The Straits Times
31 Oct 2014
Source: ST Communities
Curiously, when this interview with Chinese action superstar Donnie Yen draws to a close, one of his assistants hurries over clutching a laminated photograph of her boss, which he duly signs and she then presents to this reporter.
Yen is my assignment, not my hero. But the gesture indicates the esteem in which he is held back in his homeland: Why would a reporter not want a signed photograph of one of Hong Kong action cinema's brightest lights?
After all, here is a man who is courted by Hollywood and who earned more than $36 million last year alone through film-making and his advertising endorsements. He was promoting his latest film, Kung Fu Jungle, at the London Film Festival earlier this month.
Yen, 51, now stands as a titan of Asian cinema. He has a sliver of Hollywood film-making experience, courtesy of small roles in the likes of Highlander: Endgame (2000), Blade II (2002) and Jackie Chan's Shanghai Knights (2003).
His international standing is set to skyrocket, however, once he wraps up Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II, the high-profile sequel to Lee Ang's 2000 Oscar-winning epic.
The film is to be shot entirely in English, which is a major departure for Yen. Is this his bid to crack the American market? "I never really thought of it like that," says the China-born American action star. "Really, I never much thought about being an actor at all. I have had a long career - I have been doing this for 32 years - and when I first started I never thought, 'I want to be an actor'.
"In the beginning, it was just a case of not having anything better to do and thinking, 'Okay, let's have some fun'. I never thought about being a star."
Hollywood has chased his on-camera skills many times across the years, he says, but up until he signed his deal with Harvey Weinstein for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II, he had consistently declined.
"It took a whole year for Harvey to convince me to do Crouching Tiger because I wasn't interested," he says, "because it was a role that I'd played many, many times in the past - the heroic, cool, straight-faced swordsman".
How did Weinstein change Yen's mind? "One, it was because I wanted to work with Woo Ping again. We hadn't worked together for about 20 years," he says, referring to his old mentor Yuen Woo Ping, who directed him in the 1993 gongfu classic Iron Monkey and also choreographed the fights for the Matrix films.
"And then Harvey told me that the film's going to have English dialogue and I'd never a done a swordsman movie in English.
"There are a lot of mixed opinions on it, but I tend to be very open-minded as a film-maker. It'll be a beneficial step for both Chinese and non-Chinese film-makers. I regard it as something like a bridge. I think you'll see more of these types of film in English."
In the meantime, Yen hopes that his latest film, Kung Fu Jungle, will excite his fans and will, like his Ip Man films (2008, 2010), cross borders.
The new film sees him reteam with his director from 2009's Bodyguards And Assassins, Teddy Chan, who seeks to delight hardened fight fans with cameos from around a dozen or so martial arts legends.
But, strangely enough, the Chinese actor Wang Baoqiang headlines as Yen's on-screen nemesis even though he is not known as a martial arts expert.
Yen, credited on Kung Fu Jungle as the action director as well as the leading man, offers his take on this: "At first there were certain questions, whether he could carry the film, but I believed he could. Actually, that was part of my inspiration to do this film - I was given the chance to direct someone who normally you wouldn't get in an action film.
"Baoqiang hasn't done these actions films ever. But I know he's dedicated and had ability," he adds, referencing Wang's childhood training at a Shaolin temple. "For me it was about pushing his limitations to a new level. We all have undiscovered limitations that can shock the audience. That's what we did and I think it works.
"I've been in this industry for so long, and I really do believe that things happen for a reason."
He cites as an example the long journey to his starring role in Ip Man, his 2008 movie that is loosely based on the life of Bruce Lee's wing chun mentor, Yip Man, and his biggest hit to date.
It was film-maker Jeff Lau who initially approached Yen about a project about the martial arts master in the mid-1990s, when Lau was producing for acclaimed director Wong Kar Wai, but the project fizzled out.
"Wong Kar Wai can take forever," says Yen with a smile.
Instead he went on to shoot the Ip Man movie with his long-time friend Wilson Yip, while Wong continued his own Yip Man project with Tony Leung Chiu Wai in the lead that became The Grandmaster (2013).
Yen, who is twice married and has three children, recalls: "There was a lot of bad-mouthing at the time. People were like, 'Wilson is not of the same calibre as Wong Kar Wai. Donnie can't do Ip Man; he is not Tony Leung.' But we paid no mind."
He had the last laugh. Ip Man went on to huge commercial success and to win Best Picture at the 2009 Hong Kong Film Awards and also nabbed a Golden Horse for Best Action Choreography.
"So when I look at Ip Man, I believe that everything happens for a reason."
Indeed, just consider the major influences on his life. His mother, for instance, is a martial arts master and Yen, seemingly, was destined to follow in her footsteps. "As a kid what you know seems normal, you go home and your mother teaches martial arts," he says. "I realised only later in life that it's pretty rare."
Fate played its strongest hand when Yen turned 11 years old. His family moved to the United States, settling in Boston, Massachusetts. "I spent all my teenage years in Boston and that's the time in your life you learn so much," says Yen. "As an immigrant, I was a minority and as a minority, you are forced to find your own identity.
"Maybe I looked at the positive side of that and I found strength. We lived in Chinatown and I searched for that identity. I found martial arts and gongfu movies, so I spent most of my time watching those films. And that gave me a solid information database in my head about movie-making."
The Chinese martial arts choreographer and film director Yuen discovered Yen as a raw 19-year-old, and launched him on the road to a career in the movies. Yen broke out as an actor after dazzling fight scenes opposite Jet Li in 1992's Once Upon A Time In China II, on which Yuen served as action director.
"But it was only later in my career that I thought, 'Maybe I do have potential as an actor,'" Yen says. "That's kind of odd, right? After 20 years, you start to realise that you could be a good actor?"
Watch the trailer for Kunfu Jungle below