Mortal Kombat and the Man Who Gave Sub-Zero a Soul
Martial arts master Joe Taslim talks about ‘Getting Colder’ to play the iconic villain Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat.
Mortal Kombat’s Joe Taslim (aka Sub-Zero) is one of the hottest martial artists on screen right now. It’s been a decade since his breakout film The Raid took the world by storm, and Taslim has consistently delivered high-octane action with dashing panache ever since. As movie martial arts masters go, few others are on Taslim’s level. While most action stars have some martial arts training in their bag of tricks, Taslim is more invested than most.
Prior to The Raid, Taslim was a professional Judo athlete and a member of Indonesia’s National Judo team from 1997 to 2009. He won gold medals at the Southeast Asia Judo Championships and the Indonesian National Games. No other actor can boast a competitive record like this. What’s more, Taslim is also trained in Wushu and Taekwondo, and he picked up Pencak Silat for The Raid, so his combative range goes far beyond Judo throws and falls.
The Raid was a game-changer for the martial arts genre. It placed Indonesia firmly on the map when it comes to action films, delivering relentlessly unflinching action and intensely complex fight choreography, held together with a threadbare plot. If martial arts movies are compared to porn films, The Raid was hardcore. The film spawned a sequel which picked up the action right where it left off in the original. In addition to Taslim, the franchise also introduced a stable of Indonesian action stars to Hollywood including Iko Uwais (Mile 22 and the upcoming Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins) and Yayan Ruhian (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, John Wick: Chapter 3).
Taslim moved on to Hollywood too. Two years after The Raid, he landed the role of Jah in Fast & Furious 6, followed by an appearance in Star Trek Beyond. But he never abandoned his country and continued to deliver films made in Indonesia specifically for that market. Most notable was The Night Comes For Us, which reunited Taslim with Uwais. Although an Indonesian production, The Night Comes For Us gained worldwide exposure after it was picked up by Netflix. He also starred as the villain in the South Korean film, The Swordsman, and became more recognizable to Western audiences audiences by playing the conflicted Tong hitman Li Yong in the Bruce Lee inspired series, Warrior.
Now Taslim is at the forefront of another predominantly Asian cast for the new Hollywood feature film, Mortal Kombat. And he is donning yet another villain mask as Sub-Zero.
“Sub-Zero is just an amazingly powerful, iconic character,” says director Simon McQuoid. McQuoid’s film explores the inbuilt rivalry between Sub-Zero and Scorpion coming out of the original video games. The connection between Sub-Zero (real name: Bi-Han) and Scorpion delves deep into Mortal Kombat lore, and within the film, McQuoid says this is symbolized by a bloody kunai (ninja ring dagger) which plays a critical role throughout the film.
“Blood is such a [vital] ingredient in Mortal Kombat,” explains McQuoid, “but we wanted to make it feel more than just blood splurts. We wanted it to have a blood line and lineage meaning to blood as well. We liked the idea that we could tell an emotional version of that blood story.” Just like the fighting game, Mortal Kombat is evenly split between good guys and bad guys, but ultimately Sub-Zero becomes the standout villain in the film.
“Once we got Joe,” beams McQuoid, “then we knew he was going to be a pretty kick-ass character because Joe’s so fantastic.”
Den of Geek had a video chat with Joe Taslim while he was home in Indonesia.
Den of Geek: Was the Mortal Kombat video game popular in Indonesia?
Yeah, I think it was 1995 when the first one released. I was actually not in the capital. I was born on the small island in South Sumatra, in Palembang, that’s my home city. So, I remember when the game came out and people talked about the game because it’s unusual because it was so violent. And it’s still violent now. So it was popular until now. But unfortunately, MK11 got banned because Indonesia is very sensitive of the violence level in that game where it’s just like funny now. The censorship here is like, “Oh, this is too much for Indonesia, so probably not.” So a lot of people played the game by downloading it. They know how to do it.
Did you play?
I played MK11, MKXL, yeah.
What challenged you the most about taking on Sub-Zero?
Well, the fans know Sub-Zero is badass, kick-ass, so much swagger, and a lot of attitude. But as an actor, the challenge for me to be in his shoes is to give him more soul, to give more heart, to make this character live. The fight is a visual. People enjoy the fight. But to bring people to feel inside the fight is something else, it means that you got to give more. You got to give the intention. You got to give a story, without delivering any lines, that people can see. Is he losing? Or does he know he’s going to die? Or is he very confident?
Jet Li did an amazing job in his movies to deliver those attitudes—the story of the fight. So I learned from him and I learned from The Raid, The Night Comes for Us, and I just bring everything to Mortal Kombat. There’s a lot of stories in that final fight. You can see the character is just dynamic—what he’s feeling, the way he fights, he’s just getting slower and slower. He’s just catching his breath.
So that’s the most important thing in fights, in my opinion. Because a lot of people think a fight scene needs to be badass, kick-ass. That’s number two. But number one is you got to be inside the shoes and know what’s going on inside this character first. Then when you visualize the fight, it makes sense.
How was it working with the mask?
