Donnie Yen is a famed martial artist, director, fight
choreographer and Hong Kong movie hero and is no stranger to on-screen
fighting. This Boston native has wielded his fists of fury in such Asian
action films as “Tiger Cage 2,” “Dragon Gate Inn” and “The Butterfly Sword.”
A long-time cult icon waiting to be cultivated, Yen looks set to win a whole
new audience with his Hollywood debut roles in “Highlander: Endgame” and
Donnie Yen has been labelled as the “Last Dragon” to come out of the old
school of famous Hong Kong martial artists. You have actors like Keanu
Reeves or Cameron Diaz trying to throw a couple of kicks. But actors like
Donnie Yen are the real deal, the ultimate martial artist bringing it on
screen. It seems that along with Jackie Chan and Jet Li, they are the last
of their kind.
Known for his good looks and probably the fastest legs in the business,
Yen’s unique style of fighting is quite unpredictable as he effortlessly
shifts gears of motion. One moment the audience is magnetized by his liquid
motion, as his movements and form are hypnotically fluid and dance-like. And
within moments, Donnie's fighting style has been transformed to a state of
unparalleled speed and raw power without sacrificing proper technique.
Donnie Yen has the education and experience to transcend boundaries between
Hollywood, East and West. Fluent in English, Cantonese and Mandarin; born on
the Mainland but grew up in Hong Kong and later in Boston; spent his recent
years in Hong Kong, and is now based between L.A. and New York, he gives new
meaning to the phrase “man of the world.” His movies reflect his personal
intensity and drive as well as the life of the world he observes around him.
Filmmaking for Yen is pace and flow, the flow of images, the flow of music,
and the flow of communication between the art and the audience.' We strongly
believe that today he is the best martial arts actor, equal if not better
than Jackie Chan and Jet Li in their prime. We were very disappointed to see
that Wesley Snipes did not take advantage of such a talent in Blade 2.
Donnie’s role was far too short. If they fought together, it could have just
been one of the best fights ever filmed.
A rebel at heart, Donnie has made his own way. The road ahead hasn't always
run smooth. Direct and honest in his opinions, he's probably made it harder
on himself. The journey has shaped not only who he is today but the vision
of the films he has directed.
Donnie Yen Chi Tan was born in Canton in Mainland China.
When he was about one and a half years old, he immigrated to Hong Kong with
his father. His mother Bow Sim-Mark couldn't get permission to leave China
at that time, and it was to be another eight years before they would be
reunited as a family. During that time he met his mother once when he went
back to China, so he could see what she looked like! When she finally came
to Hong Kong, they lived there for about another two years before their
whole family relocated to America and settled in Boston when he was about 11
Donnie Yen's mother began training her son in the martial arts almost as
soon as he could walk (4 years old). When Don went to visit his mother in
China, she would teach him a few basics, as would her teacher, but it wasn’t
until they'd moved to America and she started the Chinese Wushu Research
Institute, that he really started studying the martial arts.
With his mother, he mastered traditional and modern Chinese Wushu and Tai
Chi, understanding internal and external principles. His mother was teaching
him in the very traditional Chinese way, very conservative. Like most kids
he was quite rebellious, especially against anything that was conservative
or restrictive. He was always questioning; looking for the ultimate martial
art. So he would run away from his mother's school and hang out with his
friends who were studying other martial arts, even going to their schools
sometimes and learning from them. He took up various other styles including
the Korean art of Taekwondo. At that time most of his life was spent in and
around Chinatown, so he was also watching a lot of Chinese movies, and this
was when the Kung Fu Movie industry was at its peak. He was really inspired
by watching all these movies, and of course there was also the main man,
Bruce Lee. He was then, and still is, Yen’s idol. Bruce had a lot of
influence on him, not only in the martial arts but a lot of other things.
They kind of have some similarities in their backgrounds: they both came to
America from Hong Kong, established lives for themselves in the US before
going back to work in Hong Kong, etc. Bruce Lee has always been a big
inspiration to him; Donnie thinks of him as a kind of mentor. He would watch
all these movies, try and find out what styles were what, what looked good,
what worked and what didn't. He read all the magazines and books on martial
arts that he could get his hands on, and he'd always question things. Why do
you have to throw this kick like this? Can you do it another way that's
better? His mother started his training by teaching him Northern Shaolin
which has a lot of similarities to Wushu, Tai Chi and Wu Dang styles but he
has dabbled with Wing Chun, Taekwondo, Karate, Praying Mantis and a lot
more. He was Kung Fu crazy for a long time; he'd skip school to practice
martial arts with his friends. They’d draw a circle in the park, and
practice Chi-Sao for hours; they'd beat each other up doing Mantis. And he
was very much into Bruce Lee; he would be walking around in the full Bruce
Lee get-up: kung fu uniform, sunglasses, and nunchucks in his socks. He was
lucky that he had exposure to so many different styles and that he had so
many friends who were into martial arts. While they were all studying
various styles, when they got together, they would exchange what they had
learnt. So he had this very big varied pool of martial arts to dip into,
which has been very useful to him. It's the American way, to be open to
everything useful, not like traditional Chinese martial arts culture where
you learn one style and that's it. So he had this great mixed-up kung fu
background anyway, and then of course the whole Wushu phenomenon came along
in the early 1980's.
