Donnie Yen Talks about SPL
Watching Movies, November 2005
The exchanges between Sammo Hung, Wu Jing and you are billed as “freestyle”, according to the handout. How were those filmed?
Donnie Yen: Actually, I only have two main fights with them, and these are the most essential fights in the film.
So, how close to real fights are the freestyle sparring?
Donnie Yen: Actually, it wasn’t completely freestyle sparring, it’s not quite possible to actually implement it. What I meant was that, since the outset, I hoped to put the most realistic elements of fighting in the action scenes. I felt that the movies we, the Chinese, produced, used to influence the whole world – but it was all a thing of the past. Except for a few major period productions which have gained worldwide recognitions, there are no contemporary movies in the past 10 years that we can be proud of compared to many action movies from Japan, Korea, US, and most recently Thailand’s Ong Bak, that are worthy enough to stand up against them. So, I hope that through SPL, we could show the world that we are still capable of being the forerunners in kungfu movies, in the art of combat.
Many action fans especially look forward to the fight between you and Sammo Hung. You have once said you got the most thrill when fighting against Jet Li. How was this fight against Sammo Hung, was it as thrilling?
Donnie Yen: Actually, it was more thrilling than my fight with Jet Li, because Sammo and I fought unarmed, there were many contacts, from hand to leg exchanges, to the use of joint-lock, of wrestling, of jujitsu – very exciting. There were many a time when we had “physical collisions”.
Was it due to the heat going on that you accidentally injured Sammo Hung?
Donnie Yen: Once, we had a rehearsal. Perhaps, I’m used to being lightning fast with my fists, so… I felt bad about it, I hit brother Hung. After that, he told others that he really couldn’t match my speed.
Sammo Hung had sparred against Bruce Lee, he’s quite well-versed in practical combat. Being the embodiment of action actor of practical combat, what do you think of his skills?
Donnie Yen: Fantastic. He’s a senior for whom I hold great respect. I grew up with their films. Brother Jackie Chan’s works, my master Yuen Wo Ping’s works, Sammo Hung’s works, Liu Chia Liang’s works. Their contributions to HK action films cannot be denied. So I was very excited to work with him, and had a chance to “collide” against him in such a heavyweight scene.
I feel that there were some similarities between your fight against Wu Jing and Jet Li. Both fights used weapons. Could you introduce us to that scene?
Donnie Yen: The fight between me and Wu Jing is a great breakthrough. We used wide shots, purposely filmed in such a way that the audience could see that we were really fighting, not something made up and pieced together through editing. Secondly, we did not rely on any special effects or props, such as explosions or smashing of tables, chairs. Many action films require the use of props to display such power. But what we were demonstrating in the narrow alley were our raw skills. This scene, be it filming technique, the choreography, is a return to the roots, the most down-to-earth, the most authentic way. The effect was awesome. This was my first collaboration with Wu Jing. While he has deep wushu foundation, I felt that he was still lacking in the art of practical combat in modern movies. When filming, I often reminded him to amend his wushu forms, for fighting in modern show is different from period show. In period work, martial arts is mainly about posing – posing beautifully. The impact of a hit needs not be too strong. But in a contemporary show, we have to be very particular about the power on contact. Another is my style, I emphasise a lot on that kind of power, that kind of real fight. So, he wasn’t quite accustomed to it in the beginning. But after a few days of guiding him, of rectifying his fighting style and his means of expressing it, the final result was rather satisfactory.
It seemed that when filming that scene, you hit Wu Jing too.
Donnie Yen: This is but part and parcel of doing action scenes. He struck me with that, I bludgeoned him with my baton. We have more or less some collisions. Not an issue. When filming modern films especially, I employ real fights. So, it’s not a big matter, no matter who hits who. But, he wasn’t quite accustomed to this style of fighting, and was rather surprised, “Egads. You’re fighting for real.” I replied, “Yeah.” (grinning). I would tell him, come and get me, direct whatever blows at me as you deem fit, I can easily counter you. That’s the kind of effect I wanted. He’s wielding a dagger, so I requested that, “Go ahead and attack, I have my means to block and dodge.” The outcome was quite good.