Ooh. Well, it took me a while to adapt because it’s a heavy costume. And the mask, kind of like, well I have the mask. [Taslim holds up his Sub-Zero mask]
Well, the awkward thing about the mask, because when you move, the mask doesn’t move because it was a solid mask. So it was quite technical. If I have to move really fast, sometimes my face moves with like a delay. You see the mask kind of follow in slow-mo. We did a lot with this—put a lot of straps here just to make when I move really fast, so the mask could follow. A lot of technical stuff happened in the process, but yeah, it was a fun journey to just discover the best look, the best fit for the mask, the costume for me to be able to fight the best.
How was your experience fighting with all those special effects?
I think this is my first [movie] that involved the supernatural. The superpower stuff in previous movies, it was like a man versus a man or a man versus five men. But in this one, a lot of imagination is involved for sure. I’m glad I’m a gamer myself. I played a lot. I’m used to being a daydreamer. I’m still daydreaming until now. I have this mind that I like to have fun with. So during the shooting [when] it’s involving something they’re going to add in post, they ask me just to imagine, which I love imagining things.
I had so much fun just imagining the sword and creating the icicle—the ice sword—because it wasn’t there. Everything is in post. So I was just like, “Sure, believe that it’s there. It’s there.” You don’t see it, but I know it’s there. When the camera captured that moment, and if I believe in it, then I think everybody’s going to believe in it as well.
I really loved your role in The Swordsman. And I got to be honest with you, because I’ve been following you, and I was surprised that I didn’t recognize you for quite a long time in this film.
It wasn’t until I recognized your eyebrows. You’re playing a lot of villains now. Do you like playing villains?
I was a good guy in The Raid and The Night Comes for Us, but yeah. Playing villains is interesting. Because as an actor, you know when you play a villain role, almost there’s no limitation because there’s no rules. [There’s no] you cannot do this, you cannot do that, because you’re the protagonist. “You have to speak this way because you cannot be evil when you speak—you’ve got to be polite.”
When you play a villain, there’s so much freedom. In The Swordsman, I remember I had so much freedom. And the director, he was just like, “What do you think about the role?” I say, “I don’t want to sound like this. I’m going to change my voice.” I’m going to do that because he’s a nomad and he’s from Qing dynasty. He’s Manchurian, and their language is like almost from the throat. I want to deliver that. I want people to see that genetically, when people speak through the throat, they’re going to sound different.
So all those freedoms that you have as an actor, and the director gave you the freedom to do those stuff, it’s a blessing. Because it’s just so easy for the director to just say “no,” and now you’re in trouble. And you’re just a puppet. “Do this, go there from there. And don’t smile. Don’t do anything.” That’s the nightmare for an actor to work in that condition.
How was it for Mortal Kombat? Were you given a lot of leeway with Sub-Zero?
A lot! Simon [McQuoid], he’s amazing. With almost everything, we’re on the same page. I came up to him almost every morning because we stayed in the same hotel, and he’s actually on the same floor with me. So before, I bothered him a lot. And I know he was busy. I need to ask something. I want to do this. I want to do that. I want to have this layer of him when he’s doing this, he’s doing that. So he was like, “Do that. I love it. It’s brilliant. We’re on the same page.” So it reached the point, I think half of the movie, he just looked at me, I just looked at him. Sometimes we just looked at each other, and we understand we’re on the same page. It was a beautiful relationship with him.
Do you feel that you captured Sub-Zero in a way that you wanted to represent him? Was he a character that you played when you played the game?
Probably different because in a game, people probably like more Kuai Liang, the brother. I think the Mortal Kombat 11, it’s more about Kuai Liang [the original Sub-Zero’s brother], and Bi-Han’s already a new cyborg. But I’m happy with what I saw. I’m happy that this anti-hero character, even though it’s a very thin layer here and there, but I gave it on screen. I gave [a lot to] Bi-Han/Sub-Zero. And probably people don’t know, but there are a lot of layers that I gave to this character. People need to see the pain of him. In the beginning of the fight, when he’s inside the house, for me, I look at this boy and it reminds me of my brother, Kuai Liang. That’s why I smile at him.
And then I just realized that my destiny for this family is to wipe them all. So those small thin layers here and there that I gave in this character, it’s there. They didn’t cut it. Everything is there. I’m so happy that I know when people watch it the second time, they will probably pick up a little bit of that here and there.
I remember Jax—Mehcad [Brooks]—said “You’re a bad guy. You killed a boy. But somehow I feel you. Somehow, I feel so weird, but I feel empathy for your character.” And then I was like, “Okay, that’s it. That’s the goal. That’s what I wanted to do.” Because Sub-Zero/Bi-Han is a dark character. But tragic things happened to him when he was a kid. He got abducted. It’s by force, to become an assassin, to be part of Lin Kuei assassins, because he didn’t choose that path.
It was destiny [that chose to put him on] that path. And then for him, well, while a lot of people probably look for the light, he is just the kind of person to say, “It’s too late. I’m just going to be who I am.”
Mortal Kombat premieres in theaters and on HBO Max on April 23, 2021