Many U.S. moviegoers got their first good look at Donnie Yenlast year when his 1993 martial arts movie Iron Monkey wasreleased domestically by Miramax pictures. But Yen, like Jackie Chan and Jet Libefore him, is an accomplished martial arts super-star in Asia who is poised tobreak out in the America.
He's starred in over 30 features in HongKong and directed anumber of films there as well. Now, Yen is now acting in his second Hollywoodfilm, Blade 2. More importantly, Yen made his mark on thesuper-hero sequel as the action choreographer.
Comics2Film talked with the filmmaker about his careerand his experiences with Blade 2.
C2F: I understand that your initial martial arts training started withyour mother, Bow Sim-Mark, a Tai Chi master.
Donnie Yen: Tai Chi as well as Wushu master. Actually Wushu is the properterm for Kung Fu. The exact translation of Kung Fu is just meaning"skill". That could apply to cooking, writing, anything that isskillful you can call Kung Fu, but the actual martial art itself is calledWushu.†
Anyway she teaches Wushu and Tai Chi, matter of fact she still does, inBoston.
C2F: At what age did you start?
D.Y.: Very young. Actually, not as young as everybody expects: as soon as I wasborn, not at all.
Me and my mother were separated for many years during the culturalrevolution. My mom stayed behind in China. My father took me to Honk Kong when Iwas 1.
So, I started my martial arts training when I was nine years old, when Ireunited with my Mom. She left China. She reunited with me and my father. Then Istarted my martial arts training under her.
C2F: At that time you lived in Boston. Why did you go back to HongKong and how did you end up in movies?
D.Y.: I was traveling around studying martial arts all over the world. I was inChina back in 1981, traveled throughout China to study martial arts. The questof the ultimate truth of martial arts.
I was a big fan of Bruce Lee, like many others. I stopped by Hong Kong and Imet up with my mentor, Yuen Wo Ping [also credited in U.S. as Woo-ping Yuen]. Ofcourse Yuen Wo Ping's name is all over the place now, especially after CrouchingTiger won an Oscar.
Anyway, he was a huge, influential martial arts director at the time, and hestill is. He was looking for new blood. That was like two years after he made amovie called Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle's Shadow,which, by the way, brought super-stardom to Jackie Chan.
His older sister used to be my mom's martial arts student when my mother wasin Hong Kong. Because of that connection, he was looking for this young kid andI was stopping by and through our common connection he met up with me. He saw meand was really, really impressed by my martial arts abilities. Then he signed mefor a couple years of exclusive contract under his company. Then I made mystarring movie, directed by him, at the age of 19.
It's called Drunken Tai Chi, one of those classic kung fumovies. Way more classic than Iron Monkey truthfully! Back in theold days where you don't see anything but just fighting. One of those Sundayafternoon Kung Fu theater? One of those.
C2F: How did you get involved with Blade 2?
D.Y.: I kept making movies in Hong Kong, non-stop. Then back in late 1999,early 2000 Miramax called me. By then I already formed my own company and I wasdoing a lot behind the camera, directing as well as acting.
Miramax called and said they really love my work and would like to buy acollection of my previous films one of them being Iron Monkey ofcourse, and they wanted to be in business with me.†
With that under negotiation they put me in a film called Highlander.At the time Highlander never really had an Asian role but becausethey want to be in business with me they had the script writer call me up inHong Kong and then we kind of coordinated a setup where they could fit a rolefor me in that film. It's probably unheard of but Miramax can make anythinghappen.†
So both Harvey and Bob Weinstein really loved my performance in the film andI came to L.A. and hooked up with all the agents and lawyers. Miramax reallycontinues to be a supporter of me being here and wants to make something out ofme. Eventually they bought about 5-6 of my films into their library.
And then in the course of my agent trying to find projects for me, Guillermodel Toro, the director of Blade 2 called my agents up and wantedto talk to me. When I walked in he said he's a big fan and held up some of myvideo tapes and said he wants me to be part of that film.†
I ended up being martial arts choreographer of the film. But because both himand Wesley (also a big fan who loved Iron Monkey) wanted me to bepart of the film I ended up playing a cameo. But my main position was martialarts choreographer.
C2F: The cameo is the character Snowman. Did you get much screen time?
D.Y.: (Laughing) I really don't know what they did with me. I guess whenever you see theblood pack you see me around. So a lot of hard-core kung fu fans don't expecttoo much out of me. I'm just playing a cameo due to my respect and gratitudetoward Del Toro and Wesley.
C2F: As the choreographer, how was it working with an American crewof stuntmen?
D.Y.: Actually, that was my second film, after Highlander. So Highlandergave me a taste of how it is to work in American films as opposed to Hong Kongfilms. [In Asia] the budget normally is a lot smaller. We're talking aboutsubstantially different: from $2 million to an average $10-15 millionsmall-budget film in Hollywood.
First of all, in Hollywood we have all the time in the world as far aspreparation goes. Compared to a Hong Kong: say I'm an action director in HongKong. I literally have to walk on the set, communicate with the director rightthen and there. He tells me about the scene. Then I have to go to work.Basically I have to set up the cameras, work with all the actors and actresses.Even if we never worked together before I literally have to make these peopleperform and make it happen. That's how intense they are in Hong Kong.
Of course, over here we have proper weeks of training with the actors goingthrough the scenes, blocking the scenes, explaining to the director, the cameraman. In Hong Kong we pretty much do it all. A lot of times I even have to holdthe camera myself, just to speed up getting the shots covered at the end of theday.
