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Rodrigo Medeiros

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Donnie Yen's debut as a director

     
 

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Donnie's Biography  Donnie & Bruce Lee Hong Kong  films

 

Martial Arts Mastery “Fist of Fury” TV series  
 
         

         
 

Legend of the Wolf

 
 
Despite Yen's exceptional martial arts talent, he chose the less travelled path that led to his big-screen directorial debut with “Legend of the Wolf” in 1997. As apparent in the film and his television work, Yen's primary goal he says 'is to stir emotion in the hearts of the audience. Without that, there's nothing.' Many filmmakers can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent, but Yen wants his films to touch his audience, for them to take away with them 'tears, romance, and memory.' Though shot for a lot less than half a million US dollars, because of its unique style the film earned critical acclaim across Asia, and was particularly well-received in Japan where Yen became a cult icon among young film fans. “Legend of the Wolf” (a.k.a. “New Big Boss”) has since been distributed all over the world. Part twilight zone, part gang tale and all martial arts, “Legend” serves as an elegy for a time when kung fu movies reigned supreme. Yen himself stars as Man Hing (also known as Wolf), an aged former hitman who tries to dissuade potential clients form killing. Events are glimpsed in a series of flashbacks as a young man who has lost his memory knows only to wait for his lost love. Experimental camerawork and energetic rhythm can be glimpsed in this movie as well as his previous TV series.
“Legend of The Wolf” took 43 working days to shoot, which is quite short compared to Hollywood films. One of the difficulties of Yen trying to become a director was that for years he had been recognised as an action actor. Getting recognition as a director was the dream of a lifetime but he had to make it happen by himself. So he had to work on a very limited budget and try to make the best film he could. “Legend of The Wolf” was a low budget film but Donnie was hoping that when he earned that recognition, then the investors would invest more money and then he would be able to make something on a much grander scale.
With "Legend of the Wolf," he was too ambitious. He wanted the whole world. He wanted to express his anger, his desire, and ambition. He was ambitious in trying to express himself as an artist and as a fighter. He had done so many films and if he was going to direct a film and go back to the same pattern, the same editing style and choreography, he could not compete with Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, or Yuen Woo Ping. It wasn't the lack of confidence or knowledge. It was the simple fact that he didn't have the budget. He had to find a way to identify himself. He chose to be creative with the editing; with the way he shot the fighting. He wasn't concentrating as much on the technique probably because the audience had seen it all. If in a certain film you throw 3 kicks in the air, what's it going to be next time? That's why people probably got tired of Van Damme because he is doing the same thing every time. Donnie had to make a really bold statement with his vision. Some people thought he was totally crazy with "Legend of the Wolf" with the cranking up the speed of the fighting. It was fast cut and they couldn't see it clearly. The conservative people in Hong Kong were very confused. Speed is basically a feeling. According to Yen, “If you can see it; it's not the ultimate speed.” A lot of the action directors say that the action has to be clean in a movie. However, Donnie thinks that his films do not need to be like instructional tapes. We have seen him doing 30 movements and the whole kung-fu forms in "Drunken Tai Chi". In “Legend of the Wolf," he just wanted to take the audience to another level. He wanted to give the viewers the satisfaction of watching martial arts films. His intention was to have them walking out of his films still shaking with these images, dreams, and nightmares. He wanted it to be ‘so damn fast that they would not sleep.’ He believes that he served his purpose and the martial arts approach. As a first time director, however, he was overly ambitious. He wanted to tap into philosophy; he wanted to compete with Tsui Hark; he wanted to prove that with a limited budget, he was just as good.

