A Touch of Yen
(Catching Up with) Donnie Yen
by Wade Major
In an industry known for instantly cataloguing its action actors as either heroes or villains, Donnie Yen is the odd man out. Like Jackie Chan and Jet Li, he has been the triumphant hero, the irresistible romantic lead. Like Yu Rong Guang and Yuen Wah, he's been the baddie, the villain, the guy audiences love to hate. Even more remarkable is that Yen has accomplished all of this with a relatively short resume by Hong Kong standards. While most Hong Kong stars ritually turn out four bad films for every good one, almost every one of Yen's movies is considered a classic. "Tiger Cage," " Once Upon A Time in China II," "Iron Monkey," " Wing Chun" and Yen's ambitious directing debut "Ballistic Kiss" are but a handful of the films that continue to inspire awe in Yen's fans and co-stars alike.
If there's a word that comes to mind to describe Yen's approach to life, career and the martial arts, it's "restless." Now devoting the bulk of his time to pending projects in Hollywood and a television series in Germany, Yen is busier, more ambitious and more restless than ever. And the timing could not be more ideal. In September, he made his Hollywood debut in "Highlander: Endgame." Ironically, it is not the long-anticipated fusion of the Highlander feature film and television sagas in one motion picture that has most fans buzzing, but rather the infusion of new blood by way of Donnie Yen.
Yen recently sat down for a chat in Santa Monica, California, to discuss his colorful career and unique vision of the martial arts.
Q: What's always been most impressive about your career is that you've
managed to become a star without establishing a defined persona. You've played
heroes, villains, romantic leads, everything. Which is the real Donnie? Which
is closest to you?
Yen: I think different films represent different periods of Donnie Yen. Particularly films where I got involved more as an action director or even as a director in the later years of my career. I think it represents that moment in time and how I felt and what kinds of obstacles I was facing. In most of my films, I've been fortunate enough to be a star. Yuen Wo Ping granted me that great opportunity with my first film, "Drunken Tai Chi." So all along I've played pretty important roles, even when I was playing a bad guy.
Sometimes when you play the bad guy, you're just playing a person being bad. You have very little to do with manipulating the dynamic of the story. But, fortunately, the several times that I've played the bad guy -- like in " Once Upon A Time in China II" and "Dragon Gate" -- I was more of a manipulator in the script. Particularly "Dragon Gate." That whole story is about my character trying to take over the dynasty. I was fortunate in working on " Once Upon A Time in China II," because I wasn't only working with Tsui Hark, who's a great director, but also with the action director, Yuen Wo Ping. And he and I go way back. So I was in good hands. Rather than jumping into a new environment, I was working with people who knew what I could do in the film. And they gave me great feedback.
But back to what reflects my personality, I can't say. I think, as a director and as an actor, as you mature in age and mentality, you tend to interpret yourself differently, on-screen and off. Look at Chow Yun Fat. Look at his earlier and his later films. He interprets himself totally differently. I saw "Anna and the King" on the plane. And he was more of a mature man. He'd moved on from being the number one superstar in Asia. Now he's moving into other genres. It's so profound to see how he interprets his acting. He's a man who's content with his success and his family and his life. Which I respect a lot. I can't say I'm there yet. I'm still pretty hungry.
Q: Many of your co-stars have become your biggest fans. Michelle Yeoh
raves about your physical abilities. Let's talk about the diversity of your
training and the role that your mother played. Did you grow up with any close
Yen:I have a little sister.
Q: What's the age difference?
Yen: Ten years.
Q: So for the better part of your youth, you grew up as essentially
an only child.
Yen:Yeah, but I was always a rebel, ever since I was a little kid. I think I've been a rebel in the industry. If you ask anybody about my reputation, you will hear a mixture of opinions. Most people intend to have difficulties working with me because I'm quite direct and outspoken. I think I'm pretty honest with my opinions. If it's good, I say it's good. If it's bad, I say it's bad. Unfortunately, most people can't deal with that. I think that's the nature of being in the entertainment business, regardless of whether it's in Hong Kong or here.
