Donnie Yen Teaches Action Star 101, Reveals Troubles With SPECIAL ID

We caught up with superstar Donnie Yen, who gave us the facts about his never-ending schedule of projects, some words of wisdom for wuxia wannabes and revealed his struggles with the film he came to premiere at the New York Chinese Film Festival, Special ID.


The Lady Miz Diva:  Welcome back to New York.  Can you tell us why you came to support the New York Chinese Film Festival?

Donnie Yen:  To be honest, this is my first time at this event.  At this time, I normally take advantage of events like this to take a break from my busy schedule and then travel with my wife.  That's the only time we have a long time.  We're both so busy with my work and my films and our family.  Actually, they invited me last year, but I was already committed to the New York Asian Film festival, so I attended that.  This time they asked months ago if I would be able to make it to this one and I had a couple of days off, so here I am.

I want to start with my last question first.  Would you please tell us about your upcoming films? It looks like you're attached to 80 different movies and I'd like to know what is accurate?

DY:  {Laughs} Monkey King, it's releasing on January 31st in China and the rest of Asia for Chinese New Year.

Is there a US release planned?

DY:  Yes, I actually spoke to the producer that's responsible for distributing the film in North America and he told me that he's looking at summer.

Iceman, I'm doing Iceman parts one and two.  The first one will come out on April 4th, I think.

Priority Run is in talks with Arclight, so I'm not sure, it's not committed yet.  Crouching Tiger is not committed, but there are a couple films that are in the can, like Iceman.  Part two should be in the can by the middle of December.  I finished with what used to be called Best of the Best.  It's now called Kill the Kung Fu Killer.  It's kind of confusing, right?  That's in the can, but I don't know when it's going to be released.  They don't want to have all these Donnie Yen films crashing on top of each other.  I'm in talks for another project based on a novel called Chinaman {Not sure if he meant Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, or China Men by Maxine Hong Kingston}.

Last year you mentioned your romantic lead debut in TOGETHER, with Michelle Chen.  You played a character called Mr. Cool.  Can you ever picture moving into straight drama films with no action?

DY:  Probably not.  I recognise myself as an action guy, right?  But I do want to change what has been for the longest time the conception of the action guy, because normally when you talk about action guys, it's involved with the seriousness of the acting side.  If you want to break it down to why, it's because for the longest time, action films can easily achieve a certain success, especially during the 70s and 80s - since Bruce Lee days - if you have a couple of good action scenes, then the film can be quite successful in the market. 

Nowadays, it's different; nowadays it requires the old school delivering a powerful performance from the actor, and it's something that I've been striving for the last six or seven years.   How do you move from there?  I've been in the business for so long that I constantly strive to elevate the standard, but by elevating the standard there must be an all-around element where you can bring up the standard besides just purely on the action.  I mean, there's so much you can with the action, so it's back to the basics of storytelling and characters and performance.

You're here to show SPECIAL ID.  I was surprised at the hard-hitting quality of the fighting.

DY:  Yeah, it's very hardcore.  I think in many areas of the film, it could be a lot more solid.  This film - I was also the producer - went through many, many problems, many obstacles.  It's very difficult to put a film together nowadays, especially with these types of subjects.  As China is a very powerful growing market for filmmaking and we're talking advantage of it; especially for someone like myself who was based in Hong Kong filmmaking, this type of material with violence and gangsters and undercover cops, it's quite sensitive in China.  The bright side is the policy is opening up.  There's quite a few swearing in Cantonese in this film and this is something that I thought that they would be cut out, but they embraced it.  It allows artists like myself to be artistic on that level and you can feel that's where the future is going.  But at the same time, there's a lot of areas where they can be more professional about it, they cut out a couple of scenes here and there.  I think the overall story would be a lot better if they didn't cut it out, particularly with the development between my character and my mother. 

See, that was the area where it didn't really make sense because everybody was asking, 'What's up with the mother?'  I'll tell you the backstory, I'll tell you the stuff that they cut out was she had a problem; she had depression.  So there's a scene where I'm having dinner and she's just crying hysterically and I say, "What's the matter? Whoever took advantage of you in the market, I'm gonna go and give them a whipping."  She says, "No, I don't know why I'm crying."  It's because my father left us and because of that it still comes back to her.  So I tell her "Why don't you hang out with me?" and they go to the bar.  That's why there's the scenes where they're drinking and he says, "I'm taking care of you. You think you've been taking care of me? I've been looking after you."  Those are the scenes that they cut out, so the development of the mother and son didn't make much sense.  So here and there I thought the whole movie overall could've be a lot more solid in terms of fully developing the characters.  That's the unfortunate thing, that's something I have to cope with.

Well, the fortunate thing in SPECIAL ID is the action.

DY:  The action is definitely out there, yeah.

Could you talk about designing the action for the film?

