NYAFF 2012 Interview: Action Icon Donnie Yen

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
This past weekend in New York Donnie Yen, a man that should need no introduction around these parts, attended a slew of screenings at the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival where he was a special guest. Amidst all this maddening cool-o-rama, our correspondent, The Lady Miz Diva, was able to sit down for a chat with the celluloid embodiment of Ip Man himself. This interview is being cross published on Diva's own website The Diva Review.

The Lady Miz Diva:  Welcome to New York.

 
Donnie Yen:  Thank you!
 
LMD:  It's been years since you've visited the city.  What's taken you so long to come back?
 
DY:  Well, it's just the right timing, you know? I was here six or seven years ago at some sort of XO Whiskey achievement award.  Not a drinking achievement; it was sponsored by them.  And then I always wanted to come here; I've always been a big fan of being in New York.  It's just my time slot.  I was invited several years ago by the New York Asian Film Festival, last year and the year before, but unfortunately, I just couldn't make it.  But this year was perfect; when they approached me this is the only time slot I have and I brought my wife over and it's kind of taking a little time off to spend time with my wife and family because I'm usually on the road working all the time.
 
LMD:  As your fans know, you were trained from the time you were a small child by your mother, Mark Bow-Sim, who is a martial arts master.  Was there any possibility of your having a career in anything other than martial arts?
 
DY:  Actually, I've been very fortunate for the past few years. I've been offered many, many roles other than straight-up action.  From the success of Ip Man, I think, I just changed -- at least in Asia -- how they look at action actors.  I just finished a romantic lead with no action, with Michelle Chen, who was just here at the festival! {Laughs}  My movie with her just wrapped.  I did several comedies last year and the year before.
 
LMD:  The path of your career is incredible.  You started off as a competitive martial artist, then in the eighties you did stunt work in movies and moved up to villain roles, and over the last decade you've become a huge action hero and are about to play lead in a romance.  When do you feel your career changed?  What was the turning point?
 
DY:  Well, you know, it's hard to summarise, especially when I've been in the industry for thirty years.  I actually started off having no intention at all to be in the film industry.  I was discovered by the very famous action choreographer, Yuen Woo-Ping, during the early eighties.  I did a couple of leading roles under his supervision.  Then, my career was going up and down, up and down, I did TV work.  Then in the early nineties, I played the bad guys a couple of times in Jet Li's films and that kind of regained the attention of the audience, right?  But just up and downs.  I did some American movies here and there.  I was working in America for a couple of years and I went back {to Hong Kong} and they asked me to action choreograph, which was very fortunate, I won most of the action choreographer's awards.  So, I said, 'Why don't you start focusing on acting again?' and then Sha Po Lang came and then it was like, 'Donnie is still a player in the game.'  There were a lot of fans after that and then Ip Man came.  Ip Man definitely just changed everything.  It was just so influential when the film came out.  It was kind of like when you first saw Rocky.  It was like that type of success.
 
LMD:  Which was the bigger challenge with Ip Man?  Was crafting this character who was a real person, or was adhering to his style of fighting more difficult?
 
DY:  I think seven or eight years ago, I began to understand that in order for me to elevate as an actor -- cos I've done all the action movies, different roles, right? -- for me to really expand my career and the possibilities, I have to focus on the acting.  A lot of action actors claim they recognise {that}, but once they go back to their comfortable environment, they tend to just take that for granted; being an actor and not realising at the end of the day you just have to be really grounded and focus on the acting.  So, six or seven years ago, I told myself that to really elevate, I have to really do a lot of research on acting.  So I spent a lot of time doing that; studying different films.

When I was doing this movie called An Empress and the Warriors -- that was after Flash Point and I was enjoying already the success of SPL and Flash Point -- I was on to another film in Beijing; the producer in Hong Kong, we were prepping to do another kind of modern, hip action movie, kind of like a Chinese James Bond, but that project was on hold when he called and he said, "Let's do Ip Man."  I paused for five seconds.  I'll share this story with you; this character was brought to me back in 1996 or 1997, right?  It was a project by a director called Jeff Lau, partner of Wong Kar-Wai.  Originally, I was approached to play Ip Man and Stephen Chow was supposed to play Bruce Lee.  Some audiences know in Asia {know this}, most likely very few people in the West know this back story.  So I signed the contract and literally I got a deposit from that and the film got cancelled.  I moved on the do other films and a few years later I read that Wong Kar-Wai's going to do Ip Man with Tony Leung.  And then back to getting that call, this is years later, I paused for five seconds, I said, "Wait a minute, isn't Wong Kar-Wai doing it?"  So, the producer said, "No, we don't have to clear it; we have the blessing from the son of Ip Man," he was totally cool.  So I said maybe it was destiny that I was to play Ip Man.  Then I started doing research on Ip, understanding.  At that time I'd already told myself that I want to be the greatest actor as I can be, doing reading, researching and crafting, understanding Ip Man.  How am I going to play Ip Man?  How can I make it different?
 
