MAN WITH THE GOLDEN FIST
'I DON'T REALLY like to watch action films these days,' says Donnie Yen Ji-dan. 'I'll keep on picking at what's on screen. I'll look at them from a technical point of view, and I don't really get entertained by doing this.' He sighs - and it's not because of how his job as one of Hong Kong's best known actors has stripped him of the thrill of a night at the movies. He was pained, he says, by the mediocrity he sees dominating today's martial arts films.
'Maybe it's me having a tinted view of everything, but there's just nothing new on offer,' he says. 'What stimulates me now are either really quiet, cerebral films, like [Steven Spielberg's] Munich, for example - because it articulates a story well and is very dramatic. Or else, I go for movies that really go to extremes in the action sequences.'
True to his reputation of being one of the most hard-hitting fighters in the industry, the 42-year-old Yen has no problems placing himself as a descendant of Hong Kong's kung fu royalty, to which he sees there are no worthy heirs.
'Kung fu heroes are products of the times. There's Jackie Chan and the Seven Little Fortunes [a group tutored by martial art master Yu Jim-yuen that also includes Sammo Hung Kam-bo and Yuen Wah], and then [Jet] Li Lianjie who started out as a wushu champion. And there's me with my lineage in martial arts,' says Yen, referring to the legacy of his mother Bow Sim Mark, who since 1972 has run the well-known Chinese Wushu Research Institute in Boston, where the mainland-born Yen grew up and trained before returning to Hong Kong in the early 1980s.
'I came into the business when it was at its highest point - and only competition could breed progress,' he says. Yen is confident that he's triumphed in the race towards the top. When speaking about his feelings towards Zhang Yimou's visually ravishing epic Hero, he shrugs and says coolly how his 'small involvement' - in a stylishly shot fight with Li - is the film's crowning moment: 'It's obvious to audiences that other than my scene with Jet, the other stuff is not really as good on the eye,' he says.
When asked whether he harboured any ambitions when he entered show business - via a brief spell studying martial arts in Beijing in his teens - he says no, however, 'I never would have imagined how big an influence I would be on kung fu movies'.
He has reason to be confident. This is a man who calls film mogul Harvey Weinstein by his first name ('He flew to Cannes just to see how I am,' says Yen, who was recruited by Weinstein to orchestrate a remake of The Seven Samurai), and has recently finished preparing Mickey Rourke, Ewan McGregor and Alicia Silverstone for gut-busting action in the British-American fight-fest Stormbreaker.
While the jury's still out on whether Yen's the best in his profession, he's undoubtedly the busiest. He's worked on 10 films since 2002's Hero, ranging from the comparatively lightweight The Twins Effect series (in which he starred and also worked as action director) through Hollywood fare such as Shanghai Knights (he plays the evil nemesis opposite Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson) to the darker, fist-heavy SPL last year.
But the project closest to his heart today remains Dragon Tiger Gate, the film adaptation of Hong Kong's popular martial arts comic. It's probably the most important project he's undertaken in a career that stretches back to 1984, when he was given the lead role in Drunken Tai Chi by action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, when he was still a player on the make.
Promising uncompromisingly fierce action sequences built on physical derring-do rather than digital effects, Dragon Tiger Gate is marketed as a piece that is, as Yen writes in the film's production notes, 'based on true physics'; in addition to designing the harrowingly startling sequences, he's also the film's co-producer and, perhaps most importantly, its star.
Yen freely admits that Dragon Tiger Gate is made more to his ideals than to those of the director, Yip Wai-shun, who worked with the actor on SPL. 'I've taken the initiative for a lot of the films I've been involved in,' he says with a laugh.
Yen says he incessantly talked to Yip about his vision of what martial arts should be like. 'I don't think he really understood what I was on about, because his mindset on this is based on Hong Kong's traditional action films. In this sense, yes, I was directing him, by telling him what the trends are in this field,' he says.
Yen also decided how the scenes were to be lit and captured on film, and oversaw how the footage was edited. According to Yen, Yip - who made his name with the subtle drama of Bullets over Summer and Juliet in Love - would be entrusted with the 'quieter' scenes, but 'once the action starts, I'd want to be in control'.
Given how the action never seems to stop during Dragon Tiger Gate - it's nearly 90 minutes of fisticuffs and flying bodies in a wide array of settings, from a purpose-built Japanese restaurant to the cavernous palace of the film's masked devil incarnate, Shibumi - Yen is apparently the film's director in all but name.
