Action Film Autopsy 10 Supple Mental Xtra: Donnie Yen!

By Ric Meyers

If all goes as planned, the second half of 2003 is going to be the half-year of Donnie Yen. With at least three exceptional films that benefit by his participation set for U.S. premiere (Princess Blade from Japan, Hero from China, and Twins Effect from Hong Kong) – not to mention the release of Shanghai Knights on DVD – Donnie fans old and new will get their greatest kicks since Iron Monkey and Once Upon a Time in China 2 was released on DVD by Dimension and Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment (respectively).
When last we left this amazing martial artist, actor, and filmmaker, who started learning kung-fu from his legendary mother at the age of nine, he had broken new Hong Kong ground with his latest self-directed films, Legend of the Wolf and Ballistic Kiss. Since that interview the man who trained at the same Beijing martial arts school as Jet Li and was introduced to filmgoers by Yuen Wo Ping, has set about conquering world cinema with increasingly impressive action choreography and acting across America and Europe, as well as Asia. We sat down for an exclusive talk of all things Donnie …which takes in the best kung-fu films have to offer.

RM: First things first. How’s your mom (highly respected Taichi champion Bow Sim Mark)?

DY: Good!

RM: She must be happy with all your great recent work, especially in America (since last we heard she was headquartered in Boston and Hawaii). Tell us a bit about your first forays into American productions.

DY: When Miramax got in touch with me, it was before they were rereleasing Iron Monkey, and they said ‘We’ve got this Highlander movie [Highlander: Endgame]. Let’s get you into that.’ Well, the impression I got with all the Hollywood films was that the script comes first and the script is untouchable. But I guess Miramax tends to be a bit different than other studios.

RM: Well, that’s a shock to me and my screenwriter friends, who are only one of seemingly dozens American studios are using on each film these days! But no matter. Your character, Jin, was a small but telling role.

DY: Yes. I also worked as martial arts choreographer on the film, which was shot in Romania. I really wanted to incorporate into him the character of the assassin who fails – like the one in The Emperor and the Assassin [which features the same historical story as Yang Zimou’s Hero but as directed by Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), it has an entirely different approach. It is now available on Columbia/Tristar Home Entertainment]. I tried to give him Confucian values and make him an honorable man.

RM: Next up was another small but potent part in Blade 2.

DY: I was already traveling to Europe. In fact, I actually spent almost eight months in Berlin to codirect and action-direct the German TV series Codename: Puma. So in between times, to start up my new career in Hollywood, I flew back to L.A. my agent asked me about Blade 2. I went to see Wesley Snipes, because he was also the producer, and the director Guillermo Del Toro. They’re big fans of Hong Kong films, love Iron Monkey, and expressed themselves as my fans, so they wanted me in the film. In the beginning I wasn’t really that interested because the role was kind of small. All I wanted to do was be the martial art choreographer. Hopefully I could’ve used some of my knowledge to translate my passion through Wesley. So it ended up that I also did a cameo. Unfortunately, again, small role, but the response was good.

RM: Interestingly, one of the main complaints of all my martial art movie fan friends about both films was that there wasn’t enough you.

DY: That’s actually been the case in the past couple of films. Even Hero. It’s very interesting, but I guess the best things are yet to come.

RM: The gang was happy to hear that they’re planning to show the entire climatic fight between you and Jackie on the Shanghai Knights DVD, because the theatrical version was obviously heavily edited.

DY: I don’t know if it’s true that they’re going to put the entire fight on the DVD, but I hope so. I didn’t really like the way they cut the film. It’s one of those very typical Hollywood things. When I first met Jackie he was all ‘Let’s make a classic fight scene’ because he really appreciated the scenes between Jet and I. And in the movie it was probably the most anticipated fight scene. But Jackie had too much to do. At the end we were also having a little problem with the amount of time the producer was giving us. We just kind of accepted whatever time that was given to us to do the fight.

RM: That’s a shame because in the remaining footage you were incredible in every shot. Really lightning. Really a Dragon on Fire (shameless plug for comic elsewhere in this issue).

