Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And I – I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
– Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken’
Poet Robert Frost wrote it, but Donnie Yen could have said it. A rebel at heart, he’s 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. For Yen, these films are personal.
‘When you watch my films, you’re feeling my heart,’ he relates.
Born in the Chinese province of Canton, Yen came to Hong Kong at age two. He lived there until he was eleven, then moved to Boston, MA. He spent his early teenage years there, where his mother, Bow Sim-Mark, a world famous Wushu and Tai Chi master, ran the internationally known Chinese Wushu Research Institute, and martial arts became a major influence in his life. His footsteps would soon lead him down the less traveled path, his destiny perhaps. But first he would study classical piano, favoring Chopin, music being the other inspiration in his life. His father, Klysler Yen, the Boston editor of Sing Tao, an international Chinese daily paper, plays the violin and a similar-sounding stringed instrument, the Chinese erh-wu while his mother sings soprano. The younger Yen’s sensitivity to rhythm would eventually make its way into the films he directed, adding texture and depth.
‘Music and movement are both expressions of the same basic human energy. They are like paints used to color the screen.’
Donnie Yen’s mother began training her son in the martial arts almost as soon as he could walk. With her he mastered traditional and modern Chinese Wushu and Tai Chi, understanding internal and external principles. As a young teenager hanging out in Boston’s Chinatown, Yen, like most youth, caught every kung fu movie he could, but with a difference. Watching Fu Sheng, Ti Lung, Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan onscreen, Yen could come out of the theaters accurately repeating their moves in the movies he’d just seen. Yen even took to skipping school to take in several movies a day. Hungry for more knowledge and always the rebel, Yen began searching out and mastering various martial arts styles. Whatever his friends were studying, he compared notes and explored other schools too. Feeling the strength and power of his martial arts, he was well along the path in his quest for the truth of martial arts.
As a teenager, the rebellious Yen began running wild on the mean streets of Boston’s notorious Combat Zone. Concerned, his parents arranged a detour for him-sending him to Beijing, where he would spend two years training with the famed Beijing Wushu Team, studying with the same master as Jet Li. Yen became the first non-PRC Chinese to be accepted at the school, thus opening the door for others to follow in future. While the training was intense and rigorous, Yen wanted more, so his time at the school became only a sojourn. En route back to the U.S, he made a side trip to Hong Kong and was introduced to film director Yuen Wo-ping, the action choreographer for 1999’s The Matrix. Yuen, 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.
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 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 says, ‘I’ve been involved with martial arts for so many years now, I don’t really analyze them too much anymore. Basically I agree 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.
Yuen recognized Yen’s extraordinary physical abilities; their series of films together led to a new direction in Hong Kong action cinema. Waiting to begin the filming on his first starring vehicle, Drunken Tai Chi, Yen’s talents were utilized by Yuen on Miracle Fighters 2. Performing incomparable movements, he doubled for all of the Yuen brothers and actor Eddie Ko, all at work on the picture. Yen made his lead debut at the tender age of 19 in one of the last traditional martial arts movies, Drunken Tai Chi, which climaxes with an amazing final fight. He would later star in other Yuen vehicles, and with each, his progression as a martial artist and actor is there for all to see. Mismatched Couples (1985), a lightweight comedy capitalizing on the breakdancing craze, showcased Yen’s agility and flexibility and tapped into his comic flair. The Tiger Cage series, a string of contemporary cops-and-robbers action dramas, hits hard and fast, each film upping the ante action wise. Audiences still debate which is the favorite. In Tiger Cage (1989), he brought talented martial artists and friends Michael Woods and Stephan Berwick on board; their fights incorporated tae kwan do kicks, western boxing, and traditional Chinese martial arts. In The Line of Duty 4 (1989) brought his friend John Salvitti onto the scene as well, and Yen innovatively choreographed realistic fights which exhibited the advanced skills of all the combatants. By Tiger Cage 2 (1990), he had created his own, very modern style of combat choreography, based on his ongoing and widespread research into different fighting arts, and many consider the feral fights in this movie to be among the best in action movie history.
The Dragon Period martial arts movies returned to Hong Kong action cinema with director Tsui Hark’s hit Once Upon a Time in China 2, and Tsui, looking for the ultimate opponent for Jet Li, who had starred in the first movie, chose Yen. 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. 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 favorite 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.
