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Talk Asia

Interview with Actor and Martial Artist Donnie Yen

Aired February 24, 2012 - 05:30   ET



KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (voiceover): 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, mesmerizing audiences with their own athletic and acrobatic mastery. Including Jackie Chan, who added a touch of comedy to "Police Story". And Jet Li, 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 grand master, 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. It was an obvious career path for the martial artist, who began training at the age of four under his mother, also a well-known grand master. But it was a chance meeting with acclaimed choreographer Yuen Woo-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 see a very different side to the martial arts master.


STOUT: Donnie Yen, 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".


STOUT: 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?

YEN: Not really. Not really.


YEN: You know, I think, in show business, like all business, 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.

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

YEN: Right.

STOUT: So was it difficult for you to learn and master?

YEN: For me, it was not just - it wasn't just learning a 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 doesn't realize - when you acting in a martial art film, you're not just performing martial arts - you're not just performing martial arts - you're actually acting as much as any other actors.



YEN: You know, for decades, when we watch martial arts films, you know, and we look up to from Bruce Lee days, right - it was more of a macho type of image. But then they meant to really turn everything around, right? This family man, softer side, you know? He's very passive and I think it connected to a lot of female audience. That's why that film became really, really successful, you know? Beyond just what martial arts movies in history have done.

STOUT: It became sort of a cultural phenomenon.

YEN: Yes, it did.

STOUT: All across the Chinese-speaking world.

YEN: It did. It wasn't just a successful box office film. Like you said, you know, it became a very influential movement, so to speak. I remember this one instant, 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 Stats. Kind of American-born Chinese young kid. 9, 10-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 inspired me, because from that moment I realized that, as an actor, not only you're 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 then, at that moment, I realized, "Oh, wow, you know, I can be a very influential figure". And really changed the way I think about making movies and also what kind of films I would choose later on.

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 the camera. You know, actually, it doesn't really work as well. Because, think about a person that have no idea about body movements and they determine how to shoot the shots. It doesn't really make sense. But in Hong Kong, in particularly, we craft this art for decades.

The action choreographer actually is the action director. He takes over and he choreograph by himself or with his team. And place where the camera where he feels cinematic effects to bring out that choreography. Some people -

STOUT: You would have more control working in China and Hong Kong than in Hollywood?

YEN: Absolutely. For example, if you shoot an action movie, say 50 working shooting days. A lot of times, maybe 40 shooting working days, you'd be shooting action. Which means, in my case, I'd be directing 40 shooting days. And every action director have their way of shooting actions. For me, it's not so much a choreographer. It's very much off the tempo of the choreographer.

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, right? 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 into ultimately back into that character. That is the ultimate goal of being a good action director.

Rather than, if I worked in Hollywood as well as a martial arts choreographer, when you just choreograph the movements and -

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 -

YEN: I think it make - it makes sense.

STOUT: Is something you'd prefer.

YEN: It makes sense, you know? It makes sense, you know. For the longest time, Hong Kong have a reputation of producing very good action movies.

STOUT: Now, you've worked with some martial arts superstars over the years. You know, most prominent ones include Jet Li, Jackie Chan. Let's talk about Jet Li first. In particular, that move, "Once Upon a Time In China 2", which came out in 1992. An incredible fight scene between you and Jet Li.



STOUT: What was that encounter like?

YEN: Wow. It was quite some time ago. You know, actually, back in the older days, when we used to make a couple movies, it was more of a - very primitive as far as camera techniques. Hong Kong movies really special type of films where the performance are purely coming from the actor. Him or herself. So, at that time, we were put together in the film and we were younger. You know, it was very competitive. But we had a lot of fun. And the film turned out to be very successful.

STOUT: Now, you worked in 2003, "Shanghai Nights" with Jackie Chan.

YEN: Right.

STOUT: 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 knew it wasn't going to be a really straight up martial art movie. And, you know, Jackie being the big brother of the industry, you know, I always look 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 would be talking about something else - maybe good food in Hong Kong. Because we shot the film in Czech Republic, you know, so we were missing our Chinese food. And then when they roll - "Oh, you know, talking about food, OK, 3, 2, 1, action". And we get into the character and do our thing.


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




YEN: Recognize me? 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 "Ip Man" Wing Chun fighting. I'm playing a singer. Rock. Ow.

Well, the movie is called "All's Well, Ends Well" - it's a classic from the early 90s? I don't remember, you know. But a lot of superstar play in the first few episodes. Like Leslie (ph) Chen (ph), Chow (ph) Lin (ph) Fa (ph), Stephen Chow, and I was invited to participate in this comedy last year. And last year was my first comedy. And the audience didn't throw eggs at me, so -

Sandra, my lovely Sandra.


YEN: What can I say?

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


STOUT: Now, you started your training at age four with your mother, who is no ordinary mom.

YEN: Right.

