Donnie Yen in Peter Chan's Dragon
Acting in more than 55 films and action-directing more than 35 films, Donnie Yen has worked with nearly every martial arts expert in China, including three years spent training with Master Wu Bin, who also coached Jet Li. After huge international box office success in the most anticipated fight scene of 2002 in Yimou Zhang's Hero, and alongside Jackie Chan in Shanghai Knights and Shanghai Noon, Yen’s career as stunt master extraordinaire took off. Here’s what Yen had to say about his latest film Dragon (screening tonight in the New York Asian Film Festival), why he has made so many period pieces and what the future holds for his production company Bullet Films:
How was working with Peter Chan on Dragon?
It was great. Peter is one of my favorite Chinese directors. After working with him in Bodyguards and Assassins, we were both looking for a vehicle that we were interested in and we found the material we wanted to do and it became Dragon. It was a really fun experience. Peter is very knowledgeable and he had a lot of trust in my direction in the action department, so he gave me a lot of freedom in terms of choreography and taking over the set with the action. We collaborated and it was a great outcome.
Dragon and The Lost Bladesman both have historical settings, what draws you to these historical roles?
Personally, I prefer contemporary films, but the market calls for more period choices, especially since China opened up a cinema market in Hong Kong. There’s a lot of restriction for contemporary films simply because of subject matter. When we talk about contemporary films we talk about cops, gangsters, crimes and a lot of material that is sensitive to the government in China so a lot of filmmakers choose safer ways by making period films. Therefore, you tend to see more period films and when you make one or two successful films, everyone just follows. Because I have made several of these period films and they were successful in the box office, I then had a number of those lined up.
Any plans to make contemporary films in the future?
Actually, I just finished one. We don’t have an English title yet. In Chinese the exact translation would be Special Identity. It’s kind of like Flash Point. I’m forming my own company next year so I’m going to focus on more contemporary films; that is where I’m more comfortable. There’s also a lot of growing space as far as creativity goes because I’ve done so many period films. For me, the challenge of a period film is that, unlike a contemporary film where the character can be very free-form when it comes to the acting, there’s a burden to acting in a period film because you have to stay within the character’s historical background and the gestures of certain periods. If you’re playing a general in a certain period there’s a lot of historical elements that you have to carry through and the audience expects it—such as how you walk, how you talk. But with contemporary films, you can create new things.
Is there a name for your new company?
Bullet Films. That’s the company I already have I’m just reinventing the company because I’m going to start producing my own titles starting next year.
In Dragon there’s a more exaggerated style of action than in some of your other films like Kill Zone. Can you speak on the differences in working in those two styles?
My action follows my characters. If a character is a cop, you cannot be posing all the time, you cannot fly off the roof because it doesn’t make any sense—it’s not practical. Whereas, with a movie like Dragon that is set in the past, it gives you a lot of imagination to work with. For instance, in Crouching Tiger or Hero your character can defy gravity and you can get away with that. I think at the end of the day, films are about making magic so that is the main difference. The older the film the more you can exaggerate the human body.
Do you prefer one style over the other?
I like to stay within the context of the character’s background. If he’s a cop, I have to make sure the audience is convinced that this person, a cop, can do only so much without a gun.
Donnie Yen in Peter Chan's Dragon
How was it shooting your fight scene with Jimmy Wang Yu?
It was very fun. He’s the one-armed swordsman and I have tremendous respect for him. I had worked with pretty much everyone in Hong Kong and China, all of action martial arts actors, but I’d never worked with Jimmy before and it was a great honor to be in the same film as him.
Did it pose a challenge choreographing a scene where you were only allowed the use of one arm?
It was. It was a tribute to the one-armed swordsman. It was also difficult to choreograph the fighting style with one arm because it is repetitious with one side, whereas with two arms you can do two sides. We wanted to stay true to the real action so there’s no CGI. I had to tie my arm behind my back and fight with one arm. I didn’t know it could be that difficult until I actually tied my arm behind my back and had to fight with it and to move with agility and precision. It was a lot harder than you can imagine.
You’ve directed a number of films over your career, do you have any plans to return to directing?
Not any time soon. As you know, action choreography in Hong Kong is pretty much directing. I have not directed a complete film in many years, but because I’ve been an action director for most of my movies I have still been directing, in a way. But if you’re talking about directing a whole film, I’m already expending a lot of time and energy performing many roles at the same time: acting, action directing and sometimes producing, so if you add directing a complete film, that’s just way too much for my time availability. If you want to make a film and do it properly, it can take a whole year. I do at least two movies a year so I don’t have that kind of time, unfortunately.
Dragon has a lot of action and your role has a lot of action, but there’s also a significant amount of drama involved. Do you have any desire to make a film that is removed from the action genre?
I have been quite fortunate and blessed with opportunities, especially after the release of the Ip Man series. I think that I changed the perception of how people look at an action actor. When you look at an action actor you say: "Okay, this is an action hero, an icon," but you don’t really take them seriously. I guess I showed that an action actor can generate serious characteristics because I was given opportunities to try these roles. For example, I just finished a romantic lead with no action at all and I’ve done several comedies with no action, so I’m quite fortunate that I was given these chances to explore the possibility of different types of acting. I’ll probably continue to do so because I enjoy the experience, but I’ll never forget my roots and what I do best, which is absolutely the action genre.
You’ve worked within the American film industry, like on Blade II. Do you see yourself working on more American films in the future?
If the right role comes along I’m open for it. But only if the right role comes along. I’m constantly being offered roles, for example in Expendables II, but I didn’t find the roles they offered me satisfying. Maybe in the future I’ll be open to it.
As an actor and action director, are there films that are particularly influential for you?
I cannot name them all because I am inspired by so many great actors, Chinese and American actors. I watch a lot of material, from Robert de Niro to Jack Black to Ben Stiller. I love all their work. Every time I look at good artists like them I am not only motivated by them but I learn a lot. I would love to be able to work with any one of them.
What can your fans expect next?
For sure, The Monkey King 3D is coming out in July 2013. And more contemporary films in the near future!