DY: I think, at the end of the day, the worst was the way they edited the scene. But even when I first read the script I already knew we would have a problem because there were so many intercuts. … back to the scene with Queen Victoria, then with Owen, then the fireworks. We were so busy shooting fireworks that, at the end of the day, I knew that one of the studio editors – who probably didn’t know anything about action films – would probably cut to the fireworks. And they did. And that was a bummer. Actually they probably cut forty or fifty percent from that fight. But mainly because they had so many other scenes to intercut. It really destroyed the continuity of our scene. They actually cut a lot of my dramatic scenes too.

RM: At least the incredible scene in Hero is essentially whole. Tell us about that experience.

DY: They called me when I was in L.A., and, at first they sent me the English script. I really liked it. I said to my agent we really have to take on this role. This film is going to be incredible. Then I called the producer myself and asked him to send me the Chinese script, because only in Chinese could I see the true essence of the characters and film. Obviously it was pretty clear that they wanted to create the best action scene between Jet and I since Once Upon a Time in China 2. So when I went there, we had a lot of discussion on how best to do that scene. We actually spent twenty-two days shooting that scene. Normally, especially in Asian films, the time and budget is always constrained. But when we were there, the producer would come in and say ‘Take your time. We don’t want the best scene…we want the best of the best scene!” So, with every shot, both Jet and myself would examine every angle and really, really work at deciding the right way to do it. Because we know we not only have to top ourselves after Once Upon a Time in China 2, but we also, half-jokingly, half-seriously, wanted to top the Michelle Yeoh/Zhang Ziyi fight scene in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon! So a lot of times Jet and I would joke around, saying, “Hey, no offense to the women, but we can’t lose it to Michelle and Zhang!” So we really took our time to really nail every shot.

RM: Yes, although this was another co-starring role, it bookends the film, and is truly unforgettable.

DY: And actually, my character in the original novel the movie was based on was a lot more fulfilling throughout the story. He was actually equal to the other characters. But when they first came to me that role was basically just a cameo. But fortunately the part came out to be quite memorable. You know the Weinsteins [Bob and Harvey, the bosses at Miramax Films) specifically asked [director] Zhang Yimou to add more scenes for my character. Even Zhang Yimou himself was thinking of having the character come back at the end to pay my respects at the graves, but obviously they ran out of money.

RM: Although the battle between you and Jet is one of the greatest kung-fu fights ever filmed, I heard that some stuff was actually cut!

DY: Yeah, it was funny. I was talking to Harvey Weinstein in Hong Kong First he was telling me how much he loved that scene. But when I saw the film, I felt something was missing. And he said “Yeah, they did cut it down.” They cut it down in the sequence between me and the seven Qin warriors. At first, after I defeated all of them, I went to the blind musician and gave him some money and asked him to play another song. Only after that did I start to walk out, and then stop when I hear Jet calling me.

RM: Well, there’s always the DVD, once Miramax decides to show it in America (it’s been seen almost everywhere else). There’s also Princess Blade (a.k.a. Shurayuki-Hime) which is being released in America at the end of the summer. How did you get involved with that?

DY: This was another one of my vehicles as an action director. When I take on a job as an action director, I normally try to bring my own character into the film. The leading actress, Yumiko Shaku, had never shot an action film before, so we had to go through the whole process. My assistant, who’s Japanese, went over there first to start her training for a couple of weeks. Then I came over from Blade 2, because I actually shot Princess Blade almost two years ago. Basically I got off the plane, went right over to the set, and started shooting. After my assistant filled me in and showed me some of the training and actress profile tapes, I got a better idea of the character. So I just started working with her on the set. It wasn’t all planned out. With Princess Blade we didn’t have the time. I went there with no expectation. We just got right down to work and shot it using all my experience. No one knew how to do any martial arts on that film. I shot all the action in eleven days out in the forest. I was basically shooting wild, choreographing on the set as we went along. I monitored the actress’ performance and worked with that, editing it as best as I could to make it as convincing as possible. Given the constraints I think it came out pretty good.

