Hong Kong cinema might be famous for John Woo’s bullet ballet, or the lush visuals and sentiment of Wong Kar-wai, but it’s the city’s kung fu movies that have produced the most famous and enduring stars. Bruce Lee remains Hong Kong’s most famous son, but through death-defying stunts Jackie Chan was able to move out of Lee’s shadow in the ’80s and become a star all his own. Come the ’90s, Jet Li was the new poster boy of martial arts cinema, which culminated with a move to Hollywood beginning with Lethal Weapon 4 (1998).
The new century, however, belongs to Donnie Yen. No overnight success, Yen started out as a stuntman in Shaolin Drunkard, legendary action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping’s 1983 cult classic. It was the start of the then 20-yearold’s career, and by the mid-’90s Yen was acknowledged as a reliable action star. Following a string of impressive performances in well regarded films – the likes of Tiger Cage 2 (1990), Dragon Inn (1992), Once Upon A Time in China II (1992) Iron Monkey (1993) – Yen appeared on the cusp of stardom. This feeling was confirmed with a role in Zhang Yimou’s Oscar-nominated Hero (2002), where he featured alongside a who’s-who of Hong Kong cinema that included Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi.
Yet a final breakthrough still eluded the Guangzhou-born, Boston-raised actor. It wasn’t until 2007’s Flash Point that Yen finally achieved the recognition he deserved. With its explosive and innovative amalgam of kung fu and MMA, the film bagged a host of awards. Yen followed Flash Point with an even bigger hit, Ip Man, which was named Best Film at the Hong Kong Film Awards and scored Yen a nomination for Best Actor.
Finally confirmed as Hong Kong’s action king and an international star, Yen’s career has since gone from strength to strength. Alongside Ip Man, which has generated two sequels (and a slew of imitators), Yen stars in the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel and the upcoming Star Wars spin-off Rogue One.
Having achieved worldwide recognition, it came as a surprise when Yen announced that Ip Man 3 would be his last kung fu movie. Yen sits down with Time Out to talk about his next step.
You’ve said Ip Man 3 will be your last kung fu movie...
I have every intention in my mind that it’s going to be my last martial arts movie. It’s really hard. As an actor, I want to move on. I understand that the world changes, so I can’t say ‘never’, but I definitely consider this [as] my last heroic martial arts kung fu movie.
You’ve been involved with martial arts for a long time. How have things changed?
When I was young, Bruce Lee was making kung fu a household thing normal to people who didn’t know anything about kung fu. When I was in Boston, 30 years ago, martial arts, especially Asian martial arts, were considered unknown territory. They were a mystery. Today, it’s a common thing which everybody does. That’s a big difference.
Following your announcement, there’s been a lot of talk about who’ll take over your mantle. There seem to be a decreasing number of Hong Kong martial arts stars. Why do you think that’s so?
Today, people have a lot of choices for what to focus on and spend their time doing. When I was a kid, I didn’t even have a TV! But now kids have an iPad and iPhone to absorb their time. Martial arts take a lot of time to learn. And martial arts films only really began around the Bruce Lee era in the last 50 years. It’s still kind of new. It doesn’t have a 100-year history.
Mike Tyson had a part in Ip Man and we’re told that you broke his finger…
So it’s true! What did Tyson say?
He said he was pretty sad about it. We went to the clinic and did an X-ray on his finger. When we were filming, there was a lot of blocking [of blows] and moving. My elbow just banged one of his fingers. It was a very small accident. I think the other way round he would also fracture my finger and probably knock me out. These things happen in action movies, especially ones with so much expectation like Ip Man 3. Fans expect high standard, groundbreaking action scenes, so we aim to make the best fighting scenes possible for the audience. So, an accident happened. Luckily, it wasn’t a serious accident.
You’re famous for incorporating MMA (mixed martial arts) elements into your action. How did that come about?
It’s about mixing and adopting any style that fits you, not closing yourself off into one style. About ten years ago, nobody knew much about it, so I added this to my films. My first film as director, The Twins Effect, and also Flash Point – all MMA fight choreography. I believe these films really impacted the MMA circuit.
We’re excited to hear you’re in the next Star Wars! What can you tell us about that?
How did you feel when you got the call?
When anybody calls on you and they have you in mind, that’s flattering, especially as an actor. It means you’re required, you’re the one they want. Obviously, I’m really flattered. I just can’t say too much...
It’s quite a breakthrough, but do you think Asians are underrepresented in Hollywood, especially Asian men?
Yes, obviously. If you’re a minority in this industry, the job opportunities are given to you ratio-wise. That doesn’t mean Hollywood is giving Asian men equal opportunities, especially considering China’s world status today and the development of other Asian countries too. We’re influencing the rest of the world. But when you have an industry basically run by white people for decades, it’s not going to change overnight. I do see a part that’s changing. We see more Asian females, mostly females, because they’re less threatening and intimidating.
How long do you think it will take for an Asian actor to get a role that isn’t stereotypical?
It’s hard. I’d like to do something, not just for myself. As a patriotic Chinese man, I’d like to make a difference. In all my films, I’d like to be a role model for young children and to make films that carry positive images. I’ve turned down a lot of roles because they’re too stereotypical. I’d like to break ground so that a Chinese actor can play a non-stereotypical role. That would be an honour and a great mission that I’d like to achieve. I’ll try my best.