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Talk Asia

Interview with Action Film Star Donnie Yen

Aired October 19, 2011 - 05:30   ET



KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (voice-over): In the 1970s, the world was introduced to a new cinema experience, the Hong Kong action movie thanks to martial arts legend Bruce Lee and films like "Fists of Fury." Since his untimely death in 1973, a handful of stars have continued to keep the genre alive, memorizing audiences with their own athletic and acrobatic mastery, including Jackie Chan, who added a touch of comedy to a police story.

And Jet Lee, who scored his first Hollywood role by giving Mel Gibson a run for his money in "Lethal Weapon 4."

Another name on that all star list is Donnie Yen. With almost 50 feature film titles to his name, including the recent "Wu Xia," the actor and director has proven to be a respected industry player in both Hong Kong and Hollywood. His 2008 movie "Ip Man" based on the story of a real life martial arts grandmaster became a sensation across Asia.

While its sequel, two years later, took in even more money at the box office and propelled him to become one of Hong Kong's most popular stars.


LU STOUT (voice-over): It was an obvious career path for the martial artist who began training at the age of four under mother, also a well known grand master. But it was a chance meeting with acclaimed choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, the man behind those moves in "The Matrix" that landed Donnie's first film role in 1984, and kick started his almost 30 year film career.

This week on TALK ASIA, we meet Donnie Yen to find out more about his road to success. Plus, we'll see a very different side to the martial arts master.


LU STOUT: Donnie, welcome to TALK ASIA. Now you have appeared in 45 feature length movies, countless TV series. But there's one movie everyone knows you for. And that's "Ip Man." And some say that it was "Ip Man" that turned you into the most bankable star in Hong Kong.

Did you expect it to be so successful.

DONNIE YEN, ACTOR: Not really. Not really. You know, I think in show business, like all business, right, sometimes it takes a little luck to, you know -- despite all the hard work.

Although I've been in the business for many, many years, as you just mentioned -- but it really -- you've just got to meet the right role, the right project for you to really connect with the audience.

LU STOUT: It's based on the story of a real life person. He was a grand master of a martial style known as Wing Chun. He later became Bruce Lee's master. Wing Chun involves some very fast movements.

So was it difficult for you to learn and master?

YEN: For me, it was not just -- it wasn't just learning the style but playing the role that was more important and crucial to become convincing. I mean, at the end of the day, a lot of people don't realize, when you are acting in a martial arts film, you're not just performing martial arts. You're not just performing martial arts.

You're actually acting as much as any other actor.




YEN: You know, for decades, when we watched a martial arts film, we say oh, and we look up to -- Bruce Lee, it was more of a macho type of image. But then (INAUDIBLE) really turned everything around, right, family man, softer style, you know. He -- he's very passive.

And I think it connected to a lot of female audience. That's why that film became really successful, you know, beyond what martial arts movies in the history have done.

LU STOUT: It became sort of a cultural phenomenon all across the Chinese speaking world.

YEN: Yes, it did. It wasn't just a successful box office film, like hit. Like you said, it became a very influential movement, so to speak. I remember there was one instance, right, a mother came up to me. And she was really thankful that I made the two "Ip Man" movies.

And she told me that her son grew up in the States, kind of American born Chinese, young kid, nine, ten years old. Ever since he saw the "Ip Man" movie, he wanted to study the history of Chinese and basically got him interested.

That really wired me because, from that moment, I realized that as an actor, not only are you able to craft your arts and, you know, do the best you can as an actor, but also you can bring impact to the society. And I've been at that moment and realized, oh, wow, you know, I can be a very influential figure, and really change the way I think about -- think about making movies and also what kind of films I would choose in taking on.

LU STOUT: You're not only an actor, but you're also an action choreographer. So what makes a successful action scene?

YEN: That's a good question. An action choreographer is kind of like a dance choreographer. You choreograph the moves and you let the director, cinematographer take into positioning their cameras. You know, actually, it doesn't really work as well, because think about a person has no idea about body movements, and they determine how to shoot the shots.

It doesn't really make sense. But in Hong Kong, particularly, we craft this art for decades. The action choreographer actually is the action director. He takes over and he choreographs with -- by himself or with his team, and place the camera where he feels cinematic effect to bring out that choreography.

LU STOUT: So you would have more control working in China and Hong Kong than in Hollywood.

YEN: Absolutely. For example, if -- if you shoot an action movie, say 50 working shooting days, a lot of times, maybe 40 shooting working days, you'll be shooting action, which means, in my case, I'd be shooting - - I'd be directing 40 shooting days.

And every action director has their way of shooting action, right? For me, it's not so much of the choreographer. It's very much the tempo of the choreographer.

LU STOUT: Once you set the tempo of an action scene, is there wiggle room to improvise?

YEN: Absolutely, like everything else. Action choreographer is like talking. When you talk, you have a rhythm. When you act, you have a rhythm. When you're moving your body, you have a rhythm. So as an actor, as a choreographer, the objective is trying to blend everything in -- into -- ultimately back into that character.

