Today, as the World Champion of All Elite Wrestling, Kenny Omega continues to be a driving force of change in professional wrestling. Only now, he’s doing it on a much more global platform as an established superstar in professional wrestling. But two years ago today, Omega Man: A Wrestling Love Story, a documentary based on Kenny Omega that was a part of TSN’s Engraved on a Nation series, hit television screens. The documentary chronicles how, on his own merit and approach, Omega became one of the biggest stars in wrestling without the WWE, and how he broke down barriers with his love story angle with his Golden Lovers partner, Kota Ibushi, and also raised the profile of wrestling outside of Vince McMahon’s WWE.
Omega Man was directed by Yung Chang, an acclaimed filmmaker in his own right, who is, as his bio states, known for “humanistic stories exploring emotionally complex characters through a cinematic lens.” In Omega Man, Chang dives deep into the human side of Omega and what drives this unique, artistic genius of professional wrestling, who is arguably still the best performer in the wrestling business today.
To celebrate the two-year anniversary of Omega Man, SteelChair Magazine spoke with Chang to recap his experience making the documentary and working with Kenny Omega. In part one of this exclusive interview, Chang discusses why he was drawn to Omega’s story, the unseen footage of the AEW World Champion at a PCW show, Omega’s desire to create a Broadway show, and so much more. Enjoy this “too sweet” interview.
How does it feel revisiting this topic [Omega Man]?
“I do think there is a demarcation between what I was able to get done last year versus post-pandemic-lockdown. It’s a huge demarcation, and I look at the past as if it happened years ago, and it wasn’t that long ago. It’s shocking to me, actually, just to feel that distance. I’m hoping I can recall the experience for you and provide some interesting information about the process of making the movie. I was just like a kid in a candy store making Omega Man, mostly because my childhood was indirectly related to just growing up with – at that time – WWF and having the figurines and replaying those WrestleMania things back in the day. Then, losing track of that for many years, obviously, as I pursued other interests (laughs). But the childhood part of me really connected to the idea of a wrestler and the story of a wrestler, and I do love the magic behind professional wrestling. That, to me, was fascinating and also learning about the origins of wrestling. It started in carnies, and it has that connection to magic and sleight of hand and to think of it as performance. I love the Meta aspect of it, so I kind of nerded out on that.”
In the documentary, you discussed your fascination with Kenny as an artist, and you compared him to Robert De Niro. Was that a selling point for you, him as an artist, or was it his potentially romantic pairing with [Kota] Ibushi?
“Firstly, I have to give credit to Corey Erdman, the sports journalist from Canada, who wrote the original article that caught my eye in VICE Magazine about Kenny Omega. He sort of charted that story of this remarkable journey of, you know, a Canadian junior hockey prospect to wrestling superstar. That really caught my attention. The original pitch to make this film was for a Canadian series called Engraved on a Nation, which is essentially the Canadian version of ESPN’s 30 for 30. So I wanted to dig around and find these unexpected sports heroes, and this one jumped out to me.
“Kenny’s story was amazing, and then there was another story that we were tracking, which was about a first nation’s boxer from the east coast of Nova Scotia. He was a world-class boxer but still living on a reservation and still struggling to become a notable boxer. So I guess for me, I’m interested in those stories of individualism. You know, I made an entire feature documentary about Chinese – amateur to professional boxers in 2012. So I like this physical idea of one against one, and then, I guess, leading towards the Kenny story, it was the multiple angles that fascinated me. It was the outsider status of Kenny Omega and how he carved a name for himself by turning his back on the WWE when he was given that chance. I like his one-of-a-kind personality and his outsider status at that time. I’m actually not quite familiar with how he’s respected now that he’s left Japan and gone to AEW and all that stuff.”
I think it’s similar, but I believe he’s probably more established now, so maybe that kind of cool outsider image isn’t as prominent, I guess you could say. He’s still incredibly popular, of course.
