As Donnie Yen prepares to bid farewell to the role that has defined his career, he talks to us about what he’s learned, what’s coming next and why he’ll never stop striving for filmmaking perfection.
When the movie Ip Man was released in 2008, it conjured up an image of the martial-arts grandmaster as a gentle and cultured mentor with remarkable kung fu skills. That same persona has also become synonymous with the actor who portrays him, Donnie Yen, so the December release of the final chapter in the film franchise, Ip Man 4, is expected to impact not only the cinematic story of Wing Chun, aka Ip Man, but also Yen himself.
With the Ip Man series now in its 12th – and, one assumes, last – year, how does Yen regard the franchise, not only in and of itself, but also in terms of its place in Hong Kong cinema, not to mention its effect on his own career as an actor and filmmaker? What, in other words, does Donnie Yen think about Donnie Yen – and where does he see himself going from here?
For many people, Donnie Yen is Ip Man, just as Robert Downey Jr has become Iron Man. So will it be Yen who’s playing his next character or Ip Man? The conundrum brings to mind the words of the famous Peking Opera artist Mei Lanfang on the subject of acting: “Those who look at you do not see your own self; when you look at yourself you don’t see your own self either. Whoever performs a certain character, whatever it is, has the duty to look like that.”
Playing Ip Man has undoubtedly advanced Yen’s career, and after more than 10 years he’s developed quite a feeling for the role. “At the beginning, no one predicted that Ip Man would be so successful,” he says, “though now I realise I’ve studied for this role more intensively than for any other. He’s a master who’s introverted and represents the character of the Chinese nation.”
Yen also acknowledges the gradual evolution of the character, from Ip Man to Ip Man 4: “Compared to the action style of traditional martial-arts movies, I believe that people can see how my style and my performance have developed.”
Of course, there’s much more to Yen than Ip Man, though just as his portrayal of Chen Zhen in the 1990s TV series Fist of Fury kicked off his acting career, the role of Ip has filled his sails immeasurably. “I can honestly say that because of Ip Man, I’ve been given many opportunities by the movie industry. It’s my biggest achievement,” he says.
The 56-year-old actor’s more recent repertoire includes playing the mythological Sun Wukong in The Monkey King, Guan Yu in The Lost Bladesman and the Hong Kong gangster Crippled Ho in the Wong Jing and Jason Kwan-directed Chasing the Dragon. He’s even stepped out into the international arena to play the blind monk Chirrut Îmwe in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the agent Xiang in xXx: Return of Xander Cage and taken on the role of the commander in Disney’s soon-to-be-released Mulan.
“As an actor, it’s important to have opportunities,” says Yen. “You get a good role [and you’re the first one to play it]. Of course, luck works to quite a large extent, but whether you can seize the opportunity depends on whether you work hard enough. I understand that, as an actor, you shouldn’t lose yourself in transient success – you have to progress continually.”
Yen also understands that because of Ip Man’s success, he’s needed to redouble his efforts so that audiences can appreciate his range as an artist. Although he now has an impressive body of work behind him, there’s also the pressure that comes from being defined by what he’s done before. “It’s actually the biggest problem for an actor,” he says. “I’ve never stopped worrying about it.”
Fortunately, says Yen, there’s a realisation that everything has to stop sometime – and for him Ip Man 4 is less an ending than a new beginning. “When you’ve finished playing one role, the new task is to break through the shadow that the role has cast over you. Professional actors should never stop searching – it’s how you constantly make progress and move forward.”
As to the fans who are unwilling to see him abandon his most famous role, he says they should wait and see: “Perhaps the future holds some surprising performances from Donnie Yen. So stay tuned.”
As well as his performances in the Ip Man series, Yen is also highly regarded as an action director in his own right, learning his craft from the influential martial-arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping in the 1992 Tsui Hark-directed Once Upon a Time in China 2, in which he played the role of Nap-lan Yun-seut; the famous “cloth stick” fight scene was Yen’s idea. He made his directorial debut in 1997 with Legend of the Wolf, following which he was invited to choreograph fight scenes and play cameos in numerous Hollywood movies (Highlander: Endgame, 2000; Blade II, 2002).
Yen’s contribution behind the scenes continues to this day. Much of Chirrut Îmwe’s style in Rogue One was born of Yen’s imagination, as were the ideas for the music, settings and social atmosphere in Chasing the Dragon. “There were many opinions and disputes over Chasing the Dragon,” he says, “but the results proved me right and provided my working partner Wong Jing with six nominations from the Hong Kong Film Awards for the first time in his career.” Yen’s modest pride in his filmmaking input is palpable, and if the effects the film presents can be interpreted differently, the determination of Yen to take his own path is obvious.
Yen believes that his involvement behind the scenes as part of the production team has spurred his own progress as a filmmaker. “No matter what I’m doing, I don’t give up for a second, and I find fun in the process of search and discovery. Because of this I can be passionate about what I do. The whole team learns and grows together. People shouldn’t shirk from sharing their feelings. This is the way to achieve the best results.”
This self-imposed requirement for constant growth isn’t easy. “The filmmaking process is hard,” Yen insists, “but in the end it’s satisfying because participation in every little thing related to the birth of a movie is a kind of creation.” He laughs, and says, “Filmmakers who are willing to keep improving seem to have a strange illness in that the busier they are, the better in spirit they seem to be. The busier the better. If I’m free, just spending time on rest and leisure, my whole person gets lax.”
This is how Yen has always been. Creation brings a kind of pressure and responsibility. “Because I hope to present the best results, to film and make the best works, and to show the best Donnie Yen from any angle, I won’t disappoint those who entrust me. My personal contribution also represents the efforts of everyone, so I believe that the final effect has to be very good.”
Yen is used to playing a multitude of roles. “Now, when I’m acting, I know that I need to concentrate on how I should play the role, to keep direction and vision, and try to present the image of the character from different angles; and if I’m behind the scenes, then I think about how I should view the script.
“A good actor needs to think from the perspective of actor, director, supervisor, martial-arts direction, props and the actual situation. You need to think clearly.” After decades, Yen believes he’s developed a method that works. “Many people have asked me how I can balance so many different identities. It may be because, after decades, I’m used to asking myself what should the on-the-scenes actor think? What should the behind-the-scenes personnel think? It’s become like a reflex.”
Isn’t that tiresome? “I hope people won’t see me as that complicated.” He laughs and says that while the Donnie Yen we see on screen may seem like a superhero, he’s actually an ordinary person. “People’s expectations of me are too high. I don’t want such heavy pressure.”
He’s the same as everyone else. He gets tired and emotional, he has his likes and dislikes, and his own ideological standpoint. “From the audience’s perspective, I hope everyone can see my enthusiasm for movies.”
As an entertainer, sometimes it’s not possible to fully satisfy an audience’s expectations. When rating a filmmaker, one can’t just evaluate him or her through one work. “You surely need a lifetime, then you give a total score. Evaluate myself?” Yen asks. “Wow, lots of room for improvement! But I’m doing my best. With passion, determination and a bit of luck, I hope audiences will come to know this is the real Donnie Yen.”
Photography Olivia Tsang
Styling Alice Lin
Hair Kenji Ng at Il Colpo
Grooming Little White
Location Rosewood Hong Kong