Posted Aug. 29, 2004.
While most American moviegoers don’t know the name Donnie Yen, it is becoming increasingly obvious that they should. The 41-year-old is a worldwide martial arts superstar, on par with names more recognizable to Americans like Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh. Yen has fought them all, but he is anything but battle-weary.
Wearing a gray and orange track suit with sneakers, this fighting machine is deceptively small (he’s 5’8”) compared to the screen power of his roles in the “Tiger Cage” movies and the “Iron Monkey” series.
Despite Yen’s spectacular talent and ability as a martial artist and an actor, it’s taken his latest film “Hero” more than two years to be officially released in the States, though the bootleg copy has been available on e-Bay since the film’s 2002 release in China. Miramax bought the U.S. distribution rights to the film after its staggering success in China; however, the studio has been sitting on the movie and earlier this year it seemed as if the film would never make it to American theaters. It took a name more familiar to film geeks than Jet Li to get “Hero” a fully subtitled, unedited U.S. release: the Âber kung fu fanboy Quentin Tarantino. The thinking on the studio’s part was that if they throw Tarantino’s name all over “Hero,” billing it “Quentin Tarantino Presents,” then that will assure a certain fan base.
Yen doesn’t seem to pay attention to the nonsense of studio politics. He’s just happy that there’s a whole new audience for “Hero.”
“Whatever it takes to get the audience to watch the film to understand these types of films, it’s better late than never,” Yen said. “I think it’s a continuation of introducing martial arts to the American audience. Sure enough, ‘Crouching Tiger’ won an Oscar, although I think ‘Crouching Tiger,’ in comparison to [‘Hero’], is a bit slow. I find it a bit boring.”
Yen feels that the fight sequences in “Hero” are able to better transcend cultures.
“It’s so, not only physical, but it’s so powerful with the images and the storytelling that when you watch that film you kind of forget that you’re in a different culture,” Yen explained. “It’s a universal language, the action. ‘Hero’ needs no explanation; it’s easy to understand.”
If you ask Donnie Yen how long he’s been studying martial arts, the answer is easy:
“Since I could walk.”
Yen was born in Canton, China but emigrated with his family to Boston when he was 11 years old. Yen grew up under the wing of his mother, Bow Sik-mark, one of the most prominent female martial arts instructors in the United States.
Yen cites Bruce Lee as his inspiration for taking his martial arts to film.
“I think Bruce Lee is an idol for almost everyone of us,” Yen said. “When I was growing up he was the role model for every Chinese-American. I needed a figure, a direction for where I would want to be. Besides what he’s achieved as a person, [look at] what he’s achieved in martial arts and in film, as well.”
In the 1980s, Yen was traveling around the world studying martial arts. During a visit to Hong Kong, Yen met the acclaimed action director Yuen Wo Ping.
“He was the biggest director for martial arts films at the time and he was looking for the next Jackie Chan,” Yen said. “He found me and I started making movies with him and I just kept going.”
In 2001, American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino partnered with Miramax films to release “Iron Monkey,” a 1993 kung-fu film starring Donnie Yen, directed by Yuen Wo Ping. However, “Hero” is coming after Tarantino’s epic grindhouse “Kill Bill” movies, which have borrowed from and referenced martial arts cinema.
Donnie Yen believes it’s great that martial arts has recently heavily influenced American film and cites “Kill Bill” as a terrific way to introduce Americans to kung-fu and martial arts in film.
“It’s about evolution; it’s about creativity,” Yen said. “I gotta give Quentin Tarantino all the respect in the world. He’s a big fan of martial arts films and a big fan of Asian films and it helps promote them. And on top of that he’s a genuine film creator. ‘Kill Bill’ is a very fine example. How many directors would step up and say, ‘You know what, let’s try to do something that we’re not born to be familiar with, that’s not in our own culture and try to do something new’? He sure did.”
In “Hero,” Yen’s character Sky battles Nameless, played by Jet Li, in an intense showdown sequence blending beautifully colored shots, a montage of music and water and amazing kung-fu action shot in black and white. However, this is not the first time Yen and Li have fought on screen. Their first face-off occurred in Li’s “Once Upon a Time in China 2” in 1992. For “Hero,” the rematch was on somewhat different terms, according to Yen.
“When we first met 10 years ago, there was a lot more rivalry going on because we were younger and basically we were at the top of our game,” Yen said. “But now, 10 years later, it’s more of a collaboration instead of a competition. In a lot of ways we are similar but in a lot of ways we are different. You can tell the different style and interpretation from our martial arts.”
Yen said that he spent more than 20 days with Jet Li filming their fight for “Hero,” though he only appears in roughly 10 minutes of screen time. He said that they wanted to not only make a good fight, but the best fight ever put to film.
“Our goal was not only to top what we did in the past, but also to top the recent successful action movies like ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Crouching Tiger,’” Yen explained. “I loved working with him again. I think we are top notch at what we do.”
Instead of attempting to crossover into American film like Jet Li, Yen has been expanding his influence on martial arts by working as a fight choreographer for stateside action films like “Blade II” and “Highlander: Endgame.” Yen also was the stunt director on “Omnimusha 3,” a popular Playstation 2 video game.
According to Yen, he’s just catering to the growing popularity of martial arts.
“I think the world is getting smaller and smaller,” Yen said. “Martial arts is no longer an Asian genre. It is something that we’re watching on a daily basis it pops up in all kinds of places. And, I’m an actor. If a project approaches me with good intentions, then I choose to do those films. If I can share my knowledge and my skills in all formats, by all means.”