C2F: How was Snipes' martial arts work in the film?†
D.Y.: Absolutely amazing! I have great things to say about this man.†
What I always knew of this man is that he's a big fan of Hong Kong film. Ialways knew he was attached to a lot of Asian culture by his reputation and someof his previous work. He was doing martial arts in some of his previous work.But when I met him I realized this guy is not only is physically capable but hehas a strong understanding of Asian culture.†
I was really impressed by his physical abilities as well as his philosophy.As you know martial arts are everywhere right now, especially the Hong Kongstyle of martial arts presentation on screen. From a TV show to a big Hollywoodproduction like Charlie's Angels, TV commercials, we witnessedthat in the Super Bowl, right?
In order to bring out the genuine flavor, the secret is the understanding ofChinese culture. That is very important. A person can be physically capable, butsomething is missing if he doesn't understand the philosophy behind it. But inWesley's case he understands and he applies it to his physicality.
That really impressed me. Our very first scene, right before I walked intothe set, I was kind of unsure how complicated should I choreograph this stufffor him, not knowing his level of understanding. After working with him very fewhours I knew we were on the right path. Then I started getting very complicatedwith the choreography.
Our second scene, the ninja scene, I just said to the man, "how about alittle Crouching Tiger swordplay mixed up with Blade?"He loved the idea. Which you'll see in the movie. There's a lot of swords,weapons flying around, very Chinese-style, very Crouching Tiger,but performed in a cyber, high-tech setting. Something Blade would use.
C2F: How well did the otheractors adapt to the fighting?
D.Y.: Wesley was probably the only martial artists on the set besidesmyself.†
The main actress, LeonorVarela, we had to train her. She actually was a very, very fast learner. She dida big fight with Wesley, she played one of the ninjas with a double-sword.Obviously she's never held up a double sword in her entire life, not to mentionshe's not even a martial artists.
But we trained her and shepicked up things quick.
I think my responsibility washow to make these actors as convincing as possible in such a short time, eventhough we were still given a lot of time compared to Hong Kong. I guess I havemy own standards. I'm not only have to answer to a regular audience but I alsohave to answer some of my expectations from back east where they'll say"oh, this is Donnie Yen's work." The standard has to be a littlehigher.
C2F: Did you find that your own experience as a directorhelped you in working on this film?
D.Y.: Absolutely. As an experienced martial arts director, choreographer Iunderstand when a director wants to set up a shot of his vision or his concept,what he wants to bring in front of the camera, I was quite confident that Iunderstood with each shot what he wanted to project. That helped a lot. I couldlook at him, even from far away and I could understand what he wanted to do withit.†
A lot of times I can adapt to that, at times changing the choreography on theset. Little movement to big movements by just manipulating the positions or theturning of the head from the eyesight, just to give the director what I assumehe wants. It helped a lot.
C2F: Has there been any talkabout Blade 3?
D.Y.: Never heard of Blade 3 until recently. You never knowwhat's going to happen.†
C2F: What other big moviesdo you have coming up?
I just finished this big movie called Hero.That is something, truthfully I think that will be the action film of this year.
We're going to beat Crouching Tiger all the way. Same people, same producers.We have Zhang Yimou, he's one of the best directors from over there. Our goal isnot to make a great martial arts film, but we want to make history. We're goingfor the Oscar.
C2F: What about Donnie Yen,the director?
D.Y.: I just finished directing an action movie, the Japanese name iscalled "Shurayuki". It's based on a very famous Japanese comic book.The movie is still playing in Japan right now. I finished that last summer. I'mprobably going to go back and do a sequel for that.
I will direct another movie,"Japanese Charlie's Angels" in the summer with avery high-profile producer in Japan. That is something I look forward to. Mypersonal interest is actually behind the camera but all of a sudden I'm indemand as an actor right now so I want to take advantage of being in front ofthe camera as well.
C2F: But directing is yourprimary interest.
D.Y.: That's my interest. I've starred in 33 movies and I've made 35 films.I've also starred in 300 hours of TV series. I've done a lot of work in HongKong, you know, to the point where playing a role doesn't interest me.
Whenyou've been in a TV series for so long, you've pretty much gone through thesatisfaction of an actor going through every scene and every situation, and Ihave. And I was quite fortunate.†
I'm moreexcited by the environment or the project itself. For example, I loved Blade1. That's one of the big reasons I'm involved with this movie. I thought it wasreally cool when I saw Blade back in Hong Kong. It had "Hong Kongaction" written all over it. So I was really motivated by it. But I neverexpected Hong Kong action to really take it to the mainstream like what we seeto day. It's all over the place.
None of us Hong Kong filmmakers really expected that. It's a blessing indisguise that a lot of my colleagues are over here, not to mention Jackie andJet Li already broke into the mainstream and became superstars over here.
That's my interest, but as far as acting goes I pick each project if I'mgoing to have some fun then I'll do it. I'll be going to Prague again (goingback and forth) to do Shanghai Knights with Jackie. I've never made a movie withJackie, and I've probably made a movie with practically everybody under the sunin Hong Kong except for Jackie, so that is something I look forward to.
C2F: Any more Americanmovies on the horizon?
D.Y.: That's why I'm here. I guess Miramax has all kinds of plans for me.Hopefully you'll be hearing more about me in the mainstream over here.
New LineCinema's Blade 2 opens in U.S. theaters on March 22, 2002.
Special thanksto Mike Oeming of his invaluable assistance and expertise.