“Yeah, that was the other part that was so cool about him, was that he was unknown (laughs). It was only if you were a super fan, you would dig into that world, and it was rare, right? I wasn’t familiar with all of that amazing Japanese wrestling culture, and I feel if I had been made aware of that, as this Chinese-Canadian growing up in a pretty homogenised society at that time, I would have really linked into New Japan Pro Wrestling and that whole world with vigour. But I wasn’t given that because I didn’t have friends that were that intense about it. So yeah, that fascinates me, and I think part of my filmmaking interests lies in stories about outsiders. So I just gravitated to someone like Kenny. Also, just learning about his sort of genius, and I don’t use that term loosely. I do think he is quite detailed in his way of thinking about the story and the fiction of his character, and I love how he bled that into his real life and his fiction life with the story of his relationship. I think that was just such a beautiful thing. Not only that he was the most remarkable physical wrestler with legendary matches with [Kazuchika] Okada, but also that he played this long love story with Ibushi, and I think that was just beautiful.”
Was the love story almost like a bonus? Something that almost just fell in your lap?
“I think it was the whole package. I mean, there are other Canadian wrestlers who’ve made it, also by way of New Japan or by way of not going through WWE primarily. But I think Kenny’s story was so intertwined with this ten-year saga that he played out with Kota [Ibushi], and that really gravitated to me as a way of Metanarrative storytelling, which is such a mind f*** (laughs), that I really dug it. That’s what I really dug into, and when it came to crafting the story, there is only so much you can say about his run of best matches.
“You can show that with Okada, but you can’t really dig into the emotional side of it as deeply as you can with this beautiful love story with Kota Ibushi and a love story about wrestling. That’s what it meant, and I love that it also didn’t have to be a gay love story. It could be or couldn’t be, and the fact that reached out to a whole group of people, the LGBTQ community, and resonated with them, really struck me too. As something that, I think as an outsider, sometimes you want to find people who you can relate to obviously, and I feel that is something that Kenny did. Whether it was conscious or not in the beginning, it became his character. So I tip my hat to that responsibility that he took on.”
Even from watching the film and having not heard what you just said now, it really felt like Kenny was the perfect subject for you if you were to go into this world of professional wrestling. Could you have envisioned doing a wrestling project outside of this?
“Completely. Not only wrestling, but I am interested in boxing and UFC. I’m currently softly looking at developing a UFC fiction story set in China, and this is also coming from someone I have no idea about UFC (laughs). I kind of find myself digging through all the social media and sort of watching remarkable bouts and matches in UFC. And also, similarly with wrestling, I do love fictionalised stories about wrestling or boxing, these kinds of stories. I think there is something about the journey and the internal battle one confronts when dealing with these kinds of sports. These ring sports. So it’s not far-fetched that I would be interested in a wrestling story again, and it could be fiction or documentary. I think Kenny’s story would be great to be adapted into a fiction story, and I had never been to Winnipeg before and going there and just seeing that it’s such a special place, to begin with. It’s almost like a world into itself. I think there is a filmmaker called Guy Maddin, who is a Winnipeg filmmaker, and he’s made a lot of these very unique, folkloric stories and basically created this movement from the Midwest called prairie gothic – that pretty much…”
Yeah, you had people like Chris Jericho describe Winnipeg as a prairie town.
“Exactly. In particular, it’s this prairie gothic. It’s classic Kenny Omega. Nowhere else could Kenny Omega or Jericho come from than from a place like this, and then you reference Guy Maddin’s films, and the way that it just works in Winnipeg is like, oh, yeah, of course, Kenny Omega was in a Guy Maddin short film called Sissy Boy Slap Party. It’s a short film you can find online, and we included a clip of it in our film, very briefly. For Canadian’s it’s pretty classic, like, oh, yeah, of course, he was in that film, and he could take the slaps apparently.
“But yeah, I think the origins of Kenny Omega are so unique, and the fact that he’s born and bred and loves Winnipeg, and will go back to Winnipeg. He’s built his dream home in a cabin on a lake that I visited and its classic Midwest prairie upbringing. My wife is from the Midwest, but from America, in Minnesota, and it’s that same vibe of the Midwest people love their origins, and love everything about their place. Whereas where I grew up in small-town Ontario, the first thing I wanted to do was get out of there and not look back. I think people that have a deep connection to the prairies always wanna go back there.”
I did hear Dave Meltzer say after he watched the film that it could have probably been longer. So maybe you can take all these ideas and flip them to make a longer fiction film (laughs).
