Malaysia-born Michelle Yeoh became the first person of south-east Asian descent to win a best actress Oscar for her part in the surreal action comedy Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Yeoh stunned audiences, but few people are aware of the Cambodian connection that played a part in her win.
The spectacular martial arts skills she displayed in the film were here own, but behind the scenes was a Khmer choreographer, who helped her perfect every move.
Dy Sao, a Cambodian-American who was born in Battambang in 1979 – during the final stages of the Cambodian Civil War – was the Oscar winner’s martial arts trainer.
“I had the distinguished privilege of training Michelle Yeoh for an award-winning movie that garnered seven Oscars,” said Sao.
“It was an incredible honour, as only a select few can attest to such a feat. We focused mainly on Chinese martial arts in preparation for the role,” he added.
Sao embarked on a career as a stunt performer in Hollywood, where his curiosity in various areas of filmmaking grew, yet his passion for martial arts persisted.
He recalled that he was approached by two of his closest friends, Andy Le and Brian Le, to assist them in training Simu Liu and choreographing the well-known bus fight sequence for the movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
When Andy and Brian were cast in Everything Everywhere All At Once, Sao was brought in to coach the actors, thanks to his proficiency and experience in the field.
“I have found it to be a seamless experience working with every actor whom I have been entrusted to train,” said Sao, who has worked with Simu Liu, Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, and Bryce Dallas Howard.
“My confidence comes from having trained in martial arts for 37 years, and having imparted my knowledge to students for over two decades,” he told The Post.
Although he has extensive training in several fighting styles, Sao says he primarily studies martial arts for film, drawing inspiration from great martial artists such as Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Panna Rittikrai, Tony Jaa, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Vincent Zhao, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Iko Uwais, and especially Bruce Lee.
Sao, who often posts live action videos to his social media, explained that martial arts are a philosophy and a way of life, where people seek to empower themselves through training and disciplining their mind, body, and spirit.
His journey to Hollywood began in the most unlikely of places.
While living in the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand his mother’s name appeared on a list compiled by Americans who were seeking to reunite Cambodian relatives with their families in the US.
This marked the beginning of their journey towards immigrating to America, as they initiated the necessary procedures to make this a reality.
Sao has amassed a diverse skill set in various martial arts and styles over the years. At the age of 7, his father introduced him to the basics of Kun Khmer kickboxing and Karate, which proved effective in the numerous fights he encountered while growing up in the Long Beach projects.
From his childhood to his teenage years and middle age, Sao studied many different martial arts including Kun Khmer, Chinese Kung Fu, Wushu Kung Fu, American kickboxing, Muay Thai, boxing, wrestling, MMA and even Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
“In my mid-30s, I went back to my roots and began learning Kun Khmer and Kun Khmer Boran by watching online tutorials of the masters in Cambodia,” he explained.
“I studied Lbokator by watching Master Chan Vireak, Yuthakun Khom under Master Chan Rathana and Master Sakklar Palace. I probably learned the most from Master Chin Chun, who became a friend and mentor after I reached out to him with questions about training,” he added.
Sao takes pride in promoting his homeland’s culture and heritage – along with its unique martial arts – to all of the actors he has the pleasure of training.
He says that the actors are always intrigued by the fact that he comes from Cambodia, but happens to be the one of the best Kung Fu trainers in Hollywood.
But as his students soon realise, his proficiency in teaching Chinese martial arts speaks for itself. Sao’s first aspiration is to achieve recognition as a major contributor to global martial arts as a whole and then bring attention to Cambodia, the land that raised his forefathers.
“We aim to serve our families, communities, brotherhood, country, and the world as a whole. I am dedicated to promoting Cambodia and martial arts in a positive light to the world,” he said.
“My message is one of unity, as we work towards a common goal of bettering ourselves and those around us,” he added.
Sao, who also worked on design for Hanuman: Shadow Master, a Cambodian action movie, said his ultimate aspiration is to showcase Cambodia’s remarkable beauty through film to a global audience.
He is currently collaborating with his close friend Cambodian-American producer Daron Ker, to produce a ground-breaking film. If all goes well, it will be shot in the Kingdom at the end of the year.
“We intend to cast local talent and train them in how to create professional films in the Hollywood style,” he said.
Sao explained that they have ambitious plans to establish a film school in the Kingdom, so Cambodia will develop a self-sustaining film industry that does not only focus on one project at a time.
If his guesses are correct, Cambodia will lead the way in martial arts films and share them with the world.
“I hope we can get the pieces in place to make a movie in Cambodia this year. Many of my Khmer fans have asked when I will be coming, but I assure them I am trying my best to make it happen,” he said.
Sao said he wants to return and showcase Cambodia’s artistic talents – including its rich cultural heritage – through the power of film.
“Cambodia has so much to offer, and it is time to rise and make our mark on the global stage. To the Khmer people – you are my champions, I love you so much,” Sao concluded.