Following in the footsteps of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen arrived on these shores in the early-to-mid-’90s as part of Quentin Tarantino’s martial arts revival when the filmmaker convinced Miramax to release Yen’s Hong Kong action movie Iron Monkey. Yen went on to appear in a handful of Hollywood films like Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II and the action sequel Shanghai Knights, all the while continuing to work in Hong Kong.
In recent years, he mainly has been focusing on bigger budget Chinese films, many of them huge hits in Asia. After working with director Wilson Yip on a number of gritty modern-day police action movies, he followed with a series of period action films about the martial arts legend Ip Man, all of which were hugely successful in China even though only a few of them have received theatrical releases in the States.
Yen’s latest movie to hit US theaters (and VOD) is Dragon (Wu Xia), which is more in vein with the latter as a period action film but this one mixes genres with Yen playing Liu Jin-Xi, a simple villager whose quiet family life is disrupted when two gangsters show up and force him to reveal his martial arts prowess. Before things can settle back down to normal, a detective named Xu Bai-ju (Takeshi Kaneshiro from House of the Flying Daggers) shows up to investigate the death of the gangsters and threatens to uncover Liu’s dark criminal past.
Radius-TWC has provided ComingSoon.net with an exclusive video clip which shows Yen’s character fighting two assassins sent by his former criminal boss once they discover he’s living in the village. Check it out below!
We also have an exclusive interview we did with Donnie Yen earlier this year when he was the special guest of the New York Asian Film Festival, where Dragon had its New York premiere. (Some may remember that we spoke to Yen years ago for Flash Point, although that interview was done via Email.)
In this interview, we had a chance to talk to Yen about the movie as well as his process for choreographing action scenes.
ComingSoon.net: I’m amazed how active you are because you always seem to have two or three movies either in release or in production.
Donnie Yen: Yeah, it’s been crazy in the last couple years, you know? I’ve averaged three, three and a half, one year four movies, another year three movies.
CS: For a movie like “Dragon,” what’s the draw of it because I imagine you can pick and choose projects.
Yen: When I did “Bodyguards and Assassins,” Peter (Chan), we wanted to do something together, so he came back to me later on with “Dragon” and said, “I found a perfect vehicle for us.” I’ve always been a big fan of Peter’s so we did it. When he came to me and wanted to do an action movie, we had several discussions on how to approach it, and we thought, “Let’s do something more detective-like, how about something more like the Discovery Channel, dissecting the punches and kicks and why we use them?” The beginning scene of “Dragon” was just that.
CS: It’s interesting to me because you have this really interesting action scene choreographed and then you show it multiple times from different angles.
Yen: Right, right. In Peter’s version, we only had two versions but then I said, “Let’s make it more fun. Let’s make it three versions.” I was shooting and conducting those big scenes and I shot it and Peter literally puts his full trust in my directing on the set and he just went off and when he came back I said, “You know, Peter, I have three versions for you. Check it out.” That’s probably one of my favorite scenes in the entire film.
CS: It’s very cool since when you choreograph a scene, you have the specific moves you want to do but in this case, you have to figure out different ways of shooting the same fight and changing the moves.
Yen: There’s a lot of thinking when you choreograph something. You’re not just choreographing some bodies, arms, legs flying around to look cool. It’s a lot more complicated and sophisticated. You also have to deal with the connection of the whole film, so when I choreograph, I think of the movement itself, the camera angles, the characters. “Does that fit for that character and their emotion at that moment? How does it play overall, that action scene in balance with the rest of the action scenes?” Because you can’t overpower the rest of the action scenes; you have to think of pacing, along with creating something fresh.
CS: You also have some action scenes with live animals in this. I wasn’t sure if they were real animals or CG or both.
Yen: You know, that’s a very good question and I’ll share that secret with you. First of all, they’re not CG, because we couldn’t afford it, and they’re not live. (laughs) They’re only live when we shot having them in the background. So the question is “When we’re fighting with them, how did I shoot it?” Well I actually made these big bull cow outfits.
CS: So some of your team is actually wearing cow suits?
Yen: Actually, yes, the heads are the real animals but then the bodies and the legs are all fake. If you look really closely, if you pause in one or two clips, you see two stuntmen, like a line dance. It was really tough and I had to use different camera angles to hide it and how I shot it. If I shoot it this way, it just looks too fake but if I shoot it a certain way, I cannot bring out what I need to bring out. That was really challenging itself, trying to make these fake-looking humans playing cows (look real).
CS: They looked pretty real to me, I was convinced. You have a good handle on the action choreography but I spoke to Sammo Hung for “Ip Man” a few years back and you tend to go back and forth between doing your own choreography and working with someone like Sammo, so how do you decide on that?
Yen: It’s always very fun. Sammo has always been the Big Brother of the industry