With his rising popularity and big sellouts of his films, Donnie Yen is fast becoming one of the top earners in the industry, commanding up to 20m yuan per film this year, after Jackie Chan (30m yuan), Jet Li (25m yuan) and Chow Yun Fatt (25m yuan). Hailed as the new King of Kung Fu, he is getting even more offers this year, running the gamut from historical epic on 《关云长》 General Guan Yun Chang by Felix Chong and Alan Mak, through comic book adaptation 《中华英雄》 A Man Called Hero remake, to mythological feature 《大闹天宫》 Monkey King.
That year, Donnie Yen’s mentor Yuen Wo Ping declared, “When it comes to action films, in the end, Donnie Yen will be the best.” And now, Donnie Yen marches on inexorably with his diligence, proving the foresight of his mentor.
“I only sleep 5 hours a day, really very exhausted, not just physically, but creatively too.” Donnie Yen tells film critic Wei Jun Zi, and that is the price he pays for fame and wealth.
Setting the trend
Donnie Yen begins, I hope to hear everyone’s assessments on me, but not simply based on any one single film, I pay attention to scaling new heights in each movie I make. I’m constantly changing, only give me a roundup when I retire some day: This is Donnie Yen style, he has done these films, has what influences on Chinese films, or even action films worldwide.
Watching Sherlock Holmes recently, it was amazing. I believe Guy Ritchie must have seen Flash Point, SPL. So many actions, how could there be such uncanny resemblance? I’m very proud, my films have certain influences on Hollywood. When I met Blades 2 director back then, his desk was cluttered with Donnie Yen films, so the foreigners are forever watching our films, looking for things that they could borrow. However, we lack good action films these few years, where do they look up to then?
The action films these days are returning to the initial stage, following a fixed pattern in action, this has always been something I wished to shake off for years. Tens of years, whether it is solo or duo fights, the biggest influence comes from the stage, for they are all Peking Opera-trained, lowering the head, raising the leg, one, two, and perennially, they would choreograph in such a way that each blow would be blocked, and blocked perfectly, such flawless coordination, played out just like Peking Operas.
So, many years ago, I’ve always hoped to capture realistic fighting, but I’m still shooting a film, so I still have to use film language, it must be more dramatic, must be designed according to the characters, the main point being to find a balance, be it modern or period film, and incorporate the most realistic, logical elements. You mustn’t be able to parry all blows, there must be something unexpected. So, in Flashpoint action, I made a breakthrough.
By contrast, you say the choreography in Ip Man is outstanding? I thought otherwise, actually it’s mostly because it manages to capture the mood, everyone was thoroughly into the film. There are some moves, some shots in 1 vs 10 dojo scene that were improvised, I was given free rein. I didn’t want the Wing Chun to another The Prodigal Son, it’d be stale, so I gathered many resources, reading books online, watching the foreigners’ applications of Wing Chun, for they have incorporated many free fight elements into Wing Chun, I thought this was great, and showed the moves to the director and communicated with big brother Sammo Hung and also acquired some discs for them, and that was how Ip Man’s action was born.
Whenever I watch Hollywood films, I develop some kind of competitive spirit, I believe that our creativity is no lesser than them. Our market is getting better these few years, and the budget is increased, but compared to Hollywood’s distribution network, our budget is still peanuts to them.
Hollywood has its merits and weaknesses, such as when I was shooting Blade 2, each department was assigned its own tasks very clearly, I was the action director, there was one scene whereby I fought with a vampire, requiring some wirework, it was this high only, but they actually made a machine, over $10K, anyhow, it was very expensive. We kept trying it out, shooting for 6, 7 hours, if they were to do it like Hong Kong films, just one hoist, and it could be accomplished in 1/2 hour, really extravagant. If we had that kind of money, we would handle it better, could use that amount on something else.
But I admire Hollywood’s persistence in their quest for perfection, they truly have a basic concept of the script, you could change everyday, but at least, there is a definite, distinct direction, and scene division. Hong Kong directors work forever like before, often changing things instantly on the set, and then they would keep on altering it day after day. This is a bad habit, I find the Mainland directors better in this respect, they put in lots of effort, perhaps because they feel that they’re not as experienced as Hong Kong.