Since I was a little kid I was running around trying to train in different martial
arts styles. I was really not set on one style. If my mom tried to teach me
one thing, I'd do something totally opposite. I don't know if it was purely
because I wanted to defy her or if it was because of curiosity. I always had
a lot of curiosity in me, always questioning why things are thing way or whether
they could be better or worse another way. My mind was always going 90 miles
per hour. I think, later on, my personality helped me to progress as a director
in that way because I always had questions. Why should we do it this way? Can
we do it another way? I'm not too sure, if you look back, that it was an ego
thing. A lot of it probably was just to prove that I could do it better.
I've always been a strong competitor. I think that's also helped me as a martial artist. It's helped me be unique and distinguished from Jackie or Jet. It was the same thing with Bruce Lee, whom I consider my mentor. The reason why he's so explosive is because he has a very strong personality. And it reflects in his martial arts.
Q: You were obviously too young to know Bruce, so you mean that he
was your mentor in a spiritual sense?
Yen:In a spiritual sense, absolutely. I strongly believe in his view of martial arts. It's such a perfect philosophy. Anyone who calls themselves a great martial artist should understand where Bruce Lee is coming from. If they challenge that, they're idiots.
Q: Now, let's talk about your mother's influence on you as your teacher
and trainer. That's something you're going to get questioned on a lot in the
U.S. just because it doesn't play to the traditional American idea of what a
Yen:I was very fortunate. I was brought up in a very unusual setup. My mother and father were broken apart during the Cultural Revolution. My father's family were landlords. My mom's father was a nationalist. So you can imagine how hard it was. They couldn't leave China. When I was born, my mother was working as a singer and dancer and was very active in sports and dance. My father was a violinist. After she gave birth to me, my mother's health became so bad that she started picking up martial arts. And she fell in love with it and gave up music to pursue her martial arts career. She followed this master -- who passed away a couple of years ago. He was the president of China's martial arts and Kungfu federation.
After I was born, they filed an application to have me leave the country. Just me. But I was a baby, which meant that one of the parents had to take care of me. So my mother told my father to take me away from China, and my father and I moved to Hong Kong. Meanwhile, my mom continued to pursue her career in martial arts and became really popular. Then, when I was 9 or 10, my father applied to emigrate to the United States and got accepted. But he had also gone back now and then to see my mother and she had gotten pregnant. So we were about to leave when my mom gave birth to my sister. At the same time, Nixon opened up China and my mom was allowed to came over to Hong Kong to start teaching, which became very popular because of her expertise in martial arts, her achievements and the popularity and fame of the master she'd studied with. After all, she had been his number one disciple. Finally, a year or two later, our whole family finally emigrated to the United States and my mother opened up the Chinese Wushu Research Institute which has made her probably the most famous female martial arts instructor across the country. So that gave me an introduction to martial arts. But that was only the very beginning. Certainly it explains why I was fortunate to achieve my martial level. When I was young, all walks of martial artists would come to the school and study with my mom. So based on that I was exposed to different martial arts styles automatically.
At the same time, I was also studying different styles on my own. A lot was also influenced by martial arts movies, Bruce Lee movies, Jackie Chan movies. But I didn't recognize my talent as a martial artist until I was 14 or 15 when I entered a tournament and won with ease. And I thought, "Wow. It's not that difficult. Maybe I do have talent in martial arts." I was always imitating Bruce Lee when I was a little kid. I still have tapes on that. At 13 I made my own nunchakus and brought them to school. All my friends who're martial artists would say, "You're the fastest person I know." But at that age you don't know to who you compare." Today, I realize that I have a natural gift of speed. I'm a very explosive guy. Maybe my personality has something to do with it. I'm pretty hyper and have a really fast metabolism.
