Donnie Yen Defines the Art of Practical Combat Onscreen
I heard that the concept of mixed martial arts is implemented in the upcoming summer movie Flash Point.
Donnie Yen: Mixed martial arts, a combat sport that has become popular in the West in the recent years, is an effective fighting system that employs a vast array of different martial arts techniques. Each contestant possesses a variety of martial arts techniques such as Jujitsu, boxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, etc. I believe this is the most authentic type of combat. I have been researching, studying and learning it. I introduced some of it in SPL – Brazilian Ju-jitsu.
The grappling against Sammo Hung in the finale?
Donnie Yen: Yes. I was only in beginner’s stage back then. I have spent more time to study and train for Flash Point. And I’ve been ruminating about how to present it on the screen. How it is filmed and edited is very important. We have been following a certain pattern in filming and conveying martial arts scenes on the screen over tens of years. I hope to break free from the mould and achieve breakthrough. So, I’m looking into filming and presenting martial arts differently.
It’s not easy to translate mixed martial arts onto a film.
Donnie Yen: Indeed, it’s easy to fall backwards and film it the traditional ways. What we have been doing follows a fixed pattern, the same rhythm, one fist from you, another from me. I’m not denying the traditional martial arts films, they propelled our films to cult status in the world. Some martial arts films in Hollywood in the recent years have been influenced by us. On the other hand, we are still following the original guidelines. But in actual combat, which is unregulated, anything goes. It won’t be turn-based, both could be throwing out a punch at the same time. There might be some blows that miss. This is the true world of combat. I’ve been thinking of how to bring it out on the screen without turning it into a documentary of martial arts competition. I have been experimenting on how to work out a balance between filming and actual combat.
Moviemaking is after all a kind of visual beauty. The art of combat and wrestling are too obvious in SPL. It’s less eye-catching when you locked Sammo Hung with your legs than when you jumped and did three continuous kicks midair. How do you overcome this in Flash Point?
Donnie Yen: Firstly, I design action as a whole, rather than thinking of a short sequence of moves that produces catchy visual impact. I would put myself into the shoes of a combatant, when I fight against my opponent, what would happen. I would, come up with some actual combat situations. For example, before the two persons duel, there’d be some distance between them. As the distance draws closer, what would they do? Firstly, some kicks, followed by close-quarter fisticuffs. Then they would tumble on the ground, grappling with each other. One of them might stand up, or they could be still be doing ground and clinch fighting. In the process of choreography, I’d incorporate different martial arts techniques into the sequence.
Since when did you start employing mixed martial arts in your film?
Donnie Yen: Should be SPL. Actually, when I was doing Twins Effect, I was already putting my understanding of wushu into the film. When Gillian Chung was thrown back by a punch and fell, I thought, that could be followed-up with a tumble. That was when I was beginning to come into contact with that type of technique. It was taken a step further with SPL. By the time I did Flash Point, I had become pretty familiar with everything. Apart from my interest in wushu, I hope to bring about a new wave in martial arts films. I hope it would bring about a revolutionary breakthrough.
Have you considered that mixed martial arts might become the mainstream action in future films if Flash Point becomes a sellout?
Donnie Yen: I dare not think. There’d irrefutably be a push. Films are a form of advertising media. A successful film would bring about new trend.
Mixed martial arts poses a great threat to the safety of action stars. I’m aware of the countless injuries you received when filming Flash Point.
Donnie Yen: If we want our most treasured film genre – martial arts films – to always be the trendsetter, we can’t rely on choreography alone. We need to take into account how it’s filmed, and the actors themselves. We need them to be able to not just fight but also act.
What do you think is the strongest commercial value of Flash Point?
Donnie Yen: Martial arts scenes. When we showed the extended trailer at Cannes Film Festival, many people said it was very close to the actual combat techniques used by the mixed martial arts champions. It was a great encouragement to me. My hard work had not gone down the drain.
I understand that you invited many martial arts exponents from around the globe for Flash Point.
Donnie Yen: It wasn’t actually intentional. Many of them have worked with me before. Some are my assistants. They are martial artists themselves. One of them, John Salvitti, is my friend of over twenty years. He was in Tiger Cage 2. Apart from being a combatant, he’s been studying mixed martial arts for 15 years. It’s fate that brought us together.
Yuen Wo Ping tends to choreograph the action based on the storyline. What kind of martial arts choreography style do you employ?
Donnie Yen: I believe choreography of practical combat is my forte. I have always based my choreography on the intrinsic values of wushu, irregardless of the background of the film. Even in Dragon Tiger Gate, which is a comics adaptation. I designed the action scenes based on combat theories. I don’t do it simply to make the action enthralling.
As a martial arts director, one of the main problems is promoting newcomers, including the first time you worked with Yuen Wo Ping when you just began your film career.
Donnie Yen: Nowadays, martial arts directors go along with the advancement in filming techniques. We can use some techniques to coordinate with non-martial artists. In my early days with Yuen Wo Ping, technology was rather backward, whatever we did depended on the raw skills of the actors themselves; But the actors nowadays are exceptionally fortunate. They could rely on editing, doubles, wires, and even special effects to make them look like they could fight well. But I believe, now that the audiences seek authenticity in martial arts, they could be cast aside. That’s why we are looking into real combat.
Who has the greatest bearing on you in this path of martial arts choreography?
Donnie Yen: Of course it’s Yuen Wo Ping. He brought me into the circle. Some of his filming techniques and styles bear great influence on me. Actually, I admire the techniques of other martial arts directors too, they have their own unique ways of handling action scenes. I hope to learn from them. This is my pursuit of martial arts all along – mixed martial arts.
You mentioned before that a good martial arts film should surpass Iron Monkey. We now believe that SPL is the yardstick for contemporary action films. Do you think you have surpassed SPL?
Donnie Yen: I have said earlier that I wish to go beyond that choreography model. Actually, in SPL, there was already some amount of breakthrough. In my fight against Wu Jing, you can see clearly that there aren’t any specific forms. Flash Point is heading towards this direction too. Many action films can be imitated, but one without experience in combat can never pull off the martial arts scenes in Flashpoint. It doesn’t follow fixed rules or styles in the delivery of the moves. It’s an actual combat between two martial artists.
In the past 10 years, Hong Kong action films have been labelled as “Fists that are not hard enough, pillows that are not soft enough”. What are your views on this, on the decline of action films?
Donnie Yen: The decline is due to the loss of the intrinsic appeal of martial arts films – the ability of the actors. In the older martial arts films, such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung films, they possess martial arts ability. Even if the film wasn’t that great, but you’d still find redeeming qualities in some specific fight scenes that tickle your taste bud. However, with the gradual retirement of older generation, there emerge unskilled actors who depend on tricks and special effects to shoot an action film. Naturally, the audience won’t feel as strongly for these films.
You won’t be the action director for Painted Skin? What are your expectations for Painted Skin?
Donnie Yen: That was a condition I laid down when taking up this project. I said to Wilson Yip, let someone else do the choreography while I concentrate on acting. I play a ghostbusting Taoist priest, and have quite a bit of action scenes.
When filming Flash Point, Wilson Yip asked me what type of films did the market lacked? I said, supernatural movie with martial arts elements. He asked me if I’d be interested. I said, as an actor, I’d like to try out different things, and it’s something I haven’t done in the recent years. And so it began. I hope Painted Skin would do well, that it’d bring something different to the market.