I’M CHEN ZHEN, PUT IP MAN BEHIND
Tackling Chen Zhen again, do you fear being shackled by past conventions and not moving forward?
Donnie Yen: Yes, Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen presented me with two major challenges, how to break away from Ip Man’s image. Initially, I didn’t want to take on this role, given that I’d already done it over a decade ago, it was after much negotiations and debates before I finally relented.
Secondly, it’s been quite a while since I last worked as a martial arts choreographer, when I accepted Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, I gradually discovered that I still had inspirations. Being in the filmmaking business, without challenges, there won’t be progress, perhaps, the audience have been very supportive of me, but I have been doing action films for years, I’d be doing action genre a disservice.
Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury was very successful, was the character Chen Zhen in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen intentionally reinvented to set it apart from Bruce Lee’s Chen Zhen?
Donnie Yen: To me, Chen Zhen was created by Bruce Lee, there wasn’t such a person in history, the Chen Zhen that we see was basically Bruce Lee. Chen Zhen reaches out to the audience with grassroots values and sentiments, such as “I’ve had little education, don’t you cheat me!”, “Chinese are not Sick Men of the East!”, he lets his fist and martial arts do the talking, stirring up the emotions within the masses.
But here, Chen Zhen has dual identities: By day, he’s the nightclub’s boss, Anthony Wong’s assistant; by night, he dresses up like a comicbook superhero to do his stuff – rescuing patriots, resist the enemies. Our Chen Zhen is a lot more comical than Bruce Lee’s version.
How’s working with Andrew Lau?
Donnie Yen: I have known Andrew Lau for ages, the past few years, we’ve been planning to collaborate, before eventually settling on Chen Zhen. He’s the quickest-paced director I’ve ever worked with, we all know that he’d only knock off early, never later. He’s highly experienced, finding the focal of the film, he immediately gets down to the business of filming. He’s also very liberal, very receptive to suggestions.
Your acting was acknowledged by the audience after Ip Man, but many of them also say they’d think of Yip Man whenever they see you.
Donnie Yen: I really don’t want the audience to remember only Yip Man, while that character was a great boon to me, it’s already history. This time around, I’ve retained many traits from Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury: he would train in nunchaku, build muscle, his signature battle cries, taking off his shirt, reclaiming dignity of the Chinese, we’re merely using a new way to present them, and remind the audience of Bruce Lee, and for nostalgia, we’re turning Chen Zhen into Green Hornet’s Kato.
Compared to Yip Man’s introverted, humble and relenting nature, Chen Zhen represents confidence, frenzy, advancement, and passion. When there’s a conflict, Ip Man would try to reason politely first before taking up arms, while Chen Zhen would just strike preemptively. Perhaps because of Chen Zhen’s background, I might exaggerate some elements, but the final battle is closer to realism, to wushu concept, I like MMA, it’s equivalent to the concept behind Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, encompassing moves from various sects. Thus, you’d see grappling, wrestling, tumbling, Wing Chun, and weapons, all bearing the typical Donnie Yen fighting style.
During the premiere, some noted that this type of films is forever confined to one kind of plot: it’s always the Chinese hero beating up the Japanese invaders or US adepts, there is no breakthrough whatsoever, the main theme is always so parochial.
Donnie Yen: That’s the mechanics of successful movies, the good defeating the bad, just that this movie dons the folk hero mask. But the actual story is different, the characters are different, the entertainment values are different, the audience will feel something different.
Many are saying that you’ve been accepting films excessively after Ip Man.
Donnie Yen: I’m feeling more inspired these few years, actually, I only do three films per year, some do six, seven films. Louis Koo is doing quite a handful too. Most importantly, it’s about sustaining the audience’s interests and excitements. Let’s not talk about shooting 3 Yip Man films in one year, even if it’s two, the audience would be bored already.
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen is completely different from Ip Man, while The Lost Bladesman is altogether yet another different film. It’s the audience who are paying for the tickets, I’d consider what this role could bring to the audience. I cannot keep working with director Wilson Yip, would run of ideas. The effect would be different if I work with him again two years later. Ultimately, filmmaking is a form of business, you have to handle it shrewdly.
And I wouldn’t take on roles of villains such as maniacal murderer, arsonist, etc. Why should I introduce negative influences to the society, just for the sake of hearing, “Wow, what a class act.”? I’m not that kind of actor, I don’t seek the artistic self-fulfilment. For I feel that I’m not just an actor, but also a disseminator.
Some actors would demand having certain martial arts directors such as Yuen Wo Ping or Sammo Hung onboard, do you make such requests?
Donnie Yen: The word of mouth is definitely very important, there is an assurance to the quality of their works. As an actor, when shooting action films, I’d still consider seeking the professionals.
You’re playing the piano in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, is this a showoff to your fans?
Donnie Yen: No, I objected to this scene at first, and even asked, “Director, have you made a mistake?” But it just happened that, in the script, Chen Zhen has picked up music, and it develops quite naturally…. Argh! It’s never easy being an actor, not only do you have to act, to fight, but be skilled in playing piano.
When did you learn playing the piano?
Donnie Yen: I’ve been studying wushu under my mother since young, but later, I thought that wushu tends toward aggression, violence, so I started taking up piano lessons. My father plays the violin and erhu. Music can give me inspirations, it calms me down, and lets me ruminate.
You’ve attempted directing some films in the past, but they weren’t very successful. Would you consider directing in the future?
Donnie Yen: Yes, but I’m tied up right now, I have to ride on my own coattails… Actually, Ip Man was my Lady Luck, I’m rather proud of it, not only does it have depth, but it also induced the kungfu trend.
To the audience, the name Donnie Yen is synonymous with martial arts film genre, have you ever thought of doing an arthouse film with no action?
Donnie Yen: No one wants me. I would if I had the chance, but no matter what, I have spent all these years on wushu, that’s a whole lot of knowledge in there, it’s my forte. Chinese Business Morning View