Then, later on, I went to China to study Wushu at the invitation of the coach of the Beijing Wushu team, the same team that trained Jet Li. The coach came over and he told my mom, "Your son has such natural potential. He could be a champion in China." I said to myself, "You've got to be kidding!" I didn't take it to heart at the time. Remember, we're talking about the early 80s. China was very communist. When I was in Beijing, there was not one hotel. It was hardcore communist. Everybody had Mao suits. And even though I was Chinese, I was also very much American. It was very difficult. They treated me as a foreigner. The team members weren't allowed to talk to me. I was not allowed to stay in their dorms. I was not allowed to go to certain places. It was very restrictive. So I spent two years, back and forth, studying there. And finally, I lost interest. I hate to say it, but it was not what I was searching for.
Wushu was not the answer to martial arts. It was a dance form, a great exercise. It was a product of communism. You see, Wushu is actually an interpretation of martial arts. What we call the "New Wushu" was formed when the Gang of Four abandoned all traditionalism. And that included traditional kung fu -- everything they felt was mysterious or superstitious. So a law was passed changing the whole concept and turning it into a sport. It was a really weird thing. And each state, each province, formed a professional team. The government paid for it and they'd recruit young kids and train them. The concept was to promote Wushu as a sport like gymnastics with annual competitions. And they sort of took a lot of these northern martial arts styles and put them into a competition form where athletes would have to perform a kata of about a minute or something.
Q: They took the soul out of it.
Yen:Exactly. But on the up side, because it's such an enhanced sport, it was very scientific, number one, and number two it was a government-trained professional team. So it kind of emphasized the physical abilities of the martial arts, to go faster, to jump higher, to take it to another level. That's why Wushu, when it was first exposed outside of China, was so amazing. "How can anyone jump that high? How can anyone do that?" Now, don't forget, these are professional athletes. This is what they do all day, researching and training for the best way to do a jump kick, for example. For them it's about finding how to do that jump kick to the highest degree. To make it faster, more stable, more accurate. Prior to that, kung fu had always been a traditional hobby for individuals. There were no set rules and training methods to enhance that. So Wushu has its ups and downs. It definitely took my physical ability to a maximum peak. I was already very fast and by training through that method, it made me so fast I was almost like Superman. I was faster than everyone else on the Beijing team, ironically. And I think that's why the coach really had a passion for me to be on the team.
Q: Did you ever meet Jet Li during this period?
Yen:I never met Jet Li. While I was training those two years, he went to shoot "Shaolin Temple." I saw him twice when he came back to visit. But I only stayed for two years. After I left, I just kind of gave up. I didn't want to do Wushu any more. I just didn't think that was what I wanted. It wasn't real, you know? As a matter of fact, while I was training those two years I always changed the way they trained, changed the way they taught me. Again, I was a rebel. I'd say, "Why do you always have to do it this way? It's so ridiculous." I don't know if you notice, but these Wushu people, they're like stage performers. It's like a Beijing Opera, almost dance-like. I said, "Why? There must be a reason for it? There's no intensity to it. Where's the attack and defense? Where's the rawness of martial arts? Where's the intensity?" That's not martial arts. The coaches would tell me, "Oh, no, don't! Do it this way!" But I never listened to them. I always kept to the way I did my Wushu. So, anyway, I left and pursued other martial arts. I got into boxing and kickboxing, more fighting styles. And that's when I got into films.
Q: That's definitely a
Bruce Lee trajectory.
Yen:Absolutely. That's why I say that my mentor was Bruce Lee. I don't worship him like a lot of people do. Some people worship Bruce Lee like an idol. I'm not like that. I admire his work, I love his work. His wisdom, his philosophy was so advanced at the time that it made a lot of sense to me. Today everybody has their own mind. You can't just tell a person, "Believe it!" It's not a religious thing. You don't have to believe it because I tell you to. It has to make sense. And most of the things that Bruce said, I experienced the same process. But this man wrote it in a book, in the most academic way back in the 1960s. That's how great this man was. I have not met anybody with the same degree of wisdom.
