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Quotes from Gordon Parks, the ’70s U.K. glam scene, and Quavo’s nunchuck proficiency aren’t topics one might expect to discuss with the director of the latest Migos video. But Sing J. Lee isn’t most directors. At first glance, “Stir Fry” merely seems like another example of the burgeoning virality and humor at the center of the Migos’ growing brand. However, under the surface is a world of influences that may be lost on the average American.
Esoteric, thoughtful, and detailed, Lee bleeds his influences in conversation. He’ll break down how the lighting and aesthetic choices for “Stir Fry” come from legendary films by Wong Kar-wai. That thread will pull at another, and soon you’re learning a brief history of the traditional southern Chinese kung fu martial art Wing Chun.
Before working with the Atlanta trio, Lee had never worked with a rapper, let alone the biggest rap group in the world. So how does a British-born, Wales-raised director with parents from Hong Kong get tasked with merging the world of classic kung fu films and North Atlanta trap?
In an interview with MTV News, Lee discusses the wild making of the “Stir Fry” video.
MTV News: Does anything about the day you guys filmed the video stick out — anything that was super funny that will always stay with you?
Lee: I brought the game of Mahjong to this video, which is what you see them playing with Pharrell and Nigo and Migos are at the table. This was on the second day. We’re about ready to shoot, and Quavo and Pharrell ask, “How do you play this game and what is this game?” We anticipated this. We brought a Mahjong master to come down on set.
But we spent 20 minutes with this old Chinese guy explaining how to play this game of Mahjong. He explained it well, but he started backwards and went to the beginning. Just watching Migos, Nigo, and Pharrell just trying to figure out how to learn to play this Mahjong game was hilarious.
MTV News: How do you teach Quavo to use nunchucks or Takeoff to fight a wooden dummy?
Lee: My production designer JC Molina, he called me and was like, “I have cinderblocks, you know, the prop cinderblocks in my storage. Let’s bring them and put them into the set and maybe we can get one of them to chop it.” One of our extras turned out to be, like, a nunchucks master and brought nunchucks randomly. So on the day, we just spontaneously [said], OK great, let’s assign three different things for this training scene that we need to do anyway.
So Quavo wanted the nunchucks. I think he used to play with them when he was a kid. We gave Takeoff the wooden block to fight against. And Offset wanted to smash some cinderblocks. So that’s how they all came together.
MTV News: What was the thinking behind putting those bloopers at the end?
Lee: Well, because of how funny Migos were actually on the day. When we were doing take after take and the whole set was cracking up. Me and the label were discussing that actually — you know what, we probably have some really funny moments amazing moments and we should definitely use them and roll them at the end like the Rush Hour bloopers or the Jackie Chan movies.
I think it makes Migos look really likable and it was really funny. You can see how fun shooting this actual project was. Again, it was another great moment to [pay homage to] Asian kung fu movies.
MTV News: Is the “Stir Fry” video inspired by a specific kung fu movie or movies? Or is it something where you pulled from a lot of different films?
Lee: In terms of style and in terms of the aesthetic and the lighting, I was looking at old favorites like In the Mood For Love by Wong Kar-wai or 2046. In terms of the films, I was looking at obviously Bruce Lee films with Enter the Dragon and Fist of Fury. When I got to the martial arts element, I was really looking to try and capture that and write that in a way that we really don’t see it captured in American cinema.
In American cinema, fight sequences are really dramatic and dynamic, and there’s lots of cuts and slow-mo and high-speed. With those old Chinese films, they really don’t cut unless absolutely necessary. They really hold on their shots and let the action play out, and this was something that I thought the viewer wouldn’t pick up on, but definitely sense that tone. They’ve seen it before.
So I was looking at the fight sequences in films like House of Flying Daggers and the Ip Man films with Donnie Yen. The fighting style I wanted to pay homage to again was Wing Chun, which is what Ip Manwas famous for. It’s what Bruce Lee learned before he created his own martial arts. It’s a very fast and dynamic form of fighting. It’s nimble and it’s exciting.
MTV News: A majority of Asian imagery in pop culture tends to be watered down, highly offensive, or problematic, and there is rarely a full immersion in a culture. Did you ever have a conversation with Migos about respecting and not appropriating Asian culture for the music video?
Lee: We didn’t, but I think there was just an unspoken agreement. I mean, I like to think they brought me onto this project because they liked the idea. I think that’s what happened. It was fortunate that I’m also Chinese.
As someone who, at this point in my own personal projects, is really focused on profiling correctly and empowering our community, I like to think of myself as just a director, but there’s also a great opportunity to be a Chinese director on this one specifically. They, throughout the whole project, just treated everything with a lot of respect, and we didn’t have a conversation, but I think there was the assumption that we are going to do this right.