Duelling identities

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 April, 2011, 12:00am

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An actor's market value is determined not so much by the work he does but by what he can afford to turn down - so goes a film industry maxim. If that's the case, Donnie Yen Ji-dan is at the top of his game.

The actor, who reportedly demands a seven-digit figure per movie, says he's rejected a lot of offers during the past month. And it's all to spend more time with his family, especially his two young children.

It has been a frenetic year for Yen. Since completing The Lost Bladesman early last year, he has starred in two other movies: Peter Chan Ho-sun's martial arts epic Wu Xia, which premieres at Cannes next month, and The Monkey King, Soi Cheang Pou-soi's 3-D version of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West; the film is slated for release in May next year.

'I wasn't that interested in taking part in The Lost Bladesman in the first place,' says the 47-year-old actor. 'I've played so many of these period drama characters before ... but the investors kept coming back to me. So I said if they could get Alan Mak Siu-fai and Felix Chong Man-keung to direct the film, I would do it - they hadn't made period dramas before and could bring a fresh perspective.'

Mak and Chong are best known for their collaborations on taut modern-day thrillers such as Infernal Affairs and Overheard. While retaining the essentials of a costumed martial arts film, the pair's take on The Lost Bladesman puts a new spin on traditional notions such as loyalty and deference, with the protagonist (Guan Yuchang, played by Yen) perplexed by how his ideals are becoming obsolete in a society that warlord Cao Cao (Jiang Wen) describes as being 'ruled by wolves'.

Yen has already surprised many by appearing in the Lunar New Year comedy All's Well Ends Well 2011. In a casting coup, he was given the role of a subdued cosmetician struggling to win the affections of a flamboyant wannabe novelist. His nuanced turn lends heart to what is essentially a gag-fest and shows he is more than just a merchant of drop kicks and fiery fisticuffs. It's part of Yen's plan to establish himself as a bona fide actor rather than be pigeon-holed as an action hero.

'If you were to ask me 20 years ago, I wouldn't have been able to tell you what acting was,' he laughs. 'Back then, I was in the first part of my career, a time when I was trying to establish Donnie Yen as a brand in action films. I think it's only the during the past five or six years, maybe, that I finally began developing my acting skills - and the watershed was, of course, Ip Man.'

Working with director Wilson Yip Wai-shun on the 2008 biopic of the martial arts master, Yen delivered a critically acclaimed performance as a mild-mannered family man defined more by his humility and forbearance than his fighting skills. The film transformed Yen from the preening, one-dimensional fighting machines he had played to near perfection since returning from Boston to begin his television and film career in Hong Kong in the early 1980s into a star.

'That film gave Donnie Yen a place in Hong Kong cinema,' he says. 'Every successful actor can boast of at least one role he's best remembered for - and people now relate Ip Man to me, so I guess I didn't do too bad a job. It allowed audiences to know my potential, and that stood me in great stead in broadening my roles.

'I could have done 10 films like Ip Man after that, but I didn't. Instead I've tried to be more selective in looking for roles that would subvert the expectations many have of me. That's why I did The Monkey King, Wu Xia and All's Well.

'I hope this can change what I see as public misconception of action-film actors,' he continues.

'People always assume we don't know anything except to beat the hell out of people in films. That doesn't work any more - and films like Ip Man allow viewers to immerse themselves in the story, with the action scenes just serving as a complement to the narrative.

'After all, we're just pretending to be beating people to death - it's not like we're actually killing people.' The young Yen was told off for being too realistic in his fight scenes.

'I remember my master [action choreographer] Yuen Woo-ping brought me to a film set to watch a shoot,' he says. 'I was asking him why everything was so ... slow. Why couldn't they fight faster? Why didn't they really smack each other?'

Yen was using as a yardstick the martial arts he grew up with while studying with his mother, martial arts guru Mark Bow-sim, in the US.

'I only discovered later it's not exactly like that - filmmaking deploys another language, which is very different from what we martial artists know,' he says.

After working as a stuntman in Yuen's films, such as Shaolin Drunkard, Yen landed his first proper role in 1984 with Drunken Tai Chi. The next year, he starred in Mismatched Couples, which combined martial arts, break-dancing and romantic comedy.

But Yen decided to return to the US, saying he couldn't get used to the work ethos of Hong Kong's film industry. A few years later, he returned to join TVB's training course for artistes. Yen joined Yuen again to play the lead and choreograph action scenes for Tiger Cage (1988) and its 1990 sequel.

His performances as villainous Qing dynasty officials in Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China II (1992) and New Dragon Gate Inn (1992) were breakthroughs. But Yen spent the subsequent decade mired in action movies that lacked characterisation and atmosphere.

When Harvey Weinstein came calling, it seemed that Yen might carve out a career in Hollywood.

'I went there with an idea of what I wanted to do,' Yen recalls (he starred in and directed action scenes for minor Hollywood fare such as Blade II). 'But it's actually much more difficult than I imagined as a Chinese actor in a Western market ... nobody could claim Jet Li's films in Hollywood were more influential than the ones he did here.'

The new millennium didn't start well for Yen, and he only returned to the fore in 2005 with SPL, a brutal police drama. It heralded the beginning of his collaboration with Yip, which eventually yielded Dragon Tiger Gate, Flash Point and the two Ip Man films. Yen's role as a dishevelled, heartbroken ghost-hunter in Gordon Chan Ka-seung's Painted Skin served as a harbinger of his transformation.

'People watched that film and said Donnie Yen looked quite interesting here - but it was Ip Man which really hit the nail and made people sit up and take notice of my acting,' he says.

Yen says he wants to return to some cracking physical work during his summer sabbatical.

'I want to get to grips with the mixed martial arts I abandoned when I began making Ip Man - and that was nearly five years ago,' he says. 'That's what suits me best.'

The Lost Bladesman opens today