Q:You're definitely a product of a cultural hybrid the way your family
was broken up. Do you consider yourself more mainland, more Hong Kong or more
Yen: I don't know what I am! Definitely not mainland because I don't remember anything there in China. I was one-year-old when I left China. And I have vaguely some memories of Hong Kong as a child. My Hong Kong experience is really based on my work in the film industry these past fifteen years. That sank into me. That was a big period in my life. I have, obviously, strong influences as an American because during my teenage period I was brought up here, in Boston. So that's a good question. I always ask myself that same thing. I don't know. I can't identify myself. Sometimes I feel more American, but sometimes I feel very Chinese.
Q: Do you think that has something to do with your love for a diversity
of styles and roles, never wanting to settle on any one, rigid thing?
Yen: I think, coming back to the States, I tend to lean more toward Western concepts than Chinese. Now, that's not to demean Chinese culture. Chinese culture's very rich and I'm a very patriotic man. You have to have your own identity. But my best friends are all non-Chinese. I don't have any close friends who're Chinese. There are values that I appreciate in Chinese culture -- the history, certain morals, certain principles, things about Confucianism and family values -- I believe it's a great thing. And I think anybody should learn from that. China has a very rich culture. But overall, as a progressive human being, I believe more in Western culture. I mean, it's the millennium, man. We have to progress. Things have to be sensible and practical.
Q: As long as we're moving in that direction, you've been at it for
so long, yet you never age. Do you want to mention how old you are?
Yen:A: I'm early thirties (laughs).
Q: That's roughly when most people start itching for a change of some
kind, usually marriage or some kind of "settling down." Yet you seem to be ramping
up. Does work handicap your personal life? Is there a trade-off?
Yen: Actually, I'm a pretty romantic guy. The people that appreciate my films can sense that. There's a certain romance the way I interpret my martial arts, if you really analyze it, from "Dragon Gate" to "Iron Monkey." A lot of people overlook the sensitive part of the martial interpretation. They look at the power, the rawness, the techniques, the boldness. But if you really think about what makes me special, what distinguishes me, if you had to put it down, maybe it's that little sensitivity. Maybe. I don't know if I'm being too philosophical. I think that reflects the personality of the person. In my younger days, I used to be more critical and take a lot of things for granted. I didn't appreciate details.
But now I try to appreciate all things in my life. Because there are always two sides. If you look at one thing, maybe it's great today. You flip it around, maybe it's bad. Or vice versa. I'll be honest with you, I'm kind of flattered at how people look at my films as being so influential. I travel around and give lectures and fans come up to you and say this or that and "I've seen 'Iron Monkey' 500 times." You think about that. I think, "Wow. Those films really affected people." You to think about what makes them click. In terms of numbers, I didn't make as many big films as Jackie or Jet. But when I look at the films that influenced people -- " Once Upon A Time in China II" or "Tiger Cage" -- I start analyzing that. A side kick is a side kick and a punch is a punch. But if you break it down, between these movements there's another life there. I don't want to put it into sexual terms, but when I move, it's very sensual. It's part of me. It's how I feel about all things. It translates through my martial arts the way I hold a fork. It's my personality. So while I appreciate people complimenting me about my martial arts achievements and physical abilities, I think the personality has a lot to do with it.
Q: How does your family feel about your success? Are you all still
Yen: We're close. We're very tight. I think all families are proud of their children anyway. But as much as we love each other as family members, we don't really spend that much time together. I'm very busy and they're very busy, too. They live in Boston now and my father is a Chinese newspaper editor. My mom, of course, is still very actively teaching. They have a different lifestyle. The love is there, the bond is there. But we do different things in life, now. And I've been running around on my own since I was 15 or 16.
Q: Let's talk about "Highlander" and "Ballistic Kiss," which was a
real turnaround for you and for Hong Kong films. It wasn't just an action film.
It had a morally provocative tone to your character that was very compelling.
Did that help open things up for you more over here?
Yen:A: Not at all, ironically. How I got myself into this -- I was working in other films and Miramax called me and told me, literally, that "We admire your work and we are looking for our own action guy. We think you're going to be a commodity to us. We don't have a film specifically written for you, but we do have 'Highlander' and we're willing to work the role to your advantage." That's how I go the part. So I signed a three-picture deal with Dimension and I came over here. That was the first time I'd left Hong Kong and come back to the States and got a sense of the whole Hong Kong martial arts trend over here. As martial artists, we're not looked at as human any more, and I think it was strictly because of these martial arts flicks they saw, and not because of "Ballistic Kiss," that they came to me. In fact, they didn't even know that I've directed until recently. On the other hand, I the projects that I'm doing right now in Europe accepted me based on my directing work.