That is the ultimate goal of being a good action director, rather than -- I worked in Hollywood as well as a choreographer, right, where you just choreograph the movements. And --

LU STOUT: And you step away, and then let the director handle the camera. But it sounds like you prefer, as an action choreographer, to be a director as well. And the Hong Kong style is something you --

YEN: I think it makes sense, you know. It makes sense, you know. For the longest time, Hong Kong has a reputation of coming -- producing very good action movies.

LU STOUT: You worked with martial arts superstars over the years. You know, most prominent ones include Jet Lee, Jackie Chan. Let's talk about Jet Lee first, in particular that Tsui Hark movie, "Once Upon Time in China 2," which came in 1992. An incredible fight scene between you and Jet Lee.




LU STOUT: What was that encounter like?

YEN: Wow. Quite some time ago. You know, actually in the old days - - older days, when we used to make Kung Fu movies, there was more of -- it was primitive as far as camera techniques. Kung Fu movies is a really special type of film where the performance are purely coming from the actor or herself.

So that time, we were put together in the film. We were younger. You know, it was -- it was -- it was very competitive. But I -- we -- you know, we had a lot of fun. (INAUDIBLE)

LU STOUT: Now you worked in 2003, "Shanghai Nights," with Jackie Chan. What did you learn from him?

YEN: You know, first of all, "Shanghai Nights" was a comedy, right. So we really -- at least for me, you know, I -- I knew it wasn't going to be a really straight up martial arts movie. And you know, Jackie being the big brother of the industry, you know, I always looked up to him.

And no pressure at all. You know, I had a lot of fun, laughs. You know, a lot of times when the shots are not rolling, we'd be talking about something else or maybe good food in Hong Kong, because we shot the film in the Czech Republic, you know. So we were missing our Chinese food.

And then when (INAUDIBLE) talking about food. And OK, I want to -- action, and then we get into the character.


LU STOUT (voice-over: Coming up, Donnie Yen tries his hand at comedy again. And gives us a special insight into his latest on screen character.




YEN: Was that good acting? Come on in. Donnie Yen.

I'm here doing a poster shoot for the latest film. It's a comedy. Obviously you can see this, right. No more Kung Fu master. No more Wing Chun fighting.

I'm playing a singer, rock. Ow.

Well, the movie is called "All Well, End Well." It's a classic from the early '90s. I don't remember, you know. But a lot of superstars played in the first few episodes, like Lesty Gerns (ph), Jungen Va (ph), Steven Chow (ph).

And I was invited to participate in the comedy last year. And last year was my first comedy. And the audience didn't throw eggs at me, so --

Sandra, It's my lover here, Sandra. Everybody recognizes Sandra.

You know, learning the guitar wasn't easy, you know. I built up all the calluses in all my fingers.


LU STOUT: Now you started your training at age four with your mother, who is no ordinary mom. She is a grand master. What was that like, training with your mom?

YEN: Family business.

LU STOUT: Did you rebel against her?

YEN: Yes, I did, you know, in the very beginning. But, of course, I'm -- I'm thankful. I'm blessed. If she didn't force when I was a kid, I probably wouldn't be talking to you today.

But then, at the same time, you know, it's not everybody's path to be a martial artist or be an actor. I think there's a little bit of both.

You know, I got lucky. And I thank my mom for -- you know, I just happened to be born in the family and she taught me right. And I learned it and I was good at it.

And I got lucky. And here I am.

LU STOUT: You were born in China. You grew up in Hong Kong. But at the age of 10, you moved to the United Stats. What were your first impressions of America? How was it new for you?

YEN: Lost, overwhelming. But, you know, as a kid, it wasn't too long, six months, you know, and you adapt to, you know, fit in.

LU STOUT: Did you ever get into fights when you were young?

YEN: That is a very tricky question which I prefer not to -- I think every kid does. You know, kids get in trouble. Like no crimes or anything like that.

LU STOUT: Yes. Yes. I read that you skipped classes.

YEN: I was pretty wild.

LU STOUT: Yes, you were a wild kid.

YEN: I was a wild kid, yes.

LU STOUT: And your parents did something pretty drastic. They sent you to a Beijing Ushu (ph) school.

YEN: My parents thought it would be a good opportunity to pack up and be independent in a country, even though it was my country. Back in the '80s --

LU STOUT: That must have been a culture shop.

YEN: It was culture shock everywhere I go. When I immigrated to the United States, obviously I couldn't fit in right away because I'm Chinese. But then I went to Beijing, I'm not Chinese because I'm (INAUDIBLE) Chinese. So I don't know what I was.

LU STOUT: I think the one constant was Ushu.

YEN: Yes, actually. Yes. I never expected to be making films and being an actor. I got really -- I guess everything happens for a reason, you know.

I was passing by Hong Kong and going back to the United States and I was discovered --

LU STOUT: By Yuen Ping, the legend.

YEN: And I signed a contract with him, starred in my very film when I was 19.




LU STOUT: What was it like being front of the camera, especially as a teenager?

YEN: I remember the first shot in front of the camera. I was so nervous. I didn't know what -- what I was doing, especially back then, you know. The technologies of film making were so primitive. One camera, no playback, static. Place the camera there, do your thing.