LMD:  You are famous for your action choreography, but you are also known for your collaborations with fight choreographers who've been working practically since before you were born.  I interviewed Sammo Hung, who said about you, "He's a very good action star and whenever we create the fights, he's very easy to handle.  We have a very good time.  Mostly when we fight, it's very easy for us.  I love to play with Donnie Yen; he's the best to play with since Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao."  How do you approach working with someone like Sammo or Yuen Woo-Ping or Ching Siu-Tung when you have such an extensive martial arts background, yourself?
 
DY:  Well, you try to listen.  Try to stay as subjective as possible.  Try to see what they have in their mind and see what they do with you and wait and see.  And having that trust in my seniors.  At times when I really need to add a few extra - spice it up a little bit - then I speak up and try to communicate in a very respectful way.  And also being in the action industry and being in the Chinese culture, we already automatically have that elderly respect.  He is older than me and also has been a senior for so many years, so we automatically have that respect.  I call him Big Brother.  I call him Mr. Hung.  Knowing that just because I have established on my own, but when you step on to that set, you have to turn everything down and just be the student, and I did just that.  Very few times I expressed doubts or questions.  I just try to empty my mind and see where he takes me.  Then I try to share my little ideas in a very diplomatic way.
 
But I'll tell you a secret; how to diplomatically change things without getting into questioning his way.  If he choreographs something, and I know the choreography is great, but I want to make it better; I'll change it while we're shooting it without him noticing it.
 
LMD:  That is a big secret!
 
DY: {Laughs}
 
LMD:  You are the perfect person to ask about the current state of the Hong Kong action film.  Where is the place for the modern, dark, edgy HK action film like Sha Po Lang?  It feels very much like there a resurgence of classic Chinese themes and period films that is dominating the action genre.
 
DY:  Yeah, you know, I do see it.  I think it's several reasons: One, simply because everyone is into co-production with China and there's a lot of censorship.  You can't do sensitive subjects.  Usually when you do modern action movies, it involves police corruption and crimes; subjects where it's very sensitive in China, so a lot of people try to avoid it.  'Let's do a period film, where you're not challenging the bureaucracy,' right?  And if you do make a modern film with sensitive subjects, a lot of these edgy elements are being taken out to please the censorship, you know?  So, you really don't get the full taste of it as if it was the nineties or eighties; the pure, Hong Kong contemporary hardcore action films.  SPL was shot many years ago, and it was not a co-production, and it did not get released in China.  It really didn't.  And I would not imagine that film would have a mass general release, because the violence elements and the sensitive elements, you know?  Still, there are a lot of hardcore followers despite that.
 
Secondly, because of the younger generation; they don't seek career opportunities in the industry, anymore.  Unlike in the eighties and seventies, when a lot of martial artists, if they wanted to get into the film business, they could do action movies, but right now the kids are doing what?  Singing.  American Idol.  If they wanted to be in the entertainment business, they wouldn't go this way; they would be a singer or something else in the industry.  That's pretty tough, but I think I'm maybe the only one, or maybe one of a handful, one or two persons who continue to believe and try come out with these films.  I just finished a film that's kind of like SPL, Dut Shu Sun Fun {Special Identity}. Something like that, I try to push a little bit, I try to cross the line or push the envelope a little bit, hopefully.  I do as much as I can.
 
~ The Lady Miz Diva
July 7th, 2012
 
 
Bonus question from Donnie's SPL Q&A:
 
LMD:  Wilson Yip first directed you in Sha Po Lang and you went on to work together in hits like Flash Point and both Ip Man films.  What is it about working with him that inspires you to such great heights?
 
DY:  Well, I've known Wilson for a long time.  From the early nineties I knew of him, I've seen him work, but we never really had the opportunity to work together until we did SPL.  You know what's really funny about his personality and my personality is we're very different people, but when we work together we have this mutual understanding.  Wilson is a very shy guy, right?  He doesn't really talk too much on set, he just goes to you and says, "You know what I mean, right?"  I mean, this is how he talks with actors, he doesn't explain anything.  I remember at the beginning, I would ask him a question and have him break it down, he would kind of just look away and say, "Hmm, I dunno,"  You would say, "Does that make sense?"  He would say, "Hmm, I dunno." Or like, "Why are you doing this like this?" "Hmm, I think it's pretty cool," but he didn't say a clear answer.  But then later on, we gained such a close relationship, that I understood exactly what he'd mean, and vice versa, we understand each other really well on the set.  Other than that, you know, he's the quiet guy and I watch Soul Train.  We are talking about doing Ip Man 3, by the way.
 
From Donnie's Wuxia Q&A:
 
LMD: You caused quite a stir when the New York Times reported that you intend to retire at age 50.  Would you like to elaborate on that statement or take this opportunity to say that's a big lie?
 
DY:  Big lie!  No, I did say that, but luckily, I'm 28.


Photo courtesy of Chun Hei Cheung. 
 
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