Enter the last dragon

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 September, 2005, 12:00am

As the youngest in a vanishing line of distinguished martial arts actors, Donnie Yen is hot property

Hailed as a graduate of the last generation of 'real' martial artists, Donnie Yen has recently been in the middle of the action, thanks to several internationally acclaimed works. But the truth is he first starred in a motion picture more than 20 years ago and made a name for himself in Hollywood as an action choreographer long before Hero was made.

By any measure, he is an international star.

Back in Hong Kong from Beijing less than 12 hours before this interview, he is rushing off to London, where he is shooting a film for Miramax.

With his illustrious career, Yen is no stranger to long-haul travel. Since a fateful call in 1999 from Miramax founder Harvey Weinstein launched him on the world stage, he has been jet-setting around the United States and Europe for major film productions.

What comes as a surprise is that he turns up at the studio for the interview without an entourage. Dressed in jeans and a black tank top, the 42-year-old looks as fit as you would expect for a martial artist. But his eyes betray a gruelling schedule.

'My flight from Beijing was delayed and I didn't get to sleep until 3am,' he says.

But the fatigue in his eyes is replaced by a glow when he begins talking about his time in Beijing.

'I went shooting for a commercial for one of the biggest Web game manufacturers in China. It was rescheduled because I had to do promotions for Seven Swords,' he says.

Obviously, the deal gave Yen's bank account a healthy boost, and the fact that the schedule was changed to accommodate him is proof that he is in demand.

At the time of the interview, Seven Swords was already reporting impressive box-office performances in mainland cities. A multibillion-dollar film by acclaimed director Tsui Hark released in China and Hong Kong in July, it is a Chinese epic set in the 1600s about a set of legendary blades that bring together a group of warriors fighting to save a martial village from a brutal regime.

The film is action packed and employs state-of-the-art computer animation to enhance its visual effects.

Seven Swords has been invited to be one of the 335 exhibiting films at the 30th Toronto International Film Festival this month, and martial arts film buffs around the world are eagerly awaiting the film's release at their local cinemas.

Yen's role in the movie is also among those with which he has been most happy.

'My character has a very sensual side to him. The message is that, no matter how good your kung fu is and how good a fighter you are, you are still a flesh-and-blood person,' he says.

Yen plays Chu Zhaonan, the strongest among the seven warriors in Seven Swords. So deeply is Chu involved in his kung fu practice that he has been meditating alone in a Tian Mountain cave for years when he is called on to help fight the villains. But the years of solitude don't seem to have calmed his desires. And when he meets the enigmatic Green Pearl (played by Korean actress Kim Soyeun), a love slave of No1 villain Fire-Wind (Sun Honglei), Chu falls in love and gets into trouble.

If the entertainment pages are anything to go by, Yen has had his fair share of trouble with women in real life.

While shooting ATV's Fist of Fury in 1995, he reportedly fell in love with co-star Man Yi-man. The affair led to the break-up of his marriage to his wife, who was pregnant at the time.

The story goes that Yen's romance with Man soon waned. The negative publicity - and a broken heart - sent his career into a downward spiral, and he left for the United States.

'Everyone knows that stories appearing in these rags are bullshit,' Yen says with a pained expression that seems appropriate for a man about to discuss an unflattering chapter of his life.

'Let's put it this way: Many of the things that I have experienced and done in my life have also been done by many other people. Just because I am a public figure doesn't make me any different from others as a person.'

Yen also says that he did not flee to the US because of trouble at home but because he was offered an opportunity by Weinstein.

Regardless, it would be safe to say that he is now a better man in every way.

Happily ensconced in his second marriage with a nineteen-month-old daughter, he has on many occasions declared his love for his wife and devotion to his family.

As a player in the film industry he has learned to see things with an open mind.

The son of martial arts master Bow Sim Mark, Yen was born in Guangdong, spent his early childhood in Hong Kong, and then moved to Boston in the US.

Not surprisingly, he showed a keen interest in martial arts as a child, and experimented with everything from taekwondo to wushu. Young Yen eventually decided to stick with wushu and moved to Beijing for further training.

Fate led to an encounter with Matrix action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, then still a star on the rise.

In 1984, Yuen offered Yen his first lead role in Drunken Tai Chi. Although not a critical success, it kick-started his film career.

'It was a high point in my life, obviously, with people investing money in me to make a film,' he says.

But a setback soon followed, with the trend among kung fu movies moving to modern from period storylines.

'I am a modern man, raised in the west, but as a film actor I am a period man. I couldn't just jump into another genre of films,' he says.

'I was also known as someone from the Master Yuen's clan and I had to stick with the team.'

A breakthrough role came in 1992 in the form of General Lan in Once Upon a Time in China II.

His final punch-up with Jet Li (who plays mythical kung fu legend Wong Fei-hung) remains one of the most celebrated fight sequences in the history of martial arts films.

It would be another 10 years before the sparks ignited between these two proverbial fighters in Hero.

And what a decade it was. In 1997, Yen started a production company known as Bullet Films and made his directorial debut with Legend of the Wolf, a film about an amnesiac former hitman and triad member who is waiting for the woman he loves to come back to him. The lead's flashbacks reveal a life of extreme violence, and these flashes were where Yen showed his unique idea of cinematic action.