This was the first time you worked with Wilson Yip. Wilson Yip is also an outstanding director. This movie has received very high praises at film festivals. Could you tell us about which of the three renegade stars your character belongs to?
Donnie Yen: I’m Army Breaker. In the movie, my father was a policeman who died while on duty. Before his death, he told me that Army Breaker is doomed to failure, and warned me not to be a police. But I did not believe in fate and defied his wish, enrolled myself in the police force.
What do you think of the histrionics of Sammo Hung, Wu Jing and Simon Yam?
Donnie Yen: They are excellent and experienced actors, and did very well, especially, under the direction of Wilson Yip, who’s very fastidious about drama scenes. We had great chemistry and so, here we are, working on our second movie Dragon Tiger Gate.
I have always felt that including your collaborations with Tsui Hark, you were always especially successful. Have you been more particular about the choice of directors recently of late, including choosing more mainstream movies, rather than indie action movies?
Donnie Yen: I believe that the director is very important, for I am rather absentminded in certain areas, and Wilson Yip happens to be able to make up for my shortcomings. I’m also one of the directors on the set, I’m in charge of the action. Perhaps, sometimes, one is too tense, so I might be careless when dealing with the subtleties of the plot elements. I need a great director like Wilson Yip, perhaps, there are times when he lacks that drive, that excitement, that passion, I’d reignite the sparks of passion in him, so we complement each other well.
You have always given us the impression of being exceptional in doing kicks, why did you choose a character who’s forte is fist in Dragon Tiger Gate?
Donnie Yen: Firstly, my character is Wang Xiao Long who specialises in Dragon Palm, while Wang Xiao Hu Dragon Kicks and Shi Hei Long Twin Nunchukas. So, I have to impart my kicking techniques to Nicholas Tse, and the art of wielding dual nunchukas to Shawn Yue. Secondly, I want to let the audience know that I’m a very fair person (grins), while we are acting in the same action movie, I’m also the action director, so I have to do my utmost to ensure that each actor is at their best. So I let them have the best stuff. I don’t think it’d really matter. Based on my experience in my previous works in which I was also the action director, I noticed that the actors’ fighting styles tended to take after me. So, I feel that I have inadvertently influenced the actors. As such, eventually, Nicholas Tse’s kicking would look very much like mine.
Have you talked to Tsui Hark regarding Seven Swords 2?
Donnie Yen: Whenever I met him, including at public appearances, he would tell me he’s working on the overall concept of Seven Swords 2. I believe Tsui Hark has lots of ideas that he wishes to convey. However, until the day production begins, I have no idea what exactly he’s up to.
Actually, we think that given your disposition, you’re more suited to doing Western movies. Now that you have work in both the East and the West, how would you strike a balance between the two?
Donnie Yen: It doesn’t matter. I don’t make such a clear distinction myself, for I may be here today, in France tomorrow, or might go to US on the following day. As long as there’s a good script, be it Chinese or Western, as long as it’s challenging and fun, I would consider taking it.
Lastly, I’m not sure if you’d mind, but many fans think that your family is very legendary, especially your mother, who is a musician and a wushu master. What kind of influence does your family have on you?
Donnie Yen: I’m a very family-oriented person, I’d go home right after work. I don’t lead a night life, I don’t like going out, neither do I like crowded places. I have devoted all my energy and passion into work, so I need a quieter life.
Can you tell us about your parents?
Donnie Yen: My father and mother still live in Boston. Since I was young, my mother opened a wushu centre. Being influenced by her, I took up wushu training [from her]. Later, I went on to learn other forms of martial arts. Eventually, I began a career in film industry. My parents are on the one hand very traditional, the mentality of traditional Chinese family, on the other hand, they are very open-minded in letting their son discover his own path. They have been very supportive of me all these years, and they never told me intentionally what I should or should not do. They’re happy as long as I’m happy.
Thanks for your time, Donnie Yen.
Donnie Yen: Thanks.