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—we have a lot of respect for him—and when I work with him, I empty my mind and just want to see what he can do and stay back and see how I can collaborate with his choreography and communicate with him in moments where it can enhance the flavor of the different moments. Sometimes I improvised a couple moves here and there and he didn't know, just because I felt it was better for my body execution, but without really changing his structure.
CS: You've trained in a lot of different forms of martial arts, but for a movie like this, which is a period piece, do you have to limit your martial arts knowledge to be more accurate to the time period?
Yen: Of course, I have to do a lot of research. When I did "Ip Man," I knew that I would be playing Ip Man, a Wing Chun Master basically, so I went onto dissecting that system as much as I could in that short period of time and learned from several instructors. At the end of the day, it's normal acting as well. Once you understand it, I believe when you're so in-tune with your body, so in control of your body--which given, for many years of my experience, being an action actor, I understand how to execute my body, so it wasn't that difficult, especially after I did spend nine months researching and studying that martial arts style. That's how I approach every character. When I did "SPL," I knew that at that time, MMA wasn't that popular, at least in Asia anyway. I always follow what's in out there and I saw that and said, "You know, let me see if I can put that in a film." I watched a lot of UFC fights and thought, "How do you shoot that stuff?" Recognizing that if an audience wants to see real fights, they're watching UFC, so you have to use a cinematic way but without losing the idea of having real combat. The first experiment was "SPL" obviously with the MMA and then I moved onto "Flash Point" and me actually practicing a little bit of Ju-Jitsu and studying more tapes, more fights, and playing it myself more times. In that regards, "Flashpoint" was filmed in a more sophisticated way than "SPL." I actually just finished another "SPL" and "Flashpoint" which was even more sophisticated than "Flashpoint." I also will watch more fights and learn more. Each movie and each character I tend to do that, I do endless research and endless experiments.
CS: What are you looking for in a director that you work with since you have such a good handle on the action yourself? There's quite a lot of dramatic scenes in "Dragon" with the family.
Yen: When you direct a movie, you're basically looking at a story, the way you want to look at it. You bring that director's vision and I'm totally open for that. That's why you work with different directors, but for me at the end of the day, it's understanding whether it would work on me. You really have to understand how you appear on screen, how you communicate the connection between yourself and the audience. What clicks with the audience? What does the audience like to see me in, so that's the constant discussion and collaboration between me and the director. I let each director direct anything they want but at the same time make sure that we have an understanding that at the end of the day, I'm a product and (that they) understand what the market needs, that sort of thing.
CS: You've played these legendary martial arts figures like Yip Man and also Chen Zhen, who has been played by Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, so is it stressful to take on such iconic roles?
Yen: I did a couple comedies to balance myself as an actor and balance how audiences see Donnie Yen as an actor and I would even say as a celebrity or icon, to some fans. I want to show that I'm not Terminator.
CS: But you're playing these characters who are well known through China's history. It's almost as if an actor had to take on an iconic role like Abraham Lincoln.
Yen: It's challenging and stressful. It was one of the most stressful characters I've played for "Legend of the Fist," but "Ip Man" it wasn't (as stressful), because truthfully, Ip Man's story was based on my true life. When Wilson Yip decided to direct "Ip Man," he did his research and he found it wasn't that interesting for him to shoot the real Ip Man. Also we felt that Ip Man in real life, he didn't have that much of the dramatic real life experience, and he's also a man with many relationships, that's something that we didn't want. We wanted to create a person who was dedicated to the family. My wife is taller than me so what Wilson Yip did in a comical way, was to have someone much taller than me, but to have that balance. Ip Man, superhuman, grandmaster of Wing Chung, but he's so human, he goes home at 7:00 at night, that he stays home and eats dinner, that he listens to his wife. That's what I do. He actually got that from my life. On the set, I would go, "Oh, it's 7:30, I have to go home and eat."
CS: The last few times I spoke to Jet Li, he told me that he wants to do more dramatic roles and not so much focused on the action and you're doing three action movies a year. Do yo have any aspirations to do stuff less action-based?
Yen: Of course. I just finished a romantic lead with no action at all, and I did a couple of comedies last year. It's a blessing to be given a variety of roles to what I call an iconic action actor like myself. Usually, action actors stick with that, but I don't take it for granted. Why not? You do that, you craft your art, you have different experiences, but I'll never forget my roots. This is what I do best.
CS: I guess a lot of those other movies just don't make it over here while the action movies generally do.
Yen: Different markets, you know.
CS: You had some experiences in Hollywood so do you want to do any more Hollywood movies?
Yen: I think if something happens, I let it happen. I'm always being approached by different projects, like they asked me to be in "The Expendables 2," but I just didn't feel the role clicked. Doing a movie is a stressful thing. You spend months of you life focusing into that one project to make sure I do something I really like, that I'm really passionate about.
CS: With "Expendables 2" was it more about the script?
Yen: You know, I was flattered that I was approached by the producers but I just didn't think the role they asked me to do was that intriguing. I didn't really want to do it but I'm open for everything.
CS: So next for you is "The Monkey King?"
Yen: "Monkey King" is coming out next year. We're going to spend a whole year doing post-production, and some American company bought the US rights and they're investing millions of dollars into doing CGI so we're waiting for that to complete and we're going to have a global release in July next year.
Dragon (Wu Xia) is now playing on VOD and opens in select cities on Friday, November 30.