'If you're expecting a martial arts movie where you can see each movement, this is not your movie,' Yen says of the film in one of his journals published on his website.

'But if you want excitement, you will get excited by it, with the fast cuts, the violence, the emotion and lots of drama. I think martial arts [is] just part of a film, and I never separate it.'

Yen's vision that action and acting in a film are one and the same thing has not changed.

The hairspray misting around his face as the stylist prepares his hair for the photo shoot does not distract his sharp gaze as he goes on talking shop.

'You go to a film to see a film. If it is kung fu that you want to see, you might be better off going to a [live] kung fu show,' he says.

The martial arts legend has all the credibility it takes to stick to his guns, given all the challenges he has faced in his career.

Legend of the Wolf may not have been a film legend, but it was a positive experience for Yen.

His next experience proved a low point.

Shortly after taking the director's chair for the thriller Ballistic Kiss, the Asian financial market crashed and venture capital was pulled out.

Instead of aborting the project, Yen took on the tough guy role he has always played in his films and forged ahead.

He did manage to finish the film, but he came out of the experience a beaten man.

'I find it frustrating. I have difficulty first to get people to watch the film, and then when people do watch it, the ones that have a positive response - do they fully understand what I was trying to get across, and then, do they really fully appreciate it? Not really. Very, very few,' Yen writes in his journal.

But the same man sitting in the photo studio today has a clearer perspective on things.

'Basically I was stuck in negative thinking,' he says, and after a pause continues: 'Thinking back I was being a little arrogant trying to achieve the effects of a $20 million production with $4 million. No matter how good you are, no one is Superman. It was my sense of insecurity manifested through overconfidence.'

All was not lost though. Ballistic Kiss earned Yen a nomination for Best Young Director at the Yubari Fantastic Film Festival in Hokkaido, Japan, and the film was selected for the Udine Film Festival, Italy, and the 'Best of '98' Film Festival by Hong Kong Film Critics Association.

Yen's unique approach to action sequences also caught the attention of director Daniel Lee, who invited him to be the action director of his 1999 Sino-Japanese production Moonlight Express, starring film and music legend Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing and Takako Tokiwa.

Since then, the world has been Yen's smorgasbord.

As an action choreographer, his credit now encompasses notable films such as Highlander: Endgame (which won praises for his action direction but failed to excite overall) and Blade 2: Bloodhunt, which put Yen in charge of how well Wesley Snipes could fight.

Among other Hollywood bigwigs to court Yen was Steven Seagal (although the collaboration did not materialise because the venture capitalists wanted someone from the US), and Bruce Willis, who has reportedly frequently invited Yen to his home.

Yen has worked on camera and behind the scenes for a number of overseas film and television productions in Japan and Germany.

Despite all this, the actor has not risen to the level of international stardom enjoyed by other Chinese action stars such as Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh - all of whom have worked with him.

'Everyone has a different point where things pick up [for them]. I find that mine has picked up in the past five to six years.

'In Hero I started to feel I had a good grip on things after many years of experience. In Seven Swords there was a whole new Donnie Yen. In life, some people get it faster, others slower,' he says.

Yen's newfound self-assurance is likely to be noticeable in ShaPoLang, completed last year and due be released only later this year due to distribution issues.

Yen is one of the lead actors as well as the action director. In the film, he plays martial arts expert Ma, who is about to take over the police's serious crime unit from senior detective Chan (Simon Yam), who is seeking an early retirement.

Things go terribly wrong when an undercover cop is suspected to have been killed by triad boss Po (Sammo Hung), and Ma gets into some real dilemmas when Chan decides to pursue Po at all costs - even by breaking the rules himself.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of ShaPoLang is the collusion of two of the most famous names in martial arts: Yen and Hung.

'Sammo is a veteran in the art and my style has also been influenced by him,' Yen says. 'But my personal style is mixed with elements from different schools, whereas Sammo is very no-nonsense ... he is like classic jazz - punch, punch and kick - and I am more like free jazz.

'I wanted to preserve his style while injecting mine in the sequences.'

And in many ways, few can take on such a double role better than Yen. He is often called 'the last dragon' because he is the youngest among well-known actors who have a genuine martial arts background. And there are no successors on the horizon.

As with his character in Seven Swords, Yen is fond of the role he plays in ShaPoLang because the character has a strong mind with which to face emotional struggles as well as a brawny body for physical scuffles.

The film will certainly offer more than just fight scenes.

That, after all, seems to be how Yen would like people to see him: A tough guy with a heart.

'I really enjoy living with the mindset I have right now,' he says. 'I am clear as to what I can do and what I can't do, and I am not afraid to tell you.

'This is how life should be lived: Keep reflecting on mistakes and correcting them. If you can't do that, you might as well be dead.'

Art Director: Jowie Chan

Stylist: Johnson Ho

Hair: Warden, Il Colpo

Makeup: Candy Law

Wardrobe: Dunhill

Props: Chow Hon Hing Dragon & Lion Dance Company