“We are not going to just be sitting there saying, ‘oh, it should be this way and that should be fixed’ we are going to get our hands dirty, and then we will show the system that if you are not going to have us, we will make our own content and take action.”
Maria Tran has made her name karate chopping and roundhouse kicking her way across the big screen; with no degree or qualifications in film or acting, the Vietnamese-Australian action star’s path to success has been far from conventional.
I meet Maria in Western Sydney at Oakdene Park – she is describing the stillness of a huge old oak tree, a distinct contrast to her usual action-packed persona.
“This tree’s been surviving for more than 160 years,” she says. “Like, it’s seen a lot – it has been significant enough to have lived and stayed here. And no one dares to sort of challenge it at this moment.
“I always find there’s a bit of a connection with me and it… what we see on the surface are leaves, the branches and stillness. What we don’t see however, is the very interconnected and stable roots that are under the tree… in a sense, the tree allows me to be more grounded.”
I’ve been subjected to commentary from executive producers overseas, where they were like ‘Maria, you are old, you are a bit fat… if you really want to make it you have to understand you have to fit a certain way.
Maria has actively taken a path less travelled, seeking to dismantle sexist stereotypes and structures in a patriarchal film industry to which she herself has been subjected.
“The notion of one of my trajectories being an action star, it wasn’t something that I considered. I remember thinking to myself, no, I’m just a person who’s made a couple of action films overseas, and worked with Jackie Chan,” she says.
The actress grew up watching ’80s action films, doting on the likes of Hollywood stars Bruce Willis and Chan, but she never really had women like herself to look up to.
In her youth, she perceived the action star label to be associated with male actors that had “muscles and big guns” and “killed all the terrorists”, comparatively women were cast to appeal to the male viewers of the genre.
Despite her reservations around the label, Maria recognised the power behind the title and the opportunity it presented to dismantle stereotypes and inspire the next generation of young women.
“I’ve been subjected to commentary from executive producers overseas, where they were like ‘Maria, you are old, you are a bit fat… if you really want to make it you have to understand you have to fit a certain way and there are certain things you have to do in the industry to get in’.
“Even at that point, there was a part of me that felt desperate, but also, a part of me said, ‘No! I know where I want to go’. I’m not just an actress, I’m a filmmaker. If anything, I’m going to go home and make my own stuff.”
She has worked on international action blockbusters including Fist of the Dragon, Death Mist and Chan’s 2016 film Bleeding Steel. Her more recent projects including a feature film about her life, which she directs, produces and stars in, Echo 8, as well as the short film, My Mother, The Action Star, that won the best documentary award in the Women in Film & Television (WIFT) filmmaking competition.
Maria wants to expose racist and sexist stereotypes and narratives and dismantle them through activism via the medium of film on her up and coming project, Operation Kung-Flu, this is a satirical ’80s Kung Fu short film about a female Asian cop being brought back from the ’80s to investigate disappearances and attacks on Asian Australians during the coronavirus.
“I know if I can make it, it’s going to open the doors to so many other women… so women don’t have to sexualise themselves, so they can have ownership of their bodies, so they don’t have to sell their sexuality to get there,” she says.
Maria wants to inspire a new generation of young women but do so in a constructive way.
“[It] made me think that what if I get a chance to disassemble the term? I thought you know what, I’m going to take on this action thing,” Maria says.
“Even though people ask me, can you do backflips? Can you kill 10 people running a job? I say, ‘hell no’. I’m not like that. Besides that I am quite a pacifist, I’m a very non-violent person.
I interviewed a lot of female ’80s and ’90s action stars in Hong Kong. I realised they only were allowed to be action stars under the patriarchal system. So they had an expiration date.
“But I do realise that the action star label has its influential power, which I am going to be open to utilising only because I do feel like I have a much stronger message that I want to drive across to the world.”
She says the patriarchal nature of the action film industry and her experiences in Hong Kong confirmed how inaccessible the industry is to women in particular.
“When I did a documentary called Femme Fatales, I interviewed a lot of female ’80s and ’90s action stars in Hong Kong. I realised they only were allowed to be action stars under the patriarchal system. So they had an expiration date,” Maria says.
“For example, if they’re over the age of 30, they’re like grandmas. They’re no longer an action star, they should move over for someone who’s younger and perkier, their careers are no longer sustainable. It’s because the system thinks that if you want to be in film and television, you need to look a certain way.”
Maria has not let the negative aspects of the industry hold her back.
“I remember [one] person said, ‘Okay, well, suit yourself. But it’s quite impossible what you’re doing because, most of the time, when women go down this path, if you’re gonna do it that way, it’s a path less taken or path not taken at all’,” she says.
“That’s why I’ve been so vigorous in forging this path that has not been taken, because I know if I can make it, it’s going to open the doors to so many other women.”
She speaks about the next generation of women and how this movement of women are no longer afraid to get their hands dirty.
“We are not going to just be sitting there and just saying ‘oh, it should be this way and that should be fixed’ we are going to get our hands dirty, and then we will show the system that if you are not going to have us, we will make our own content and take action.”