The Beijing Wushu Team
The Beijing Wushu Team came over to America to do a
National Tour and when they visited Boston, Donnie was given the opportunity
to perform for the team’s two head coaches. They seemed to like what they
saw and told him that he had the potential to go on and become a champion in
China. Donnie thought it was a nice compliment but with there being so many
people in China, even though he thought he was pretty good, he didn't
actually think he could be one of the best. So he didn't really think much
more about it until several months later. He was having some problems with
his family, he and his father weren't talking, he'd moved out on his own and
he was starting to get into all kinds of trouble. There are two types of
Chinese growing up in America. One is the kind that does really well in
school, with thick, thick glasses. And the other is involved with the gangs.
Donnie was semi-involved with a gang and confused like any other kid. Most
kids go through the same thing but he got himself together and chose the
When his mother called him up and asked him if he wanted to go to China to
study Wushu he pretty much knew that it would be the best thing for him to
do at the time. He also knew that if he carried on the way he was carrying
on in America at the time, he would either end up as a gangster or wind up
dead. Neither of those two options really appealed to him, so he jumped at
the chance to train in China. When he finally went to China, he found out
that although the two coaches had indeed invited him to go to Beijing and
study, it was more out of courtesy than being a genuine invitation. At that
time China was still very much closed to the west and when he got there
everybody was wearing Mao suits and needed food stamps to eat. So when he
arrived, the two coaches froze up. They didn't want to get into any trouble
because of him being there but there he was a 16year-old kid who'd just
flown halfway around the world to train with them. He was suffering from
culture shock and also having a major communication problem. Although he
spent his childhood in Hong Kong and could speak Cantonese, and had visited
China before, now he was in the middle of China where everybody only spoke
Mandarin and nobody really seemed too happy that he was there. But somehow
some strings got pulled, and the fact that he'd come all the way over put
everybody on the spot and eventually forced them to let him stay and train
there. He was the first foreigner to be officially accepted and spent the
next two years training and living in Beijing. He had great success in
learning Wushu. While training in Beijing, Donnie actually studied with the
same master as Jet Li.
Yuen Woo Ping
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. Woo Ping recognized Yen's
extraordinary physical abilities so their series of films together led to a
new direction in Hong Kong action cinema. Donnie would later star in a lot
of Hong Kong action movies , and with each,
his progression as a martial artist and actor is there for all to see.
Martial Artist of the Year
In 1982, the martial arts magazine, 'Inside Kung-Fu' named
Donnie Yen, 'Martial Artist of the Year'. Donnie is not the only member of
the Yen family to practice martial arts. His sister, Yen Chi Ching, has won
numerous medals in international martial arts competitions. His mother, Bow
Sim Mark, is a very famous martial arts master of Tai Chi Chuan and Pa Kua
Chang and she was named “Instructor of the Year” by 'Black Belt’ magazine
and 'Woman of the Year' by 'Inside Kung Fu' magazine.
Back in the US.
With the strong success of his other films like "Iron
Monkey," Donnie Yen has strong followings elsewhere - like in Europe. There
is also a strong following among the urbanites on the East Coast when it
comes to martial arts films. His moving to the US now seemed more natural.
He didn't do this a couple of years before because maybe he just didn't have
What's interesting is how destiny plays itself out. There have been several
occasions where the opportunity to crossover has been there. He was cast for
the title role in "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story." The casting director wanted
to see him so he flew to L.A. but unfortunately, he didn't get the part.
Jason Scott Lee did a pretty poor job. We think that Donnie could probably
have done a better job (after all he is a true martial artist, unlike Jason
Scott Lee). Soon after, he went back to do "Fists of Fury." He enjoyed
working in this TV series because he is a big fan of Bruce Lee.
The second approach was just after he finished filming "Legend of the Wolf,"
and before it was distributed worldwide. According to Donnie, Francis Ford
Coppola and the film company he formed with Wayne Wang called ‘Clone Dragon’
approached him. The objective of the company was to recruit Asian talent and
use this talent to produce low budget films. He was asked if he wanted to
meet with Coppola's people. He did and they gave him a script which he
didn't like at all. The script perpetuated stereotypes and was very cliche
about portraying Asian people. He refused to do that because he always had
certain beliefs and would turn down certain projects if he didn’t believe in
them. He said, "Look, I will do this film only if you let me come up with a
brand new concept." He asked author, actor, and friend Bey Logan to make a
movie with him. Bey came up with the concept and wrote the whole script. The
film was named "Chinese Heart." The story was about a white man who always
had dreams and images of assassins. He had a heart transplant from a Chinese
male donor. But unfortunately, the bottom line, the film never happened.