In fact, Yen was originally asked to direct when the film's major financial backer, Mandarin Film's Raymond Wong Pak-ming, approached him four years ago. The project was shelved because of Yen's hectic schedule, but was finally revived when Wong and his fellow producer, Nansun Shi, gave him a rough draft of the film's screenplay while he was wrapping up his work on Seven Swords - a film produced by Mandarin Films and directed by Shi's husband, Tsui Hark.
Rather than sitting in the director's chair, however, Yen opted to sign on as action director and actor. 'I love being a director, but I wouldn't want to invest too much time on the overall scheme of things,' he says.
He speaks from experience: his most recent spell was at the helm of the farcical Protege de la Rose Noire in 2004. 'I was just helping out a friend - it was just silly comedy,' Yen says, with visible unease.
He's more comfortable talking about the trio of overwrought, over-the-top action films he directed in 1997 and 1998 - The Legend of the Wolf, Ballistic Kiss and Shanghai Affairs, a remake of Bruce Lee's Big Boss.
'I was already playing about with camera speed and that kind of thing in The Legend of the Wolf,' he says.
But such experiments would now distract him from his mission: to ground the action film genre with a gritty, gravity-bound realism that's been replaced, throughout the past decade, by what he sees as high-wire fantasy and computer-generated imagery (CGI).
'The success of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero has led to the excessive use of wire work - I hear of people in the US chiding such fare as being 'wire fu' rather than kung fu,' says Yen. 'And then some critics are now calling it 'wire fool' stuff. People were saying, what are you guys doing?' The same goes for the dependence on digital effects. 'Audiences could just feel how unreal it all is - it implies a lack of sincerity and an unwillingness to make a frank representation of yourself. I think the overuse of CGI is as bad as overacting actors.'
Yen's fury over what he sees as 'a crisis' explains the earnestness that drives Dragon Tiger Gate, in which comic relief and meandering melodrama are nearly non-existent. The film is a simple story of warring brothers and revenge. Yen and Nicholas Tse Ting-fung are Dragon and Tiger, siblings of the titular martial arts faction who are separated at birth and later end up serving different camps.
The revenge part comes in when the two brothers and a friend, played by Shawn Yue Man-lok, avenge the murder of Ma Kun, Dragon's former boss and the father of Tiger's love interest. The storyline is spiced up with plenty of meticulously choreographed action sequences.
Although Yen carries the action with ease, it was a challenge to mould Tse and Yue into the fighting machines they portray in the film. True to his near-puritan approach, Yen made the pair do as much of the work as they could themselves - which means Tse being put through painstaking drills, and Yue spending days practising his skills on nunchakus.
'The most difficult thing here is to combine real fighting skills with pop-idol actors,' he says. 'I've made them live up to the demands people would have on professional martial arts actors. OK, so they'll never become [Thai action star] Tony Jaa, it's impossible to make high-flying fighters in such a short time - but I'm confident I've managed to make them deliver remarkable performances by teaching them on set and giving them enough psychological counselling.'
Tse and Yue have certainly overcome Yen's initial doubts by delivering resolute performances - the asthmatic Yue even said earlier this year how he's prepared for more action roles in the future - but their achievements didn't help dissipate Yen's pessimism towards the fortunes of Hong Kong action films.
The way Jacky Wu Jing failed to set the scene aflame with his breathtaking acrobatics in SPL - which, despite winning Yen the best action design award at this year's Hong Kong Film Awards, took in just $6.91 million at the box office - is proof of the decline in the genre.
'How many martial arts films get to be produced in Hong Kong these days? Only with new films do we get new blood in the field, but it's apparent nobody's interested in martial arts films,' he says.
Opportunities, Yen says in frustration, now lie on foreign shores. He says it will be American filmmakers who carry the torch for the genre. 'Kung fu is no longer just a Chinese thing - it's gone international,' he says. 'In the past they might just see martial arts as this thing concealed in mysterious Oriental exotica, in stuff like The Karate Kid, but these days things are much more transparent and everybody can do it.'
It's worlds away from Yen's teenage years in the US, when his sporting abilities were met with mirth and bemusement. Martial arts have certainly helped him overcome the racism he encountered there, he says.
'As part of an ethnic minority, one naturally learns how to treasure and examine your own culture,' says Yen.
'When you are out on the street it's apparent that you're different - everybody's white when I'm yellow-skinned. Martial arts makes you proud of your own roots - and that's why I fell for it, I guess.'
With producers lining up for his services, Yen is certainly not the odd man out any more.
Dragon Tiger Gate opens on Thursday