However, Yen wasn’t content with simply appearing onscreen, and his path took another turn. He credits Yuen with discovering him but also acknowledges he learned from many other directors. Always a quick study and a close observer, Yen’s curiosity, intuition and artistic sense served him well as he began developing his own aesthetics and style and putting them onscreen– from action choreography, camera placement, and technique to composition and editing. Rapid-fire editing combined with extended close-ups, over-the-shoulder composition, fragmented action sequences that register the heat of the moment, and a lyrical soundtrack are trademarks of his own films today. But the rhythm they create can be glimpsed in his earlier contributions. By 1994, Yen had been credited as action director on several films, including Wing Chun (in which he again costarred with Michelle Yeoh.)
After the new wave of traditional kung fu films came to an end, Yen turned to the high-pressure world of Hong Kong television to develop his directing skills. He starred in and directed the action for two top-rated shows, Kung Fu Master and Fist of Fury. The former follows the story of a righteous martial artist, Hung Hei-kwun, during the subjugation of the Han people during the late Qing dynasty. The latter was inspired by Bruce Lee’s 1971 classic The Chinese Connection (directed by Lo Wei), which is set in 1930s Shanghai in the international concession during the Japanese occupation. Others had taken on the Bruce Lee role of Chen Zhen, including Jackie Chan in Lo Wei’s sequel to the original, and Jet Li, in Corey Yuen’s Fist of Legend. Now it was Yen’s turn. His 30 episode series for Hong Kong’s ATV allowed him the time to flesh out a back story for featured characters and narrate events leading up to those depicted in the earlier movie. He also quoted all the scenes and images audiences knew well from Lee’s original, such as Chen Zhen, dressed in a white suit, mourning at his master’s grave, or the hero taking on the Japanese dojo, encircled by Japanese fighters. He not only experimented with different styles of action but with camerawork, editing, soundtrack and chroma key effects, suggesting an epic sweep for these characters’ lives. Romance, intrigue, and drama became key elements in Yen’s storytelling. And it is Yen, not Jackie Chan or Jet Li, Asian audiences call ‘Chen Zhen’ when they see him on the streets.
Despite Yen’s exceptional martial arts talent, he chose the less traveled 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 less than a half million dollars US, 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’s 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. Unlike most Hong Kong martial arts and action filmmakers, Yen doesn’t distinguish between shooting action and drama. ‘Many have asked me how to distinguish shooting action and drama,’ he remarks. ‘Well, I don’t. Martial art is a form of expression, an expression from your inner self to your hands and legs. Like all forms of life in our universe. A gesture, a smile, or just walking down the street is an expression. For me, shooting, editing, and scoring rely on rhythm. It must be part of you. Certainly there are fundamental and technical aspects, but at the end it’s the harmony of the whole.’
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, considering the Asian economic crisis hit halfway through filming and Yen’s financial sources disappeared; yet Yen delivered big bang for the buck in a series of hyperkinetic 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.
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 set, he can take in the scene and determine which shots where, what angles, how actors should move. And Yen himself, ever passionate about his work, is moving on.
1999 saw Yen take a new turn when he became the first Hong Kong Chinese film-maker to co-direct for a new 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) and Yen directed 8 new episodes during the series’ successful run. 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 stars Christopher Lambert and Adrian Paul as the Highlanders, Yen was action director and played a featured role as one of the conflicted Immortals. He brought to the martia arts action scenes his distinctive flavor and style, the ultimate kung fu of filmmaking, as he would in his next two projects. 2001 saw Yen’s Hong Kong classic Iron Monkey released in US theaters 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 post-production is Mainland director Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which will reunite Yen and Jet Li as co-stars in an action period piece and in which Yen plays an honorable 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 Yen has the skills and experience to transcend boundaries between Hollywood East and West. Fluent in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, born on the Mainland, having spent his early childhood in Hong Kong, youth in Boston, recent years in Hong Kong, and now based between L.A. and New York, he gives new meaning to the word cosmopolitan. He thrives on the energy of cities and remains a world traveler. His movies reflect his personal intensity and drive as well as the life of the world he observes around him. Filmmaking for Yen is flow, the flow of images, the flow of music, and the flow of communication between the art and the audience.’ He brings a new style of world cinema for the millennium and the road ahead.