Q: And what are you doing in Europe?
Yen: I'm a co-director and action director for this big TV project called "Puma." A year ago an executive for this production company came to Hong Kong looking for a director to open that door for a martial arts show in Germany. Ironically, on his last day he saw "Ballistic Kiss" and some of the other stuff I'd done. And he was mesmerized by it. And I think it also helped that I speak English and understand Western culture. So I went over there and shot something for him. And they loved it and greenlit a pilot for a series. And last year that pilot was the highest rated at 8:00 p.m., prime time for RTL which is the biggest German network in Europe.
Q: So the series is in German?
Yen: It's spoken in German. And it's funny because after the pilot they greenlit eight episodes. It's sort of like "Martial Law" German-style, but more high-quality.
Q: But you don't speak German.
Yen: No. Not at all. So when they greenlit the episodes I went over there to help them construct the scripts. Even though I'm only the second unit director, I pretty much have as much responsibility as the director. Because every episode has a different director. What I do is look at the script and reconstruct it for the action genre. Then I shoot all these action scenes for them, and they have to fill in the gaps. Usually it's the other way around. I've finished four episodes already and now I'm going back for five and six. Apparently, they love it. It's like they've never seen that on German television before.
Q: What's the premise of the series?
Yen: The story is pretty basic. It's about a martial arts instructor who has friends on the police force and how he uses martial arts to deal with different police cases. He's a good-looking kid, ex-model. And my responsibility was to make him look better than Van Damme. And I think he does.
Q: Truly a European version of "Martial Law," then.
Yen: I think it's much better. If you get a chance to see it, the quality of it is unbelievable. If you know Germans, they're very precise.
Q: When will the rest of the episodes air in Germany?
Yen: This October they're going to show the rest of the eight episodes.
Q: Which is very timely since "Highlander" comes out in September.
Yen: And I was actually just hired to do a French film, too. So I'm going to be in Paris for a whole month.
Q: And what film is that?
Yen: It's a French independent film. It's another sort of "Highlander" kind of cyber-martial arts/"Matrix" thing.
Q: Which brings us to "Highlander," which you not only act in, but
did fight choreography for. First, let's set the record straight on your character.
The story teams up Adrian Paul from the television series and Christopher Lambert
from the films and pits them against an immortal named Kell and his team of
immortals. We know that you play Jin, one of Kell's team of immortals. But there
is some debate as to whether Jin is ultimately a good guy or a bad guy.
Yen: It's funny because originally there was no role for me. So when they made it up, they were nice enough to have the scriptwriter call me in Hong Kong and discuss what type of role to put in there. So I was the one who came up with the concept. And at the time I'd just finished watching "The Emperor and the Assassin." And I said, "You know what, why don't we use this character of the assassin? Like he was that person and then years later he became immortal and works for Kell, who is played by Bruce Payne. And he wants to overthrow him. So Bruce Payne technically becomes like the emperor. And my whole agenda is to front while working for him, doing bad things while I'm planning to try and kill him. When I pitched it, the writer loved the idea. My character's name in the film is even the same -- Jin Ke -- which is the name of Zhang Fengyi's character in "Emperor and the Assassin." And since they were nice enough to let me improvise some of the dialog, I went on the internet and dug up some Confucian quotes which I actually used in the film.
Q: So how was the experience, then? People who come from Hong Kong
often have mixed feelings about the way that movies are made here. Do you feel
the same way?
Yen: I expected a lot more "Hollywood." But it was pretty much like in Hong Kong except with a huge budget.
Q: But having directed, do you ever find yourself biting your lip and
maybe whispering to yourself that they're doing it the wrong way?