But Hong Kong directors are too experienced, too capable, and think too lightly of competitions. I have accumulated much experience in action film, but I won’t overrate myself, I would always be thinking of how to improve. I believe I have responsibility to raise the bar of action films. Most film martial arts directors these days are just recycling stuff, they lack the drive to brave new territories. Fortunately, it’s something I can take pride in, my team still has the fighting spirit – in every film.
Formation of Yen Clan; the steadfastness of Kenji Tanagaki
Those stunt teams in the past, they couldn’t work for others, but in the past 10 years, there were hardly any movies being made, do you want your comrades to languish at home, with nothing to eat? My own stunt team, they have their own works when I’m not filming, in particular a group of Japanese friends, they are the best in Japan, many big films look for them. They have been with me for years.
And there are a few who are very young, they followed me when I was in Germany for a year. Apart from them are some Chinese martial arts directors. My own clan, they have already been elevated to the position of action directors, doing Bichumno, as well as numerous TV series. Whenever I’m beginning production on a new film, just a call to them, and they would put aside all their works, handing over to their assistants, and come to help me. They have been with me for years, and understand what I wish each film would contribute, not just my own performance, but the entire action must achieve breakthroughs.
The earliest member came from ATV’s Fist of Fury TV series, he was Kenji Tanagaki, he has been with me for many years, now he’s already a producer, and choreographed many major manga adaptations in Japan. He came to Hong Kong to join stunt training classes, when filming Fist of Fury, Hong Kong action films were declining, there was no work. Comparatively, Fist of Fury was a big budget TV series, so all the stuntmen came here, even though I had a few assistants, but there was still not enough men. In the end, everyone had to appear in front of the camera, but I couldn’t keep using the same stuntmen, so I was short of new faces, I hired Kenji Tanagaki to do a few moves, not bad. Since then, he had been following me.
When I was shooting Ballistic Kiss, when I was at my trough, he was around. I wasn’t in good health, was smoking, and didn’t have sufficient funds to complete the film, it wasn’t easy to finish filming, after three months of post-production, all the crew left me, for I couldn’t pay them, but Kenji Tanagaki stood by me. Whenever I woke up at 4 am every day, he would make me a hot cup of coffee, remaining with me all the time.
One day, I told him, you’re a Japanese, you should go back, you have been in Hong Kong for roughly 10 years, whether it was from me or others, you have learned well nigh everything, you should return to Japan with the techniques of Hong Kong martial arts direction, you’d certainly make it big. He heeded my advice, returned to Japan, and became very successful.
Offering something new in Legend of Chen Zhen
Legend of Chen Zhen is a little like Infernal Affairs, is completely removed from Chen Zhen classic, it’s akin to an exceedingly good Hollywood film, quite close to Batman, coupled with that kind of pacing, it keeps everyone in suspense as to who are the agents or spies, very novel.
Chen Zhen has three images in the film, he can be someone suave, playing the piano, dating girls, in the manner of Kungfu Hustle meets In the Mood for Love. But this is just his facade, he has two other identities, one is a war veteran in Europe, we’ve just finished a very big-scale European war scene. Another is Fist of Fury flashbacks. The three outfits would definitely be a success from the commercial standpoint, and his romance is acted out in a very contemporary way.
I’m really worn out, I’m involved in creative process too, how to shoot in in a novel way. Ip Man was already excellent, how could I surpass it. Frankly speaking, I have very little time here, when shooting Ip Man 2, big brother Sammo Hung had sufficient time – at least 10 days – to shoot each martial arts scene.
But now, I often pester my buddy Andrew Lau, how much time are you giving me? Two days, how to shoot? He says it’s enough for me, you’re so great. I argue that the audience would not take into account how little time was spent, they would only look at the end results. But I have a clever way to overcome this, putting the emphasis on the look and feel, very fresh. From creativity, conceptualisation, I can’t use the same method, it takes on another level of creativeness, after SPL and Dragon Tiger Gate, I’m proud of this.
Originally, I intended to shoot a parkour scene in Legend of Chen Zhen, but I implemented it Bodyguards and Assassins to salvage it. Now I’ve made some slight modifications to Legend of Chen Zhen, it is nothing like Bodyguards and Assassins. I believe it won’t be any weaker than Bodyguards and Assassins. I’ve just finished putting together a bit of the rough cut, decent enough. New Youth (issue 5), Sina