Kung Fu, you don't have to act. He says from 6:00, throw the same punch until the sun comes down. You know, it's just repetition, repetition. And Kung Fu movies back then, the way -- they were disciplined, directors and actors. The relationship, no question, very military-like, just do this.

They don't teach you how to do it. You learn it by being screamed at.

LU STOUT: So that's what it was like --

YEN: Yet, it was exactly --

LU STOUT: Following orders.

YEN: It was really frustrating in the beginning, because I didn't know what I was doing. I think that's why it took me a long time to really understand the importance of being a real actor.

LU STOUT: It sounds like in your earlier years, you were focused on the technical aspects of the film trade. And then you focused on the artistry.

YEN: Yes.

LU STOUT: All along, we mentioned his name earlier -- you said that your icon is Bruce Lee.

YEN: Right.

LU STOUT: So in your early years, did you study any of his films in particular? One particular film?

YEN: Everybody knows he only made four films, right. It wasn't -- it wasn't the film techniques that he gave us. But it was his thinking, his - - the way he blends his martial arts philosophy, as well as how he sees martial arts films for the future.

You know, that helped a lot, that kind of plan, not just for me, I think for a lot of -- many, many film makers who particularly love action movies. His weren't just like -- he's irreplaceable.

LU STOUT: Your fans want to know, will there be an "Ip Man 3"?





LU STOUT: Earlier, we talked about the differences working in an action movie in China, Hong Kong and the U.S., especially from an action choreography or director point of view. Are there different safety standards on the set in Hollywood versus the set in China?

YEN: It's getting a lot better now. I mean, I can -- you know, if you think about, say, in the '70s, where we were making those kind of crazy Kung Fu action movies, it was guerilla film making. Anything goes, right? No safety. No insurance. No unions.

In fact, we still don't have a union, you know, because this is the chicken and the egg, you know. We don't have the market. We don't have the distribution networks like Hollywood.

So therefore, you just don't have that kind of privilege. But it's getting a lot better because of the market in China.

LU STOUT: And China is such a major media market for movie makers.

YEN: Yes.

LU STOUT: We have seen a number of really patriotic movies being made in China. And they seem to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

Do you ever feel political pressure to take on certain projects or roles?

YEN: You know, I think everyone would have a patriotic attitude deep in side of them, right. As long as you feel it, you do it, you know. Not every actor -- you don't see very actor in the same movies.

But I'm a pretty patriotic person, you know, I have to say.

LU STOUT: "Ip Man" was a very patriotic role.

YEN: Well, you got to understand, I grew up in the States, but as a minority growing up in a country where you're constantly trying to trace your roots -- so since I was young, I was always pretty patriotic.

Well, why -- why do all Chinese look up to Bruce Lee?

LU STOUT: Including you.

YEN: Including me. Because we found a person we can -- because he brought a sense root and a nation, you know. So I grew up with that. And it's part of me to be able to do something for -- you know, to -- for Chinese society or the Chinese nationality.

LU STOUT: It sounds like you're searching for more of those type of roles?

YEN: I try to find balance, you know. I try to be a good citizen, a world citizen as well as pay respect to my own culture.

LU STOUT: You have children.

YEN: Yes.

LU STOUT: And they're growing up fast.

YEN: Yes.

LU STOUT: Are you teaching them martial arts?

YEN: No. But my youngest son James is almost four. You know, it's in your blood, all that. But I didn't really believe it until I see it in him. Because I have never shown any of my films to my kids, except for Jasmine, who is almost turning eight.

I showed her "Ip Man" about a month ago because -- simply because all her friends watched it except her. You know, papa, you know, I want to see it. OK, I'll show it to you.

You know, there's a lot of intensity, you know, violence in my films. So, you know, they're mature and ready, I -- but naturally -- let me finish this story. James, he can punch and kick all day long. I don't know where he gets that from. He never saw any of my films. Maybe from some of the cartoons, you know, because I watch cartoons with him, all the Disney cartoons, you know, "Milan" or "Kung Fu Panda."

So he does have that neutral gift, you know. He can strike a pose and throw his cape and -- like he -- he's done it all his life, out of all his four years of life.

LU STOUT: And you plan to nurture that gift?

YEN: I don't know. You know, in the beginning, I thought to myself, you know, just we'll see what happens. But the more and more I see the gift, the talent in him, I think I don't want to waste that talent. He's really gifted.

LU STOUT: Your fans want to know, will there be an "Ip Man 3"?

YEN: I don't want to say no, because I think the audience wants to do it. Actually, deep inside, I want to do it. But not now. You know, I want to concentrate on exploring other characters.

You know, last year, I did four movies, all ranges of different roles, from General natural (ph) to Mu Sha (ph), you know, playing a hit man. I did "Monkey King," playing the monkey. And I did a comedy with no action at all, "The Makeup Artist."

I want to try other roles and see how far I can stretch that roles. Then after maybe -- after that, "Ip Man 3."

LU STOUT: Donnie Yen, it's been an absolutely pleasure talking to you.

YEN: Thank you. Thank you very much.