RM: I think better than pretty good since it was obviously a low budget labor of love.

DY: If you liked that, I do recommend you see TwinsEffect. I really put a lot of thought into how to mold the actresses. Now, I’ve shot a lot of action involving women before, but Twins Effect is something else. “Twins” is the name of a very popular teenage idol duo. Now they’ve never shot any action films before, not to mention they’re very new at this. It was a big challenge, because I really wanted them to look convincing. You know, a lot of Hong Kong films are known to be able to shoot anybody doing a kung-fu scene and make them look half-decent, but I didn’t want to do that. I really wanted them to shine and make them unique…more so than even Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger. I was really trying to really bring up the level of HK style action films. But how do you do that with two little girls with no experience in martial art action films? I really wanted to bring out the best in them and challenge myself. I didn’t stop there. Co-star Ekin Cheng has done a lot of action movies, but I didn’t want him to look like he was just doing another one. I wanted him to look new and refreshed and different. Then, there was the pressure of action-directing Jackie’s cameo sequence. You know, either he’s choreographed himself or Sammo Hung has done it, so there’s a certain expectation and standard there. I wanted to shoot Jackie so I could retain his style while blending it into my own vision. Well, shooting Jackie and Ekin and the Twins was a great challenge which I’m very pleased with. I think people will be really surprised, especially by the Twins. They’re known as little, petite fragile girls. But they really kick butt. You’ve got to see this.

RM: Hopefully we will, soon. Thanks, Donnie Yen, and keep up the great work!

Donnie Yen’s Kung-fu Classics
Drunken Tai Chi (1984)
Tiger Cage (1988)
In the Line of Duty 4: Witness (1989)
Tiger Cage 2 (1990)
Holy Virgin vs. the Evil Dead (1990)
Crystal Hunt (1991)
Once Upon a Time in China 2 (1992)
Dragon Inn (1992)
Butterfly and Sword (1992)
Iron Monkey (1992)
Hero of Heroes (1993)
Wing Chun (1994)
Circus Kids (1994)
Legend of the Wolf (1997)
Ballistic Kiss (1998)
Highlander Endgame (2000)
Fist of Fury (2001)
Blade 2 (2002)
Kung-Fu Master (2002)
Shanghai Knights (2003)
Hero (2003)
Fist of Fury: Sworn Vengeance (2003)
Kung-fu Master 2 (2003)

Directed by Zhang Yimou
Starring Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi, Daoming Chen, & Donnie Yen.
Nominated as Best Foreign Language Film by both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. 2002 Hong Kong Film Award Winner for Best Action, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Film Score, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Sound Effects. The highest grossing domestic film ever released in China. Tentatively set for an American release by Miramax Films in November 2003.

Directed by Shinsuke Sato
Action Director: Donnie Yen
Starring Yumiko Shaku, Hideaki Ito, Shiro Sano, & Kyusaku Shimada
In the future, a band of fabled sword-wielding assassins called The House of Takemikazuchi is corrupted from within Only a young beautiful girl named Yuki – the last of the Takemikazuchi bloodline – can avenge her family. Inspired by a manga series and a cutting edge remake of 1973’s Lady Snowblood, the film combines Hong Kong style action with savage Japanese storytelling techniques and special effects.

Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung are “The Twins,” Hong Kong’s answer to Britney, Christina, N’Sync and all the others. They are hugely popular singing stars and actresses, but have yet to make a Hong Kong style action film…until now. Director Dante Lam (Hit Team) does a Buffy the Vampire Slayer “homage” by setting them against gyonshi – the fabled Chinese hopping vampires – and surrounds them with some of the country’s best actors, including Anthony Wong (Hard Boiled), Ekin Cheng (Storm Riders), Jackie Chan, and Karen Mok (Shaolin Soccer). Set to be released in Hong Kong in June 2003 and in America by Columbia Tristar later in the year.