DONNIE YEN HAS A DEDICATED FOLLOWING IN ASIA FOR HIS IMPRESSIVE MARTIAL ARTS SKILLS, AND HAS ACHIEVED INTERNATIONAL CULT STATUS FOR ROLES IN ACTION MOVIES SUCH AS LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN, PAINTED SKIN, FLASH POINT, SEVEN SWORDS, SPL, SHANGHAI KNIGHTS, HERO AND BLADE II.
With the recent box-office success of the Wilson Yip helmed movies Ip Man and Ip Man 2, Yen has become one of China’s hottest actors and is now being offered roles outside of the action genre.
In connection with Cine-Asia’s UK DVD release of Ip Man 2, we were able to chat with Yen about bringing Grandmaster Ip Man to life on the big screen and ask him probably the #1 question on fans’ minds: Will he reprise the role of Ip Man in a 3rd movie?
What’s your fighting style and background?
Well, my first style was Wushu and Tai Chi, when I trained under my mother, who is a Gung Fu teacher in Boston, Mass., and her name is Bow Sim Mark. Then, when I was a teenager, and I think kind of against her wishes(!), I went out to study all different arts, like boxing, Karate–everything! Bruce Lee was my idol, and I knew he hadn’t just studied one style, so I wanted to learn everything I could. And I still do!
How did you prepare mentally and physically to play the role of Ip Man?
Mentally, I read everything I could on Ip Man, I met his oldest son, Ip Chun, and asked a lot of questions. I trained in Wing Chun with various teachers, including Ip Chun, and we had a wooden dummy at the film company offices that I could train on. For this role, I wanted to lose weight, because Ip Man was such a slender figure, not as muscular as my usual kind of roles.
Did your investment in Wing Chun, for the role of Ip Man, cause you to re-examine any of the other styles that you had already learned?
Not really. I just looked at it in the context of the character and the film. It certainly gave me a new appreciation of Wing Chun! I have used Wing Chun movements in some earlier films, but this was the first time I studied it so intensely, the dummy and the different forms.
What was the most interesting thing you learned about Wing Chun?
I really began to appreciate the way it brings a scientific approach to close range fighting. Of course, today we have MMA and all these different aspects of combat, but, when Wing Chun was developed and became famous, when you compare it with the styles of that era, like Hung Gar or Choy Li Fut, it really was revolutionary for its time.
What was the most interesting thing you learned about Ip Man?
Well, it was all interesting to me, because, before this film, all I really knew about Ip Man was that he was the Grandmaster of Wing Chun and that he taught Bruce Lee. Then, from reading the script, from my own research, and from talking to his oldest son, you get the impression of this really skilled martial artist who is also a scholar, a family man… I felt like we really hadn’t seen a Gung Fu hero like this before.
Unlike the first film, Ip Man 2 includes more wirework. How do you feel about both doing and watching wirework in movies?
Hmm. Actually, I think the wirework was about the same in both films! Maybe we just had some more spectacular movements in Ip Man 2, so you noticed it more. I think it’s just another tool for the action director, just like CGI. If you notice it too much, it’s probably not a good thing.
What’s your most memorable moment(s) working on the Ip Man films?
I remember a scene in the first film, where a whole truckload of Japanese soldiers drives by, and Ip Man sees them and he realises his Gung Fu is powerless against this kind of force. I thought that scene was very effective, unlike the kind of action hero I’ve played in the past.
What was the toughest thing for you about working on the Ip Man films?
To be honest, of course, it was physically demanding, to perform the fight sequences, but everyone worked together so well, and the character seemed to suit me, so it was a real pleasure to come to work each day. In terms of the action, the hardest thing in the first film was the last fight, with the Japanese general, because the actor wasn’t a martial artist, which is always a challenge. He worked very hard, though. On the second, it was the challenge matches on the table, just because it was a lot of action shot at the same time and in a very confined space.
Were you surprised at the phenomenal success of the films?
After the first one, I knew we’d made a good film, but you never know how it’s going to be received. I had a feeling it would do well, but quite how well it did was a surprise. With the sequel, you feel there’s probably an audience, but, I don’t know if you know this, but Ip Man 2 was a huge success in China, so, again, it was the degree of success that surprised me.
Wing Chun is an art not normally considered as flamboyant enough for Gung Fu movies… how did you get around this with the Ip Man films?
I was lucky because that was basically [action director] Sammo’s problem! Of course, he has made several great movies in the past where he used Wing Chun, so we were pretty confident he could make it look good on screen. And he did!
At 59, Sammo Hung is still active and directing fights, and also stepping in front of the camera? Do you see that somewhere in your own future?
You mean still being active at 59? I hope so! I mean, whether I’ll still be starring in films, I don’t know, but I think I’ll be active in the industry. I don’t know what else I’d do!
Do you prefer fighting with weapons or fists for filmic work?
I don’t mind, I just want to find a style that suits the character. For Flashpoint it was MMA. For the Ip Man films Wing Chun. I did a film called The Lost Bladesman about the Three Kingdoms character Kwan Kung, who has a very distinctive weapon, so we had to make that work on film. It all comes from the story and the character.
Madame Tussauds Hong Kong now has a Donnie Yen/Ip Man waxwork–what was it like to meet yourself?
Well, firstly it’s a great honour. I should point out that it’s actually a statue of Donnie Yen as Ip Man. I don’t dress that way the rest of the time! It’s an interesting process, the way they take measurements, and it is pretty lifelike. I’m thinking of sending the dummy out on my next press tour, see if anyone notices!
You come from a musically talented family and play the piano yourself. Are you ever worried about damaging your fingers when practising martial arts?
Hmmm. Now you mention it, I suddenly am! Actually, the piano has always been a hobby for me, but I make my living from action movies, so I’d be more worried about an injury that might prevent me from doing action scenes. I’d miss playing the piano, but I could get by without it. So far, so good, though!
Would you say that the musical score in the Ip Man films portrays an important part of the story?
Oh, absolutely. For years, I’ve been saying that we need bigger orchestral scores for Hong Kong movies, and I can say that one of the first films I was involved with where the score really worked was Kawai Kenji’s one for Seven Swords, and so we worked with him again on (my film) Dragon Tiger Gate and then on the Ip Man films. The music adds so much, and Kawai San did a great job every time.
You have stated that martial arts are a form of expression, and of course, acting is too—can you say something about your romantic and poignant portrayal of Ip Man (apart from the fighting)?
I think this role came at a time in my life when I was ready to play it. Ip Man is someone who’s obviously a Gung Fu expert, but he’s also a good husband and father. In earlier projects, I think I was sometimes portrayed pretty much as this fighting machine, and, at that stage, maybe I couldn’t have appreciated every aspect of Ip Man the way I can now.
You have said that after Ip Man 2, you would never ever touch any films related to Ip Man. Why? Fans would clearly love to see you reprise the role of Ip Man.
Did I say that? Well, maybe we can do Ip Man 3, but first, we have to wait for all the other Ip Man films to come and go, and then we can seriously consider it.
You have collaborated with director Wilson Yip on several films. What is it about his work that keeps you working together?
It’s hard to say. From our first film, SPL, there was a definite sense that we were on the same page. He’s very low key, you hardly ever see him out at any events, unless it’s his own premiere or something. Wilson just has a very quiet focus, doesn’t say too much and yet still he manages to make great movies. He’s a good man and a good director.
What’s next for you?
I’m shooting Havoc in Heaven now, and I’d like to take a break afterwards, but it looks like I have other things lined up. I don’t want to talk about them too soon, but I think I’ll be pretty busy.