FOR THE NEARLY three decades since his debut in Yuen Woo-ping's Drunken Tai Chi (1984), Donnie Yen Ji-dan had been an excellent martial artist who somehow couldn't get his big break on the silver screen. It wasn't until the unprecedented success of the two Ip Man movies, released in 2008 and 2010, that the veteran actor suddenly found himself being propelled, however belatedly, to such lofty heights he appears obliged these days to emphasise his humility at every opportunity.
That's what happens towards the end of this interview with Yen, when I throw out a fairly stock question that most journalists would ask to wrap things up: how are your upcoming film projects shaping up?
"The truth is that every film I made has been a very tough experience for me," says the action movie superstar, who turned 50 in July. "I hope the audience can see the hardship I endured and not just the halo on me. The career path of Yen Ji-dan is not as smooth as people might imagine. They don't know the time when I had only HK$100 in the bank."
Not quite the answer I expect, but revealing all the same: it turns out this personal tale is one that Yen has been propagating lately. He seems to want to emphasise that he is just like you and me, and not the egomaniac who cares only about his own success that the local media and his professional peers have sometimes accused him of being. And certainly not "Universe's Strongest" - the nickname that the popular press has mockingly bestowed on him and one that, if you say to his face, will still guarantee a cold stare in response.
As if having a point to prove, Yen is flat-out calling his recently established production company Superhero Films, presumably out of gratitude for those who have made his new-found stardom possible.
"You may wonder if I'm going to make superhero films, but, no, it's actually a metaphor," he says.
The company's first project, the Derek Kwok Tsz-kin-directed Kowloon Walled City, is expected to start shooting next year. "It's because I think filmmaking is a collective effort. Every department is a superhero in its own right - including the tea lady. From the lighting staff and cinematographers to the screenwriters, everyone is a superhero to me."
Then again, none of this should take away the fact that Yen is, quite simply, the last action hero who's flying the flag for Chinese martial arts cinema today.
We're sitting in the South China Morning Post's photo studio on a Sunday in early October to talk about his new film, Special ID.
While looking brutally impressive in its various promotional trailers, the crime thriller represents Yen's much-anticipated return to his mixed martial arts (MMA) expertise since his bone-crunching outings in S.P.L. (2005 ) and Flash Point (2007).
Setting out to partially channel Chow Yun-fat's character in City on Fire (1987), Yen plays a potty-mouthed, chain-smoking and tattoo-flashing undercover cop who must navigate through the web of violence woven by triads and police forces from both Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Amid the street brawls and car chases, audiences will also be treated to a deadly fight between the pair of friends-turned-enemies played by Yen and Andy On Chi-kit.
However, recent goings-on at work haven't been kind to Yen. What he's telling me now about his film, at times with a frankness that belies his stoic demeanour, can be summarised into two sentences. The action choreography of Special ID is a "comprehensive upgrade" to his previous efforts that merges MMA with a diversity of military and street-fighting styles to exhilarating effect. Secondly, the film's production came across as a laborious process of balancing the efforts of the "predominantly Hong Kong cast and crew" and the "wishes and demands of the mainland Chinese investors".
Originally attached as a co-producer with Jackie Chan (who subsequently pulled out due to scheduling conflicts), Yen ended up as the project's lead actor, action director and producer, the last role taken up on a volunteer basis. "Every day I faced the challenge of maintaining the quality of this movie while catering to the purposes of the different parties in making it," Yen says.
The actor will return unprompted to that last theme several more times in our 45-minute conversation in varying but always cryptically suggestive ways - using such phrases as "the mainland company's benefits", "the cultural differences between the two territories" and "the many interpersonal and everyday operational issues".
Indeed, according to Yen, Special ID began as a bit of a mess. From the moment he got on board, more than 100 people had committed to the project, shooting locations were booked and money was already being spent - which meant that filming was obliged to begin despite the small inconvenience of not having a screenplay. "That's not a big deal in Hong Kong. Wong Kar-wai also needed five years to come up with a story," says Yen, before adding at another point: "But myself, I couldn't afford to spend five years on a film."
With the friendly assistance of screenwriter Szeto Kam-yuen, who previously collaborated with Yen on both S.P.L. and Flash Point but, sadly, died from cancer last October, the actor-producer eventually came up with a simple, workable story that, if not nearly breaking new ground in Hong Kong's well-established tradition of cops and robbers movies, has at least presented Yen with the requisite platform to do the ferocious ass-whooping that he does so well.
"Of course, my character is a great fighter; otherwise, they wouldn't have asked me to play the role," Yen says. "Fighting is definitely my strongest suit. I've been making action films for over 30 years. I've made many films with different backgrounds in a vast diversity of action styles, but, at the end of the day, contemporary action movies are still my favourite."
The awareness of the MMA style has recently reached new heights with the boxing drama Unbeatable, starring Nick Cheung Ka-fai, which has attracted widespread critical acclaim and taken in more than HK$40 million at the Hong Kong box office alone. Yen is happy for that film's success, but is also quick to stress his pioneering role in introducing the fighting style to local audiences.
"When I promoted MMA with my films S.P.L. and Flash Point, Hong Kong audiences were not so familiar with it. In fact, many years ago - even before S.P.L. - I had already introduced elements of MMA into the character Gillian [Chung Yan-tung] played in The Twins Effect," says Yen, referring to the 2003 teen adventure comedy that earned him the best action choreography prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards and Taipei's Golden Horse Film Festival.
"With S.P.L. and Flash Point, I think I've been quite successful in establishing the popularity of MMA in movies," he says. "Not only are those two films popular in Hong Kong, but many filmmakers in the world have also recognised my" - Yen pauses to look for a modest expression - "well, if I have to put it bluntly, then it's my contribution. You can say I'm introducing it [to the movie world]."
For now, however, Yen isn't so much looking for world domination as he is trying to spend more time with his wife and children - a major factor behind his decision to set up Superhero Films in Hong Kong. "I just think, with a production company that I head, I can perhaps make films on the subjects I like," he says, though he concedes that's difficult in the movie business.
"Sometimes when you're invited by your friends, would you really coolly turn them down? I have so many friends. And then there are the many investors out there who come to me and say" - he adopts a comically gentle tone - "'Hey, Donnie, would you care to take part in our movie?' Then I'd just go and make the film, even if it might not be a project that I liked very much."
And what about the sequel to that one martial arts biopic he's most associated with?
"I'll leave that to fate, but I'll definitely play Ip Man again," says Yen of his now-classic portrayal of the Wing Chun legend. "I won't be doing it any time soon, though, because there are so many Ip Man [movies] around. You are Ip Man! He is Ip Man! Everyone is Ip Man! Even the audience is getting bored at the moment."
Special ID opens on October 18