Yen: Oh, yeah. No doubt. It's very difficult. Even though I'm the martial arts choreographer in the film, you've got to deal with who's shooting it. You have to talk to the cinematographer. Fortunately the D.P. is a great guy and he's very well known -- Doug Milsome. He shot "Full Metal Jacket." He was great. On the second or third day I think he saw my expression and that I was biting my lip. I wasn't very happy and he came up to me and said, "You know, Donnie, why don't you help us out? I really don't have this much experience shooting this type of stuff." And that was nice of him to at least give me that offer. So in return I started to open up a little more, make a few suggestions. Try this, try that.
But I still had to be very diplomatic. It was hard. In Hong Kong, even on Yuen Wo Ping shoots, I pretty much got to call the shots. Here I'm a newcomer and I know I have to pay my dues. So I find it sometimes quite frustrating. You don't want to come off too strong and have people think, "Who do you think you are, coming here with your expertise?" But on the other hand I do have the expertise. So I think it's just a learning process. We have to learn from each other. And so far the "Highlander" experience has been pretty good. But sure, I would like to edit the action stuff myself. I think I could do a better job. But I think it's going to come off pretty good anyway.
Because I've been in the business for a long time, I know how to choreograph the moves according to where they put the camera. If I see them put a 25mm lens on the camera, I move a certain way. If they start moving the camera, I change the movement. I'll change the movement while I'm fighting. They don't know what I've changed because I'm moving so fast. "What'd you do? Really nice! Do it again!" That's the experience that I have and I don't think they can necessarily appreciate that yet. It's a very high degree of interpretation to not only to do great martial arts, but to do great martial arts according to the lenses they're using. There aren't many people who can do that. The top action performers in Hong Kong can do that, but I don't know of anybody else who can. You have to have a lot of experience in films to see where the camera is and know what to do.
Sometimes it's just moving aside a certain way so the camera can get a better view of a move or a kick. But in choreographing these types of movements, I choreographed very basically so it wouldn't get too confusing for them in terms of the editing process and placing the camera. Because when you start dealing with a lot of complicated details Hong Kong style, you're talking about editing and edit points. How are you going to explain to the guys on the set, "Look, do this move here, then you move the knife because we're going to cut here...?" They'll think you're an asshole. Plus it's not really their responsibility at the end of the day, anyway. It's the editor's. So rather than come up with all these complex, complicated combinations and details, I basically choreographed basic moves. Very basic. But the way I moved, I made it special.
Q: Last question, then. Obviously, you're itching and ready to direct
again. But so far, Hong Kong stars who've come over here have been either actors
or directors. No one, including Jackie, has yet been able to do both. Do you
see any chance you might be able to break out of that trend?
Yen: I think for now I have to pay my dues. This is a huge market. And in any huge market, you're dealing with channels and channels and channels. You can't walk in and ask to direct. The name of the game is that once you're a visible commodity, you can do anything you want. But I believe I have the potential in this country -- and I will one of these days -- to direct and probably star or not star. It doesn't matter. The point is being able to do it all. Will I be able to do it? I believe so. I think I'm a little bit fortunate compared to some others in that respect because I can shoot low-budget. I can shoot with one day of action, whereas the bigger guys can't do that. They have too much to lose. I have nothing to lose. Anything is a plus for me. I can't make any wrong moves in this country. Anything helps me.
Again, I have so much passion that when the time is right it's going to be all there. Everything is about timing, you know? Ten years ago you couldn't have had an Asian lead here. Now you can. Jet Li did "Lethal Weapon 4" and then "Romeo Must Die." Everything has a reason. Of course I'm going to work as hard as possible and try to pursue my goals. Most importantly I have a lot of passion and love for films. That's why I lost a lot of money on "Ballistic Kiss" during the Asian stock crisis. That's why I pursued making a film like "Ballistic Kiss," because I love films. I didn't want to make a typical action flick where you fight for 50 minutes and that's it. You call it courageous or you call it crazy, I'm willing to walk the edge. I'm willing to take the chance to be the person who breaks new ground.
About Wade Major:
Wade Major is an entertainment writer based in Los Angeles, California.