three: We had worked together seven years earlier in China when he doubled Jet Li on The Forbidden Kingdom. His presence was comforting and his supreme skill highly valued. Among the many other movies he contributed his martial talents to were Jet Li’s Fearless, The Grandmaster, and The Expendables.
So it was after that conditioning session when I was headed, sweat-drenched, to the offices that I spotted him, standing outside the stunt tent. I remember it so clearly because he looked happy and content as he waited for the session to end so he could team with Brett and get the boys working on the fight scenes.
I waved to him, he waved back with his typical humble smile. And in that same moment stunt man Brian Ho, who had been photographing the training, walked by with his camera. “Brian!” I called out, and I jogged over. “Can you get a picture of me and Ju Kun? I want to send it to Jet Li.” I repeated the same in Mandarin and Ju Kun laughed as I put my arm around him and Brian snapped off some shots. “I want Jet to see that we’re working together again,” I said.
Little did I know that the photo would be the last one Ju Kun ever posed for. That was March 7th. Later that night he would board a flight home to Beijing to see his two young sons.The plane officially went missing in the early hours of March 8th. Day after day, week after week, we all suffered as we tried to continue through prep, just 22 days away from starting the shoot in Venice. Most of the stunt team drove to Kuala Lumpur to be with Ju Kun’s wife and support her during the agonizing wait and daily press conferences. Brett held daily prayer, every morning at dawn in the stunt office. The event was so devastating and personal that it appeared, for a time, that a major part of the Chinese stunt team might leave the production. Ultimately, the stunt team returned and pulled together to become tighter than ever — in the spirit of Ju Kun — and this effected the entire Marco Polo crew, bringing everyone closer together.
Some of those young Chinese stunt players who had worked under Ju Kun now had to step up and fill his considerable shoes, working in tandem with Brett on the intricate choreography. Our morning conditioning sessions and watching those guys and girls pull together through the tragedy — letting their frustration and heartbreak out through their sweat and pain as they trained in Ju Kun’s honor — was one of the most emotional experiences in my lifetime. In the stunt tent, Ju Kun’s photo remained on a chalkboard with personal messages written by the team. “We know you’ll be back, Brother,” one of them said.
“If that plane went down in the ocean,” many said, “Ju Kun’s a survivor. A stunt man. He’ll get out of it.” If it was terrorists, others said, Ju Kun would have taken action. Many of our stunt performers would post routine Facebook posts to him, stating “we know you’re out there. We know you’ll be back.”
A year later now, Ju Kun and 238 other passengers from 15 nations have never been found. The mystery of what happened to that Boeing 777 remains. As does the profound heartbreak suffered by Ju Kun’s wife, family, friends, the stunt family, the Marco Polo team, and every movie crew that he ever worked with. Famed director Wong Kar-Wai and “Crouching Tiger” star Zhang Ziyi paid emotional tribute to him at the Asian Film Awards. I dedicated my novel Dog Beach about a Chinese stuntman to him, and his name appears, in special memorial, at the end of Marco Polo. He was not on the show long before the tragedy, but he had worked closely enough with Brett to leave his stamp on many of the fights and kung fu techniques within, just as he had done on The Grandmaster or The Forbidden Kingdom or the countless other movies that were blessed to have him.
Not a day goes by in which I don’t think of Ju Kun and wonder where he is. And pray for him and everyone on that flight. I know I’m not alone. This March 8th will be particularly painful, but I know what I’ll be doing. I’ll be training — in his honor.