Donnie Yen is Asia's biggest action star, or as he's often referred to in Hong Kong, the "Strongest Man In the Universe." He's also the star of the upcoming kungfu/action/detective film "Dragon" ("Wu Xia").
I had a chance to sit down with Yen and talk about "Dragon'" while he was in New York City for the New York Asian Film Festival this summer.
Important questions first, what does he think of his nickname?
“Better to be called something positive and inspirational than something negative.”
Like his nickname, playing the lead character in "IP Man" was an inspiration for Yen. "IP Man" is the movie he's known best for, and he knows it. Yen told me, “'IP Man' was the most successful and influential movie I’ve done.”
“I certainly hope 'Dragon' can leave some legacy behind," he added.
In "Dragon" -- which was called "an exhilarating martial arts entertainment that modernizes the genre while re-emphasizing its strong points" by The Hollywood Reporter -- Yen plays Liu Jinxi. Jinxi at first appears to be nothing more than an innocent and oblivious villager caught up in the middle of a random act of crime in a small village in 1917 set to the backdrop of China’s transition from monarchy to republic. Naturally, there is more to Jinxi than initially meets the eye, and as events continue to unfold, more and more is revealed about the character. Eventually, the audience is unsure if he's the protagonist or actually the antagonist.
Its a tricky role for a traditional action star to take on.
Donnie Yen as Liu Jinxi.
Yen said his role in "IP Man" changed the minds of producers in Hong Kong, who may have previously seen him solely an action star. "We are usually typecast in certain category, action hero, at best an action icon. I’ve had many opportunities to play many roles since 'IP Man.'"
A bit of good fortune doesn't hurt either. “How do you change the mind of people’s perception of an action actor? Most of the time it takes more luck (for a big part) than ability,” Yen said.
Yen's inspiration for playing the character of Liu Jinxi also drew much from his role and experience in "IP Man."
“I gained a lot of confidence after 'IP Man' as being a true actor. I went on to tackle what it is an actor is supposed to do before a film. Do a lot of research, get into the character. That’s what I did with 'Dragon.' Liu is actually two characters in one.”
So was it difficult to play a non-action character, for at least half of a film?
“After two weeks of research I found out it wouldn’t be as difficult to play a non action guy," Yen said. "All you have to do is tune down all the martial arts experience you have. You have to forget about your 40 years of martial arts experience and be just a normal guy, a farmer, a guy that never went to school. It really didn’t take me too long to penetrate and feel comfortable as that character.”
Peter Chan directed "Dragon," but Yen handled the action sequences and fight choreography as he often does for his films.
“As an action director I always try to bring something fresh and new. We wanted to bring something totally poetic [to Dragon']."
The poetry in a Donnie Yen film is usually poetry of fight, not plot. "Dragon" was a true attempt by both director and actor to merge classic detective film elements with kung fu, and they in large part succeed in doing so, with much thanks to Yen's strong performance and reliably ingenious fight sequences.
WARNING! "Dragon" Plot spoilers ahead!
In a particularly impressive fight scene, a one-armed Donnie Yen takes on a character being played by the legendary Jimmy Wang.
“It was difficult but it wasn’t as difficult to me because it's adjusting to the situation," Yen said before adding, "It was a lot more difficult than I anticipated.”
“It's like someone twits your arms, and imagine trying to move while they are doing that. And we didn’t rely on the CGI, so I really had to try and hide any of the arm that might be sticking out from the wardrobe.”
That still wasn't the most difficult part of choreographing the fight. “The most difficult, was fighting the legend Jimmy Wang, he’s an older senior. In all due respect, the gentleman is a 70-year-old guy. You really cannot expect some sort of competition when working with him. So, the way I choreographed his movements, I had to both think of the possibility of 'can he do it?' at the same time having the face and respect for him to not embarrass him. I have to work with him, work with the actor, and then come up with something to allow him to showcase his stuff, and at the same time bring out the best in the character. If he’s a martial arts master, his level should be up here [Yen holds hand up high].”
The environment also added to the difficulty of the sequence. “It was raining every day, really really hard. We couldn’t even walk properly without thinking about falling. It was that slippery. Every shot we had to put layers of empty sandbags.”
And yet, as tricky as that scene was to film, it wasn't the original ending to "Dragon."
"We actually have an alternative ending which I thought was quite innovative and unfortunately we had to cut it out because of [Chinese] censorship," Yen said, shaking his head.
"Jimmy Wang was chasing me to the second floor and he was beating me up and my son came out and stabbed him from behind," Yen explained. "So it was like the father is beating up the son, and the grandson is hurting the grandfather. The grandfather turns around and is looking at the grandson and giving no reaction. And the kid is obviously crying, and I was holding Jimmy’s leg to restrain him from hurting my son. The whole triangular emotion of the situation was really awkward. Which I thought could be the essence of the whole scene, the odd way the grandfather turned around and looked at his grandson and actually smiled, like the grandson had his blood.”
“Right away Peter [Chan] knew that it crossed the censorship line, so we shot it and took it to all of the China censors and they thought it was too powerful. He [Chan] played it safe, said he loved the ending, but we couldn’t have it.”
Yen wasn't sure if the alternate ending will even make it onto special edition DVD releases in the future. “I don’t know if Harvey [Weinstein] will recognize that ending because, I believe, when he bought the film it was already edited out."
You can check out "Dragon" on Video On Demand on October 26 and in limited theatrical release on November 30. It's worth nothing that the upcoming releases of "Dragon" will feature a trimmed down version from of the original Asia release -- by 19 total minutes, streamlining the film to a more briskly paced 97 minutes.