Donnie Yen talks about gangster epic Chasing the Dragon and reuniting with Wong Jing for Enter the Fat Dragon

The Hong Kong-based star of the Ip Man series talks about starring with Andy Lau in Chasing The Dragon, breaking new ground as an actor and how he will rejoin Wong Jing to film the upcoming Enter the Fat Dragon

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2017, 6:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 September, 2017, 8:10pm

It would not be an overstatement to say that Donnie Yen Ji-dan is having the time of his life. In the less than two years since Ip Man 3 (2015) became a major hit in China, the Hong Kong-based actor has also tasted Hollywood stardom with eye-catching roles in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and xXx: Return of Xander Cage .

With leading parts in Ip Man 4 and the Hollywood project Sleeping Dogs on the horizon, Yen somehow makes the most offbeat decisions: to star in a film (Chasing the Dragon) by Wong Jing – once the godfather of Chinese gambling films and now a highly divisive figure due to both his patchy film output and provocative political statements – and quickly sign on for another (Enter the Fat Dragon).

Chasing the Dragon is the first formal collaboration with Wong as the director and me as the star,” says Yen, 54, during an interview with the Post in mid-September.

For the record, Yen did make a cameo appearance in Wong’s 1995 film, The Saint of Gamblers; in the following year, Yen co-starred with Chingmy Yau Suk-ching and Francis Ng Chun-yu in Satan Returns, a strange little horror film scripted and produced by Wong that time has mercifully forgotten. “It’s a cult film,” says Wong. “It doesn’t really count.”

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Chasing the Dragon is a different story. A mega budget production which pits Yen against another superstar, Andy Lau Tak-wah, for the first time, the 1960s and ’70s-set gangster epic is a dual portrait of two true-life figures: drug dealer Crippled Ho (originally Ng Sik-ho), subject of the blockbuster To Be Number One, winner of best picture at the 1992 Hong Kong Film Awards; and corrupt police officer Lee Rock (originally Lui Lok), previously played by Lau in two 1991 films.

According to Wong, 62, who says he was first impressed by Yen’s range when the actor played antagonistic roles in a pair of 1992 releases (Once Upon a Time in China II and New Dragon Gate Inn), Chasing the Dragon came together when he flew with an expert in triad culture to pitch the story to Yen in Toronto. The trio ended up having a discussion that lasted for days.

The way Yen recalls it instead brings up his months of hesitation before accepting the part. “It’s not just about playing a bad guy or not,” he says of Crippled Ho, who was portrayed in a 1991 Hong Kong classic by Yen’s close friend and fellow actor Ray Lui Leung-wai as a larger-than-life criminal – partly modelled after Marlon Brando’s character in The Godfather.

“I have my own vision when it comes to picking characters,” says Yen. “I hope to bring positive energy. I’m a family man. Ip Man is a good example. I don’t mind playing antagonists – I did that in New Dragon Gate Inn and Once Upon a Time in China II – but those are period films. In martial arts films, you can fly around and subvert [natural order].

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“But to play a real person – there’s always a chance that my children will be asked by their classmates, ‘Why is your dad playing such a character?’ After all, I’ve got so many young fans from Star Wars. I thought for a long time and finally decided that, as an actor, if you don’t have a strong passion [for acting], you wouldn’t have lasted long in this business. … You should keep striving to evolve.”

To do that, Yen reckons he has to break new ground, not only as an action star, but as an actor in general. “For me to take up a part like [Crippled Ho], if I succeed, it wouldn’t just bring personal satisfaction, but it would also establish a new benchmark for action actors. Jet Li did that with [Peter Chan Ho-sun’s] The Warlords (2007), and he even took the best actor prize [at the Hong Kong Film Awards] for it.”

During the filming of Chasing the Dragon, Yen had to learn a Chaozhou accent and wear special make-up every day to look like a Chaozhou native. For those familiar with the Chinese film industry, however, Yen’s preparation might appear a smaller challenge than the need to find a way to satisfy China's censors with a story glorifying two immoral leads – a criminal mastermind and a corrupt police sergeant – at the same time.

Wong admits that he turned the narrative around by making the British colonial government the true villain. “You just have to start with the right objective,” says the writer-director. “We’re showing how the British colonial powers didn’t do anything good for Hongkongers. They were only colluding for bribes. Of course, not all of them did that, but maybe 70 to 80 per cent did.”

Yen adds: “For Chinese to live in a world governed by white people, this is something that I’ve experienced first-hand. This film is set in the 1960s and ’70s, when I was living in the US. I felt quite clearly about how the Chinese [were bullied] when they lived in white people’s society. It was real.”

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While Yen says he will only play Crippled Ho once, his next Hollywood venture will, incidentally, return him to the Hong Kong’s criminal underworld – albeit, hopefully, minus the British villains. In the adaptation of the video game Sleeping Dogs, which is currently in the scriptwriting stage, he will once again traverse a milieu populated by gangsters and undercover police.

“But that world is a bit more nihilistic,” Yen says, downplaying any real-life connection to the story of Sleeping Dogs. “After all, films are entertainment [instead of factual accounts]. Even the most successful gangster films in the US, like Godfather and Goodfellas, are inspired [by real events and not based on them]. If you want the truth, you should make a documentary instead.”

Yen says he will be keeping his focus on contemporary action films for the next two years. Apart from Sleeping Dogs, for which he is also a co-producer alongside Fast and Furious ’ Neal Moritz, Yen will soon be teaming up with Wong Jing once more to star in the action comedy Enter the Fat Dragon, which will see him fight crimes in a fat suit. Shooting will start by the end of 2017, “if all goes well”, says Wong.

Contrary to popular belief, the filmmaker confirms that his story is “not at all” a remake of the 1978 Sammo Hung Kam-bo vehicle of the same title. In the new film, Yen will play a great fighter who becomes overweight as a consequence of emotional issues, before lending his martial arts prowess to an unlikely career in crimebusting. “It will be a film for entertainment,” says Yen.

“The title doesn’t really matter,” says Wong. “Many film titles could be recycled for new projects. A True Mob Story (1998), which I made with Andy Lau, also shared the Chinese title of the Brandon Lee film Legacy of Rage (1986).”

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“And they made three SPL films with unrelated stories,” adds Yen with a laugh, referring to the Wilson Ip Wai-shun action series which partly contributed to his rise to stardom with its first instalment in 2005. “They just kept using that name.”

Chasing the Dragon opens on September 28

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