Donnie Yen talks about the challenges of his latest role in ‘The Monkey King’
Action icon Donnie Yen suffered for his art under complex face make-up in big-budget epic ‘The Monkey King’
Being both the lead actor and action director of a movie is par for the course for Donnie Yen Ji-dan. After all, the action superstar has appeared in some 60 films and has been the action director on about 20 – many of which he also starred in.
But Yen says doing double duty on his latest film, HK$600 million fantasy epic The Monkey King, took things to a whole new level.
“The Monkey King represents the most enormous challenge of my whole career. There were so many things going on on a daily basis,” says Yen, 50.
Long before stepping onto the set of this highly anticipated Lunar New Year movie, Yen had already been preparing for his roles in front of, and behind, the camera.
“This is a project I started working on a couple of years ago,” he says.
“The reason it’s taken so long is because there’s an enormous amount of post-production involved. You can tell that this is an immense film. It’s a very ambitious movie not only for the Asian film industry but any industry, a very daring and challenging project.”
The Monkey King tells the story of the origin of the legendary character from Ming Dynasty poet-novelist Wu Chengen’s Journey to the West.
“In the past, there were many filmmakers – Chinese as well as Western – who wanted to make The Monkey King,” says Yen. “But I think those were more thoughts without real action behind them – because this film requires a lot of imagination and knowledge of historical literature. Plus, it has only become possible to achieve it with recent technological advances. Ten years ago, this type of film and setting would have been impossible.”
It has finally come to fruition with Soi Cheang Pou-soi directing.
Among the notable films where Yen has worn the hats of action director and star are Wilson Yip Waishun’s SPL (2005) and Flash Point (2007), and Peter Chan Ho-sun’s Wu Xia (2011).
For The Monkey King Yen says he had to respect the conventional parameters of the legendary story when planning the action scenes.
“The world involved in the story is so imaginative and yet it has to be within the frame of the original literature,” he says. “As a Chinese person, I don’t want to create something that is outside the expectations of what the audience wants from Journey to the West. Basically, the Monkey King cannot fight Godzilla, for example, [because] it’s not in the original story.”
While the story of Sun Wukong the Monkey King dates back to the 16th century, the filming techniques used on this movie were cutting edge.
For a lot of the people working on this production, “that was the first time working with 3-D – true 3-D – and in fact, the team that came to help us was the team that created 3-D”, says Yen.
“I was working with a brand new set-up and camera equipment that was very heavy. So I had to make adjustments to the action scenes with such a big camera.” Yen estimates that he spent a total of four months working on set for the film. While he would have preferred to have spent the majority of that time in front of the camera or working out moves with the other cast members (including Aaron Kwok Fu-shing as the Buffalo Demon King, and Chow Yun-fat as the Jade Emperor), he ended up spending a lot of time being transformed into the very simianlooking Sun Wukong.
“The make-up was so delicate and complicated. It wasn’t just one [latex piece] like those Halloween masks you can buy. It took specialists – often four people – five hours a day to glue it onto my face, piece by piece. Forehead, nose, chin, you name it. Sometimes I would have to wear coloured contact lenses, and then there’s the monkey’s teeth, which caused problems with eating and drinking. I had to drink through a straw,” Yen says.
“Five hours to put it on, one hour to take it off – that’s every single day, a total of up to 1,000 hours sitting on a couch being made up.
“I was given only six hours a day maximum for shooting. Because of the chemicals they put on my skin, anything more than six hours would be damaging to my skin.
“The first few days, I wondered how I could last doing this. Of course, I was filled with joy when I finally finished having to do it. It’s a great challenge for any actor. “ Besides the physical burden, Yen had to learn how to express himself under all that make-up. “The first two, three weeks [of shooting], I was adjusting to having all this stuff on my face and trying to gain control of my expressions. At the beginning, I had problems with the accuracy of a smile, for example – I had to use more strength than I normally would. But if I used too much, the expression would be over-exaggerated. So it took me a few weeks just to get the facial expressions down correctly,” he says.
After he had mastered that, Yen then had to figure out Sun Wukong’s body movements. “I spent months prepping – thinking about the character, doing lots of research and analysing how to play the Monkey King. It’s not just adjusting to the muscular control, I was trying to grasp the accuracy of how I act. I would review it every single day. It took me about two or three weeks to really get the role down and feel comfortable playing the character.”
Ultimately though, Yen decided that it was all worth it, because the experience will contribute to his goal of becoming a great thespian. “I wanted to elevate my filmmaking, to become a better actor. And to become a better actor, you need to have more varied experiences,” he says.
“I’ve been an action person for 21 years. I believe that I’ve proven myself as an action actor. So where do you go from there? How do I elevate myself as an actor and how do I elevate action movies?
“As a personal ambition, I want to prove that even though I’m an action icon, it doesn’t stop me from becoming a great actor.”
"In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned …"
So began each episode of the Japanese-produced television series Saiyuki (Monkey), which introduced Journey to the West to the world through its initial run in the 1970s.
But the surprise was that it took so long. With its wild characters and scenes, and even wilder dubbing, the show brought Wu Chengen's layered tales to an international audience, who were intrigued by its action, monsters and by the lessons in morality at the story's core.
Asian audiences have, of course, long been in thrall to this masterpiece of ancient literature. The first cinematic retelling was the silent film The Cave of the Silken Web (1927). China's first animated feature film - 1941's Princess Iron Fan - also selected a portion of Wu's tome as its foundation and filmmakers have been dipping into its pages ever since.
Monster hits such as the Ho Meng-hua-directed Monkey Goes West (1966) - which was followed by three sequels - as well as the Jet Li vehicle The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) and Stephen Chow Sing-chi's two-part A Chinese Odyssey (1995) have kept the story alive for subsequent generations.
Chow, who has long professed his love for the story, returned for another crack with last year's Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, which made just over 1.24 billion yuan (HK$1.57 billion) at the mainland box office, making the film China's all-time biggest hit.
It would be no surprise to see the filmmaker revisit the Monkey King in the future and he said before his latest release that he had so far only scratched the surface of the story. "Every chapter of Journey to the West has enough going on to make more than one film, and there are so many chapters you could just keep making film after film," says Chow.
Meanwhile, TVB's classic Journey to the West series first hit screens in 1996 - making a superstar out of Dicky Cheung Wai-kin - and it still attracts a massive local audience with every re-run.
The story has also found an audience through different mediums in recent years. Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn and Chinese stage director Chen Shi-zheng joined forces for the acclaimed opera Monkey: Journey to the West in 2007. Gamers have not been forgotten, with Nickelodeon launching the multiplayer game Monkey Quest in 2011 - which had more than 10 million users.