At 19, en route back to the US, he made a side trip to Hong
Kong and was introduced to film director Yuen Woo-ping, the action
choreographer for 1999's “The Matrix.” Woo Ping, who had launched the career
of Jackie Chan in “Snake in Eagle's Shadow” and “Drunken Master”, was
looking for a new kung fu movie hero. In Yen, he found his man and so began
a new journey.
Donnie did not have any acting experience at the time. He had always been a
big fan of Bruce Lee but it had never crossed his mind to become involved in
movies. Yen first worked as a stunt double in “Miracle Fighters 2” before he
was cast in ”Drunken Tai Chi.”
Yuen Woo Ping’s "Drunken Tai Chi" was the last of this kind of martial arts
film. The market would no more allow such lavish productions. "Drunken Tai
Chi" took 8 months to film. They would spend 1 month on a single fighting
scene. In our days, most filmmakers spend 2-3 days filming a fight scene.
Donnie had that training, the hardcore training that Jackie Chan had. He
wanted to quit after the first month; it was so abusing both mentally and
physically. These are the kind of things he had to do. He got up at 5:30 am
and would fight all day. Literally, fight all day. He'd throw the same kick
or the same punch over and over again. That kind of shooting would carry
over to 2-3 a.m. and he would be hiding in the corner trying to get some
rest. Yuen Woo Ping would call him over and say, "Let's continue the same
movement that we were doing at 6 a.m." It was totally brutal on every
actor’s body and Donnie had several injuries. That was total training for
him. Later on his career, it was much easier. It was very primitive back in
the old days, in terms of camera work. So, it was based purely on physical
performance. Woo Ping would place the camera on wide shot and the actor got
to do it. He had to be perfect. Later on in other films, where the camera
was more sophisticated, Donnie would have maybe 5 moves instead of 30.
"Drunken Tai Chi" was hard. There were movements that were humanly
impossible but to Yuen Woo Ping, anything is possible. He would push
Donnie’s limit to something almost inhuman. If Donnie jumped off a table and
did a kick and stand on his right leg, Woo Ping would suddenly ask him,
"Could you do it on your right toe?" That was the kind of expectation, the
kind of requirements he had. With that kind of training, Donnie Yen was very
fortunate because it helped him build a strong foundation. "Drunken Tai Chi"
climaxes with an amazing final fight. Woo Ping recognized Yen's
extraordinary physical abilities so their series of films together led to a
new direction in Hong Kong action cinema. He would later star in other Woo
Ping vehicles, and with each, his progression as a martial artist and actor
is there for all to see.
The sophistication of the Martial arts film industry began
to increase due to so many years of filming in Hong Kong. Proper editing and
more carefully written drama replaced just shooting raw fight scenes. Other
aspects of martial arts filmmaking such as lighting, wardrobe and music
suddenly became as important as the fights themselves. Period martial arts
movies returned to Hong Kong action cinema with director Tsui Hark's hit
“Once Upon a Time in China 2.” Tsui, looking for the ultimate opponent for
Jet Li (who had starred in the first movie), chose Yen.
The scene in "Once Upon a Time in China 2" where Donnie fought Jet Li was a
whole lot easier than any scene in "Drunken Tai Chi." They shot it in 3
days. Basically, Yuen Woo Ping was like "Do this. Do that." Tsui Hark placed
the shot and then they went at it. Indeed, Yen and Jet Li engage in two
duels that have become classic action sequences, and in both, Yen creatively
choreographed the movements, inventively using a rolled wet cloth as a
weapon. He was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 1992 Hong
Kong Film Awards in recognition of his “Once Upon a Time in China 2”
performance. The film firmly established him as a Kung Fu movie star.
Other Hong Kong Films
He went on to appear in such highly regarded productions as
“The Butterfly Sword” with Michelle Yeoh, “New Dragon Gate Inn” with Maggie
Cheung (a remake of King Hu's classic), and the cult favourite “Iron
Monkey”, in which he plays Wong Key Ying, father to the young Wong Fei Hung.
In “Iron Monkey,” Yen staged the well-known Shadowless Kick scene in which
he fights renegade Shaolin monks, one of the most influential martial arts
scenes of the decade. His versatility in the martial arts, so apparent in
the “Tiger Cage” series, easily carried over into the period martial arts
movies, demonstrating once more that he is 'master of all genres.’
Inspired by his idol, Bruce Lee, Yen not only explored a wide variety of
different fighting styles, he also created his own unique martial arts
system. His progression in the martial arts is paralleled onscreen by the
assimilation and combinations of various martial arts styles displayed.
Starting as early as “Drunken Tai Chi,” his immense physical capabilities
were evident. In the “Tiger Cage” series, Yen showed his versatility with
Western kickboxing. “Iron Monkey” showcased traditional kung fu style, and
Yen's memorable performance as Wong Key Ying made the movie one of the most
influential martial arts films of the decade. Here, he glorified the kung fu
style of Hung Gar. Ironically, Yen explains he doesn't know Hung Gar but
credits his ability onscreen to his martial arts philosophy. Throughout his
film career, he has never stopped training and his martial arts have never
stopped developing. The mental and the physical have become one, and the
more elevated his art has become, the more Bruce Lee's philosophy has meant
to him. Master of all and none, Yen has been involved with martial arts for
so many years now that he doesn't really analyze them too much anymore.
Basically he agrees with what Bruce Lee said, that ‘as human beings, we all
have two arms and legs, so there can't really be many different styles of
fighting.' Every style of martial arts has something to offer.
We will not cover all of Donnie’s Hong Kong films. We would just like to say
that they all have interesting and exciting fighting scenes, even the ones
that were cheap productions or had rather foolish scripts.