“(Laughs) We really wanted to make it longer. We have a great sequence that we couldn’t put in the movie, where Kenny goes back to – there is a whole night with him…”
Oh, when he does the Winnipeg independent show?
“Yeah, he does a PCW show. There was a great whole evening that we filmed with Kenny that was sort of built around a return to duke it out with his old buddies that he grew up with. Part of the longer version of the film was building up into that and really loving all of that footage that we had, and it’s so unfortunate that we couldn’t milk it as much as we wanted to. It exists as a scene, and it is great, and I don’t know what the plans are to release that at some point, but I believe the producer Dale Burshtein is hopefully thinking of ways to get that out there (laughs).”
That would be great to see. We’ve talked about how unique Kenny is and the emotional angle making him very inclusive to the LGBTQ community. But he’s also very open about his pop culture influence and bringing that into wrestling, for example, his Terminator beat before he dives out of the ring. Wrestling has a hit-and-miss history of trying to bring in elements of pop culture, but do you think the subtleness in how Kenny incorporates it is a reason it works for him and why he’s able to connect with so many people?
“Definitely, and he does it with intellect and a sense of planting these sort of Easter eggs in his approach, which makes it fun. You know, we did a whole sequence interviewing his designer who makes his outfits, and with Kenny, he would build in references to storylines with Ibushi. He would build in references in the clothing, you know, and the colour coordination and the combinations of colour. Then, to know that Kenny would really think through and reference and pay homage to great fight sequences in films that he loves. It could be Terminator, Jackie Chan, who was a big hero of his…”
“Street Fighter. All of these things and video games and anime. He would really connect to all of these things and build them into his character’s storylines, and I think that is what is so fun. I don’t think it has to reach out to everyone, but I think his super fans understand that, and they seek that out. And they can nerd out in those things, and he encourages it. I think there is something about popular culture in film and television, and he definitely references the thirty-minute structure of a television episode as his source for building stories. That way of building narrative, which is amazing. I think it’s very conscious, and I think we’re at a place culturally, especially in the West, where a healthy dose of popular culture is not viewed negatively. It actually plays into our upbringings, where we are connected to popular culture just by default because we have access to that as children, and that marks us very deeply. Then as we grow and we reach out, and we can look into other forms of art and reference other forms of art.
“There is enough intellectualising within popular culture that you can play into it and make it fun, and clearly with wrestling, it’s not ballet, right? It’s not high art, high classist in that way, and I think that is something that Kenny loves about it. Something he talked about in some of the interviews we did, and we did very extensive interviews with him, and he would just nerd out with us, and some of it was he dreamed of creating a stage show where, I don’t know if he’s mentioned this before in other interviews, but he told us about how he has dreamt up an entire, one could call a Broadway show. Where it would just be built around crazy stunts and amazing action sequences, fight sequences, but all performed on stage and live. And that to him, I think, encapsulates the crossroads of every form of art that he’s interested in, and popular culture and performance and stunt, and it takes in wrestling. But I think if he could have his way, he would do something like that.”
I mean, I could definitely see him being able to pull that off, to be fair (laughs).
“Oh, it’s genius, and to know that he has a photogenic memory for calling out every step in how wrestlers plan out their matches to the tee, that was Kenny. He would plan it out to the tee, and we witnessed that a little bit at that Winnipeg independent match. Just seeing them sit around, hashing it out is hilarious and an insight into Kenny’s genius. Part of it was like, “Oh, we’re not really allowed to show this, right?” Because this gives away a lot of the mystique, but I hope one-day people can see it.”
Was Kenny ever against showing that, or was it just your perception that you couldn’t show it?
“I mean, we never filtered ourselves that way, but I think everything was in the open at some point. He was very conscious of, I think, being careful because there is that unspoken golden rule to not give away all of those things. So I think that was important, especially for Don Callis and some of the old-school wrestlers. That was important. But I think part of the fascination with kayfabe is sort of understanding that it exists and that it doesn’t, you know, and to play into that. I think Kenny likes that idea, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we would be allowed to use that in the future.”
No, I think that would be fascinating to see, especially to see how Kenny’s mind works in that way.
“Oh, yeah, that’s the thing, I really want to show that. Totally.”
Part 2 of this interview drops tomorrow!
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