DY:  I always have a love for doing contemporary films like this.  I did Sha Po Lang, Flash Point.  To me, this is kind of the same style.  The past couple of years, the market requires me to do more of these period films, especially after the success of Ip Man.  But then, deep inside, I wanted to go back to Flash Point.  And I feel as an actor it provides me more of a freedom for creating a character, because you don't have to live up to these historical burdens.  When you play a period hero, you can't be free; there are certain expectations. 

So I went back to do Special ID and I said this is the area I wanted to be in, especially with the MMA style.  You know, there's a lot of MMA-style movies out there, right?  But I wanted to show them how to do an even more advanced way of doing the MMA in a contemporary film.  I know that Flash Point has established a benchmark for a lot of people; not only the action fans, but also within this whole MMA society.  I wanted to show that what I can do with Flash Point, I would do with Special ID and this type of fighting style.

Was there meant to be a fight between you and Collin Chou, who costars in SPECIAL ID?  I think a lot of fans hoped for a FLASH POINT rematch.

DY:  I invited Collin to... It was like this, I put the cast together at the last second.  Collin came.  There was supposed to be a fight between him and the girl in the toilet, right?  But then we had a discussion and he told me his concern that he felt that if he would end up fighting this fragile girl, that he would kind of lose face.  So I said, "Okay, I'll tell you what, I'll cut it out," so that's what I did.  As I was telling you, there was a lot of problems in the completion of this movie, so at the end of the day I wished it could've fully developed as I wanted it to.

Jing Tian is great as the female cop.  Her action scenes are quite convincing...

DY:  You'd be a lot more impressed if you'd seen her previous films.

Really?  Had she done other martial arts films?

DY:  Not at all! {Laughs} That's why I said you'd be even more impressed.

I asked Sammo Hung about his approach to working with ladies as a fight choreographer and he gave me a very interesting answer.  What is your approach to working with women in action?

DY:  Well, I have a way of shooting styles, of shooting actors.  I approach it very differently from maybe my mentors like Yuen Woo-ping and Sammo, all those masters of shooting action.  I approach it in a very scientific way.  I understand that you can't really turn an actor into a martial arts expert, even in years, never mind months or weeks, right?  So you gotta have a plan.  You gotta be realistic and at the same time be scientific about shooting a person like that; from understanding whether she has the potential.  How capable is she physically, and how many weeks I have before designing tailor-made - not only from choreography - to how do you shoot her on a shot-by-shot basis and making adjustments?  When I work with her, it's like I'm her cornerman; that I have to work with her shot by shot.

I was very happy to see Ken Lo in your great fight sequence together and Andy On, who also has actual martial arts experience.  As opposed to someone who never did martial arts, it must be easier to work with actual athletes who know more or less what you're asking for?

DY:  It's a different type of challenge for me, different type of obstacle.  For me, if I'm working with a lot more versatile action guy or girl, I will try to bring up the level even higher, so it's a different type of challenge.  Working with someone like Jing Tian, she had no experience in action films and she's quite slim and small, it's a different type of challenge.  And both bring satisfaction to me.  To work with Andy - I know Andy; he's done numbers of action movies, so my goal was, 'I'm gonna make Andy look better than in any of his movies.'  That was my goal.  That's the satisfaction.  But with Jing Tian, I wanted to surprise people with what she can do, particularly with some of her works; she had never done an action movie, never mind doing something like this.  I set the goal very early on a couple of things I wanted to achieve; make Andy On the best he ever looked, surprise people with Jing Tian's action onscreen, thirdly surprise people with my range of acting as far as {going from} Ip Man to playing the gangster and having this type of rawness. I believe in these areas, I achieved that. 

Could you give some advice to a young actor or actress who would like to follow in your action footsteps?

DY:  I don't think you can just... If you want to be an action actor, or an actor that specialises in martial arts films, of course you gotta know martial arts.  You gotta be a martial artist in the first place, right?  You have to also be - by today's standard - understanding of a wide range of different, various styles of martial arts.  That's very important.  That's like having a wide range of taking on different roles as an actor.  Knowing various martial arts styles prepares the actor to do period films, to do contemporary, you can do Wing Chun master.  Fortunately for me early on, I had a very strong foundation in martial arts, and when I was a child, I went through extensive learning  and crafting my various styles of martial arts, so I was fortunate in that area.  I think first and foremost, you just have to be a good actor.  You gotta be in good shape.  You have to look like you're in good shape.  All the elements count.  You have to be prepared all around.


This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review.  Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos from the New York Chinese Film Festival there.

Around the Internet:
  • Zaike Airey

    excellent interview! I love getting a look into the minds of directors that I usually only know from what I see on screen.

  • Stanley

    Hopefully they can put some stuff back in for the Blu-ray release.

  • Ainsley Pilgrim

    This movie was fantastic.I had assumed the mother was mostly going to be used as a catalyst for our hero, but I like that he wanted her to be more. It's always a shame when crucial information gets cut.

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