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The Rescue star Eddie Peng on how he nearly died shooting the action film and the unsung heroes of the Chinese Coast Guard

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 3 days ago
a person wearing a helmet: Eddie Peng in a still from The Rescue. Eddie Peng in a still from The Rescue.

Pairing Hong Kong action film director Dante Lam Chiu-yin with Taiwanese heartthrob Eddie Peng Yu-yan has so far proved a sure-fire way to reap box-office gold, a fact borne out by the ever-rising earnings of their past collaborations.

Their first film together, the 2013 boxing drama Unbeatable, brought in 120 million yuan (US$15.5 million), while 2015's cycling film To the Fore racked up 150 million yuan. Their third collaboration, 2016's Operation Mekong, earned a whopping 1.2 billion yuan.

Their latest film, The Rescue, about the work of a sea rescue crew within the Chinese Coast Guard, beat Hollywood blockbuster Wonder Woman 1984 to be the mainland's Christmas box office champion after both opened on the same day on December 18: The Rescue took in 485 million yuan domestically compared with Wonder Woman 1984's 167 million yuan.

In a recent interview with the South China Morning Post, Peng says that it was great fun working with Lam for the fourth time.

"Lam got the idea for The Rescue when he was making Operation Mekong," the actor says. "Many people might think he is very demanding and it's dangerous to do (the stunts he asks you to do). But as long as you believe in the director and yourself, you will be able to overcome your fear (of doing them)."

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How to face fear is one of the themes of the film. As part of his research, Lam interviewed three members from the Chinese Coast Guard about their mental state during rescue and salvage missions.

Peng reveals that he nearly drowned - several times - when making the underwater scenes in a studio in Mexico, which was built in 1996 for the making of Titanic (1997).

"I am a good swimmer, but when you are several tens of metres underwater in water measuring 6 degree Celsius (43 degrees Fahrenheit), it's totally different from swimming," he explains.

"We also needed to carry a number of pieces of lead to keep us submerged. It felt like being in a freezer. The deeper you are underwater, the more oxygen you inhale from the tank. Once, while shooting a long scene, my tank ran out of oxygen. I had to hold the last breath from the tank and swim to the surface for oxygen. Such things happened all the time."

Peng says the most terrifying incident when making the movie was when he got tangled up in a wire underwater that was stuck under a submerged truck.

"I was plunged into the bottom of the tank and couldn't get out, scaring everybody on set. No one came to rescue me. I told myself I had to save myself. I tried to cut the wire but failed. In the end, I used all my strength to find and unknot the tangled wire under the truck to get out. The wire was knotted so tightly that my fingernails came off and the skin on my hands was cut."

He adds that the chemicals in the water also stung his eyes.

"There were many scenes which required me to act without (protective) gear. Without the goggles, the chemicals made it difficult for me to open my eyes. All the videographers wore goggles when they were underwater. By the end of those scenes my eyes were bloodshot and would well up uncontrollably."

Eddie Peng et al. looking at a phone: Peng (left) and director Dante Lam (right) on the set of The Rescue. © Provided by South China Morning Post Peng (left) and director Dante Lam (right) on the set of The Rescue.

It is indeed normal to feel fear when starring in one of Lam's productions, with the director often insisting on shooting on location for his action blockbusters' disaster scenes. With a production cost of US$80 million, The Rescue has plenty of such scenes, including an offshore oil rig explosion and an aircraft crash-landing in the sea, splitting into three parts.

For the aircraft scene, the production team bought an A320 Airbus from Las Vegas for HK$15 million (US$1.9 million) and spent HK$2 million transporting it from Las Vegas to Mexico. When shooting the scene, cranes had to be used to hoist up the aircraft. The cost to rent one crane was HK$240,000, with the total rental cost adding up to HK$3 million.

The making of these high-octane scenes was overseen by Oscar-winning special effects supervisor John Frazier, who has worked on blockbusters in the Spider-Man, Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean series, among others.

Eddie Peng talking on a cell phone: Peng (right) and Wang Yanlin in a still from The Rescue. © Provided by South China Morning Post Peng (right) and Wang Yanlin in a still from The Rescue.

Besides Peng, The Rescue stars Xin Zhilei (Crosscurrent) and Wang Yanlin (Operation Red Sea, a 2018 film also directed by Lam). But the heavy lifting remains with Peng, who apart from handling the physically demanding action scenes also has to channel his sensitivity for playing the role of the rescue team's captain, who has a son.

"It's the first time for me to play a father in a movie," he says. "At the beginning, I thought it was impossible for me to do that. But Lam sensed the evolution of my inner character from the movies I have made over the past few years. He thought I should take up this challenge for a change. He wanted to show another side of me that is hidden.

"Children are very authentic," he adds. "The child who played my son acted very naturally. I tried to maintain my innocence and authenticity when making scenes together with him so that the audience can understand what the family life of the rescue crew is like."

a man wearing a baseball hat: Peng in a still from The Rescue. © Provided by South China Morning Post Peng in a still from The Rescue.

The long time away from family during missions and the fear that the next operation might be their last are among the mental challenges rescue crew members have to confront daily.

Peng says he wanted to reveal the emotional lives of these unsung heroes.

"There are many emotional scenes in the movie that are about family and the bond between the rescue crew. Whenever a mission comes up, they have to forget everything to focus on life-saving, as stray thoughts will affect their judgment, the work of the whole team and whether a life can be saved. While audiences might (be more attracted by) the disaster scenes, what the director most wanted to say, and the actors most wanted to portray, was the emotional side of the rescue crew.

"This profession requires courage and faith. They have to forget their own lives to save others. Whenever the siren goes off, they have to face (the possibilities of impending) death and long separation from family. Sometimes, they even have to give up saving certain people as saving them might affect the whole team. Such issues are unimaginable to ordinary people. That's why they need faith and a steely mental psyche to accomplish their missions."

a group of people standing next to a body of water: Peng (centre) plays the captain of the sea rescue team within the Chinese Coast Guard in The Rescue. © Provided by South China Morning Post Peng (centre) plays the captain of the sea rescue team within the Chinese Coast Guard in The Rescue.

With production for the film lasting eight months from 2018 to 2019, Peng has not taken to the pool again since shooting wrapped up.

"The water in Mexico is really cold. I had to mentally prepare myself every day before going underwater there," he says. "I don't think I will swim again for a year or two."

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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