The last story involved Steven Seagal. He wanted to do another film so he
came to Hong Kong looking for talent and met with everybody under the sun
including Jackie (Chan). Through word of mouth, he was told to check out
Donnie’s work. He loved it. They talked and had it going. He flew Donnie in
and took care of him in L.A. Steven Seagal respected him, talked to him,
took him to his house, and never said bad things about him. Unfortunately,
that film never launched. The next thing was he did another Leslie Cheung
film as an action director.
1999 saw Yen take a new turn when he became the first Hong Kong Chinese
film-maker to co-direct a German TV series, flying to Berlin to make
“Codename: Puma.” The pilot episode was barely beaten in the ratings by the
8 o'clock news (which has held its time slot for thirty years' running).
Eventually, Yen directed 8 episodes during the series' successful run.
Then one of his best friends in L.A, Curtis Wong, the publisher of Inside
Kung-Fu magazine, heard that Miramax was looking for a new Chinese martial
arts actor, and he showed them clips of Donnie. Luckily, he got a call
asking if he wanted to be in “Highlander: Endgame”.
After signing a three-picture deal for Dimension Films (a
division of Miramax), Yen made his first movie for them, “Highlander:
Endgame.” While the film’s stars are Christopher Lambert and Adrian Paul as
the Highlanders, Yen was action director and played a featured role as one
of the conflicted Immortals. In the beginning they sent him a preliminary
script, and he genuinely couldn't see who he was supposed to be playing. The
main villain was a European role, and that had already been cast. They
promised him that they'd be re-writing the script to create a character for
him, and that they wanted his input. Everything they promised they delivered
on, which is rather unusual in Hollywood
In the film, the main villain is an Immortal, and he has five other
Immortals of different ethnic backgrounds working for him. There are four
guys and a girl. Donnie’s character is called Jin. He worked with the
director to develop a back-story for him where he's this actual historical
character, an assassin who tried to kill a Chinese emperor centuries before.
He has two main fights in “Highlander: Endgame”. He worked on the
choreography of his scenes, and even the camera positioning. The
cinematographer, Doug Milsome, worked for Stanley Kubrick on “Full Metal
Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” He asked Donnie for some help in shooting the
martial arts action. Yen was really impressed that Doug had such a humble
attitude. In the end, it was a good collaboration and that's why the fights
came out so well.
Donnie feels that amongst the Hong Kong actor imports, Jet Li was lucky
enough to bring in his own team. Donnie isn’t sure how Jet got his way, but
he actually had people from Hong Kong shooting his stuff. That's very
important in making sure the quality is under control. Unfortunately Donnie
didn't really have that kind of freedom in “Highlander.” Luckily he has a
lot of experience, both in working with different circumstance and being...
diplomatic. He choreographed everything in the fights. He kind of
manipulated it to the point where they could not really cut up the shots.
The idea was, 'let's choreograph fundamental, basic movements.”
It was a kind of strange environment to try and bring that performance to
the screen. But, at the end of the day, he saw the rough cuts and it looked
all right. It was basic, but it was purely relying on the performance. He
did two fights. The beginning fight scene where he beat up some people and a
fight with Adrian Paul. It is very well shot and it is actually the best
part of the film. Donnie “shines” so much that he draws more attention on
him than the real stars of the film.
The director of photography often had to tell Donnie to slow down. All the
people on the set were acknowledging his performance with their mouths open.
They called him 'One-shot' or 'One-take' Donnie. They said that he was the
fastest man they had ever seen on the screen. He realized that's the way to
go especially if he was going to launch a career in the US. He had to get
recognition; he had to get the hype going. He had to use the nature of his
talent, which was his martial arts ability. “Highlander” changed his life
because it was actually the first film of the three-picture deal he had with
Miramax. Since making the film, he has relocated from Hong Kong to L.A. He
was really excited about getting this opportunity, and he is going to make
the best of it.
2001 saw Yen's Hong Kong classic “Iron Monkey” released in US theatres
nationwide, bringing his earlier work to a new audience. Meantime Yen was
already working as action director on “Shurayuki-Hime” (The Princess Blade)
which took him to Japan, and the Wesley Snipes’ movie “Blade II: Bloodhunt.”
With “Princess Blade,” Yen broke new ground by delivering his signature
style in a Japanese produced film with an all Japanese cast and crew. The
movie's been so popular that the producer now plans “Japanese Angel”
(working title) for this summer, which Yen will direct. For the Hollywood
produced “Blade II,” a martial arts vampire movie, Yen also has a cameo as
Snowman, a samurai vampire who's "cold as ice." In Mainland director Zhang
Yimou's “Hero,” he is reunited with Jet Li as co-stars in an action period
piece and in which Yen plays an honourable assassin. Next Yen will co-star
as the villain in “Shanghai Knights,” the latest
Jackie Chan vehicle, also
with Owen Wilson, a sequel to “Shanghai Noon.”
Donnie’s saga continues. He is young, talented and ambitious. We strongly
believe that he could be the new martial arts mega-star. Unfortunately even
the best fighter cannot fight his way to Hollywood success. Hollywood is
full of talented people but there also are a lot of ignorant and prejudiced
people as far as martial arts are concerned. We at Fightingmaster.com wish
him all the luck! He surely needs it.