Martial Arts Star Donnie Yen Reflects On Career And Legacy
“I just need to warn you," the public relations manager says ominously, as I'm about to meet Donnie Yen in the VIP suite at Lane Crawford IFC Hong Kong, where the movie star is introducing his second collection of sunglasses under the Donnieye label. “There will be about nine people in the room, and a video team will be filming the whole interview.” As I open my mouth to protest, she adds: “Oh, and he’ll be keeping his sunglasses on.”
In case the size of his entourage isn’t enough of a clue, Yen is a big deal. He is a household name in Asia thanks to the Ip Man franchise, in which he embodies the legendary father of wing chun, a form of martial arts. And since his 2016 turn as a blind, wisecracking monk in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, he’s become known internationally as well.
Now, Yen has just filmed the 76th movie of his 30-year-career, the live-action Mulan, in which Yen plays Commander Tung. His impressive footwork, as a multiple world wushu tournament champion, and body of work have earned him an uncontested place in the league of martial arts superstars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
When I finally reach Yen, who is dressed in a leather Alexander McQueen bomber jacket, torn red jeans and sneakers, he oozes a certain coolness one expects. He plops himself on a velvet sofa and leans forward, with only his wide smile visible beneath an enormous pair of graphic, tinted aviators from his collection. The style, he says, is called “Desire” and the effect—well, let’s just say Yen knows how to capture the attention of a room.
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Claim to fame
“I know this sounds naive, but I didn’t fully realise the impact being in Star Wars was going to have until much later,” he says in a pensive, halting rhythm. “All of a sudden, friends I’d known for years started pulling out their light sabres for me to sign.”
Of course, the movie was a hit, yet four years later, Yen says he’s only recently begun searching for how to define his success and what kind of mark he wants to leave on the world. “I still need to make more meaningful Hollywood movies that demonstrate the current artistic level of Chinese filmmaking,” he says. “Even Marvel has adopted some of our ways of filming action sequences—like the way they pull the wires [when characters jump or hover] in Avengers—but there’s so much still untapped.”
At 56 years old, Yen has become obsessed with the bigger picture. In every movie he makes, he asks himself: What am I leaving behind?
Martial arts became an indelible part of Yen’s childhood in Guangzhou thanks to his mother, Bow-sim Mark, a renowned wushu instructor. Since the age of nine, every morning at 5:30am, he’d practise splits and throw kicks for two hours before he was even allowed to head to school, but it proved handy when the family uprooted for Boston in 1975, and he found himself struggling to fit into a mostly Caucasian public school.
“I saw kids mimicking Bruce Lee and realised to fit in, I had to embody something they admired,” he says. “The fact that I already knew kung fu helped, so I just put on the yellow suit and big, black sunglasses. Lee really was one of my first heroes.”
Yen’s love of sunglasses led to the launch of Donnieye in 2018, complete with jazzy, oversized frames. With 18K gold nose pads and scratch-resistant frames that are made with the same technology as iPhone cases, his luxury sunglasses retail on average at HK$2,380 (about RM1,320). Making them a part of his signature style is Yen’s small tribute to Lee.
“I think if I could turn back time and speak to him, I’d ask, ‘As a young Chinese man trying to make it in Hollywood, did he have to play up certain parts of his character because he felt he had to?’”
Yen has had to grapple with that question himself. When his mother sent him to Beijing to train at the age of 16, he made a pitstop in Hong Kong where, at the time, celebrated martial arts director Yuen Woo-ping was looking for the leading man for his next film and discovered Yen. The ensuing movie, Shaolin Drunkard, launched Yen’s career and several years later would allow him to return to America as a renowned actor-choreographer for martial arts scenes in movies and television shows.
Once he returned to the States, however, he discovered “it was like making fried rice”, says Yen, reverting to Cantonese for this metaphor. “For a Chinese chef, it’s the simplest dish, but for many Westerners... let’s just say I had to explain what a wok and rice were.” As martial arts director for Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro’s film Blade II, he found himself constantly explaining to the cinematographer how to accurately capture his movements, only to have producers march onto set and change the direction entirely. “It was complete torture,” he says. “They had no idea how to film our style of movement, something we’ve been doing in Hong Kong for years.”
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Carving A New Path
This desire to control his narrative was what prompted Yen to try his hand at producing and directing under his own companies, Bullet Films and Superhero Films, and a trait he shared with the Cantonese martial artist Ip Man, whom he warmly portrayed in the biopic film series that began in 2008. Soft-spoken, compassionate and principled, Ip was a far cry from the brazen and sometimes comical martial arts heroes previously caricatured in Hollywood films. In fact, one of the underlying philosophies of wing chun is self-control, to take responsibility for each of your actions and ponder their impact for the greater good.
In recent years, this philosophy has penetrated Yen’s filmmaking. He now insists on there being a moral in every movie he makes. “Filmmaking is too powerful of a channel and influences too many to not be used seriously,” he says.
Most recently, Yen’s convictions led him to produce and star in Big Brother—he played a veteran soldier recruited to set straight a class of delinquent students—to shine a light on Hong Kong’s education system. He rallied sceptical producing partners and financiers, but the film was a relative commercial flop, grossing just over US$600,000 domestically. He did not despair. “I knew it was a huge risk, and that it could hurt my credibility as a filmmaker, but it wouldn’t stop me from doing it all over again,” he says.
Leaving The Legacy
Where Yen’s instincts did pay off was in his contribution to warrior monk Chirrut Îmwe in Rogue One. Yen had originally waved off the opportunity to be a part of the galactic movie-verse. Family is always his priority and he dreaded being away from his three children and wife, former Hong Kong model Cissy Wang, to shoot in the UK for five months. In Hong Kong, local crews knew Mr Yen needed to be home for dinner at 7:30pm sharp. So it was family, his sons specifically, who convinced Yen to take the part. “Baba, it’s Star Wars!” they exclaimed, incredulously.
When he accepted the role, he laid down a few conditions for director Gareth Edwards. “I wasn’t just going to take whatever role they gave me and be another Chinese kung fu master,” he says indignantly. Yen suggested that Îmwe be blind and went as far as to research the exact frosty blue shade he wanted his eyes to be. And for Îmwe to adopt a sense of humour. “Kids need to think this character is cool,” he says.
Martial arts masters of old used to pass on their skills and philosophy through their clan, but Yen hopes that his messages of restraint, family and honour will be immortalised through his films. “One day when I retire or am no longer in this world, I just hope that when people look at my films, whether it’s a serious one or something like Star Wars, they’ll be able to say ‘He made a difference.’”
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