 

         
 

Ballistic Kiss

 
 
Having shot “Legend Of The Wolf” in what remains of the Hong Kong countryside, Yen made his next film, “Ballistic Kiss,” on the 24- hour streets of the city itself. Where his first film had focussed on martial arts action, “Ballistic Kiss” featured some of the most imaginative gunplay sequences ever committed to celluloid, accompanied by his signature kicks and daring editing. The film's score was composed by famed Japanese composer Yukie Nishimura, who volunteered to work on the project having been inspired by watching Yen's debut film, “Legend Of The Wolf.” Both films depict romance caught in the line of fire, and both give free reign to the unique visual style of one of Hong Kong's most exciting young directors. In “Kiss” Yen stars as the hitman Cat, who loves from afar. The film was shot for less than half a million dollars and under enormously difficult circumstances, yet Yen delivered big bang for the buck in a series of hyper-kinetic action sequences, along with arty camerawork and romantic lyricism. The film was not only a success with Hong Kong film critics but Yen was nominated for the Best Young Director Award at the 1998 Yubari Fantastic Film Festival in Japan and “Kiss” has been selected for screening at many other international festivals as well.
This second directorial project was very difficult to film. According to Yen, there were a lot of problems with that film in terms of the script, dialogue, acting; but most importantly there was a lack of budget. When he looks at this film, under those circumstances; the environment and lack of support, he admits that his willingness to pull it off despite all of that was surprising. After he made "Legend of the Wolf," they came back to him and wanted him to shoot more of those hard-core martial arts films; but he refused to do that. As a director who has a vision and dream, he wanted to do more modern films. His whole approach was going to be a whole English dialogue film. The first day he had problems with people speaking English, so one day he had to stop production entirely to translate into Chinese. It was a difficult process with all of the slang, the elements, and the structure since it was based on Western thinking. Switching to that local flavour was hard.
After a week of reconstructing the film, he realized he was filming in the middle of the Asian stock crisis. The money that was promised to back up his film was cut off so he had to invest his own money. That was the biggest problem. He was dealing with a catch 22 situation. As he was going into production, he was dealing with a money shortage, dealing with whether he should stop the whole production and call it off in order to not let it get any deeper. However, he was concerned that if he stopped production it would ruin his career as a director and people in the industry would no longer take him seriously. Everyday he was dealing with that type of situation, and at that point he was just wondering what he was going to do with "Ballistic Kiss?" Fortunately, he decided that he should go ahead and use his own money. He had done some films he did not really like so that he could make some money and back up his own film. Some scenes could have been shot better, but the reason he couldn't enhance it was that he didn't have the money. He tried to close the gap by putting a lot of time into editing because that really didn't cost much money. When he was editing, he was trying to cover up the problems with the film. He was very strong, determined and stubborn. He just wouldn’t have people laugh at him. He was going to make the best film possible regardless of the material that he lacked. He didn't have enough shots, enough footage and certain things were not right. He forced it out. He spent hours trying to make it as smooth as possible, pulling the right elements of music together. At the end of the day, he saw the film and he thought, "This is not a bad little film here." The next thing he knew, a couple of months later, someone from Japan called him to tell him that he had been nominated. Yen said of the experience, “Sometimes you have all your expectations in one thing, and they don't come out the way you want it. Sometimes in the worst situations things turn out to be a whole lot better than you expect.” Having gone through all these processes has made him a much better filmmaker. Now he can understand everyone's perspective: the distributor, investor, actor, producer, and writer. He knows how to handle all of them.

“Legend Of The Wolf,” “Ballistic Kiss,” Yen's television work, and his action choreography have earned him the reputation of being a focused filmmaker who has a vision and can bring it to the screen - but also as one who can keep within budgetary restraints or reliably work under pressure when there are bumps in the road. He never storyboards and, like John Woo, carries the film in his head. A good observer, he says that when he walks onto the set, he can take in the scene and determine which shots should go where, what angles, how actors should move. And Yen himself, ever passionate about his work, is moving on.
Donnie is very happy that the feedback for “Legend of the Wolf” and “Ballistic Kiss” is so positive because he worked very hard on both of those movies. He may not be totally satisfied with the films and although he would like to make them better, he believes that it will come with time. Anyway, expensive production is not everything. Talent is everything and passion in the heart of the artist. As Donnie says, “When you watch my films, you're feeling my heart.”
     
 

More topics:

Donnie's Biography  Donnie & Bruce Lee Hong Kong  films

 

Martial Arts Mastery “Fist of Fury” TV series  
 
     

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