STOUT: She is a grand master. What was that like, training under your mom?

YEN: Family business.


STOUT: Did you rebel against her?

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

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 mean, I got lucky and I thank my mom for - you know, I just happened to born in this family, and she taught me right and I learned it and I was good at it and I got lucky and here I am.

STOUT: You were born in China, you grew up in Hong Kong, but at the age of 10, you moved to the United States.

YEN: Right.

STOUT: What were your first impressions of America? How was that move for you?

YEN: Lost. Overwhelming. But you know, as a kid it wasn't too long - six months - you know, for me to adapt to it. You know?


YEN: And then fit in.

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

YEN: That is a very tricky question, which I prefer not to -


YEN: I think every kid -

STOUT: Every kid does, yes.

YEN: We all get in trouble, you know. Like, you know, no crimes or anything like that.

STOUT: Yes, yes. I read that you used to skip classes.

YEN: I was pretty wild.

STOUT: Yes, you were a wild kid.

YEN: I was a wild kid, you know.

STOUT: And your parents did something pretty drastic. They sent you to a Beijing Wushu 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 own country - back in the 80s.

STOUT: Yes, that must have been a culture shock. Boston to Beijing in the early 80s.

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

STOUT: It seemed the one constant was Wushu.

YEN: Yes, actually. Yes. Nobody expected to be making films or being an actor. I got really - I guess everything happen for a reason, you know. I was passing by Hong Kong on the way back to United States and I was discovered.

STOUT: By Yuen Woo-ping. A legend.

YEN: And I signed a contract with them, starting my film. My very first film when I was 19.



STOUT: What was it like, being in front of the cameras? Especially as a teenager?

YEN: I remember the first shot in front of the camera, I was so nervous, I didn't know what I was doing. Especially back then, you know. The technologies of filmmaking was so primitive. One camera, no playback, static - place the camera there, do your thing. Kung fu movies - you don't have to act. You just - from six o'clock - throw the same punch until the sun comes down. You know? It was repetitions, repetitions. In kung fu movies back then, the way they were disciplined, directors and actors - the relationship - no questions. Very military-like. "Just do this". They don't teach you how to do it. You learn it by being screamed at.

STOUT: So that's what it was like?

YEN: Yes, exactly. It was -

STOUT: Following orders.

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

STOUT: It sounds like in your earlier years, you were focused on the technical aspects -

YEN: Right.

STOUT: -- of the film trade. And then you focused on the artistry.

YEN: Right.

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

YEN: Right.

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. 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 art films - the future, you know. That helped a lot. That kind of plan. Not just for me. I think for a lot of - many, many filmmakers who particularly - who love action movies. His influence is like - It's irreplaceable.


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





STOUT: Earlier, we talked about the differences, working 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 a set in China?

YEN: It's getting a lot better now. I mean, you know, if you think about, say, in the '70s, where we were making those kind of crazy kung fu action movies - it was guerrilla filmmaking. Anything goes, right? No safety, no insurance, no union. In fact, we still don't have a union, you know. This is the chicken and egg, you know. We don't have the market. We don't have the distribution network 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.

STOUT: And China is such a major video market for moviemakers.

YEN: Yes.

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 inside of them, right. As long as you feel it, you do it. You know, not every actor - you don't see every actor in the same movies. But I'm a pretty patriotic person, you know. I have to say for myself.

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

YEN: Well, you've got to understand, you know, 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 been patriotic. Why do all Chinese look up to Bruce Lee?

STOUT: Including you.

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

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.

STOUT: You have children.

YEN: Yes.

STOUT: And they're growing up fast.

YEN: Yes.

STOUT: Are you teaching them martial arts?

YEN: No, but my youngest son, James - he's almost four. You know, it's in your blood, you know, all that. But I didn't really believe until I see it in him. Because I never shown any of my films to my kids. Except for Jasmine, who's almost turning eight. I showed her "Ip Man" about a month ago because - simply because her - all her friends watched except her.

She said, "Oh, papa, you know, I want to see it". "Ok, I show you". You know, there's a lot of intensity, you know, violence, in my films. So, you know, until they're mature and ready, I - but naturally - let me finish the story of James - he can punch and kick all day long. I don't know where he get 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, "Mulan" or "Kung Fu Panda". So, he does have that natural gift, you know. He can strike a pose and, you know, throw his kicks like he done it all his life, you know. All his four years of lifehood.

STOUT: And you plan to nurture that gift?

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

STOUT: Now, 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 us 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, like last few I did for movies, all ranges of different roles. Playing from General Guan to Wusha (ph), you know, playing a hit man. And I did "Monkey King", playing the monkey. And I did a comedy with no action at all. A makeup artist. I want to try other roles and see how far I can stretch the roles. Then maybe, after that, "Ip Man 3".

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

YEN: Thank you. Thank you very much.