Donnie Yen knows his way around a photo shoot. Strutting through a Dashanzi studio in a white suit sans shirt would seem too Miami Vice for most people, but Yen somehow pulls it off. "So, you want the whole Asian touch," he says looking at a prop sword. "I don't mind."
Martial artist, actor, director and filmmaker Donnie Yen is said to be the "last dragon" to emerge from the fading lineage of the old school Hong Kong martial artists. "After me," says Yen, "no action or kung fu star has made an impact in the genre [because] the market is shrinking." But this downward trend may be ready for a new life.
Yen was introduced to Chinese wushu and tai chi by his mother in the early formative years of his life. The appeal stuck and as Yen grew up he could often be found in Boston's Chinatown watching his idols Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan on screen. "When I was a kid I wanted to grow up to be just like Bruce Lee," says Yen. "He is my hero." As a teenager, the rebellious Yen was faced with two choices as a Chinese growing up in America: do extremely well in school and wear thick, thick glasses or get involved with the budding Asian gangs. Yen became semi-involved in a gang, but maintains that he "wasn't that bad."
Nonetheless, his parents became concerned and Yen's almost wild gang life in the US came to an abrupt end. He was sent to Beijing where he spent two years with the Beijing wushu team. Rigorous training and a spontaneous trip to Hong Kong led Yen to a career in kung fu movies.
During this time, the Hong Kong kung fu market began to change from lavish productions, like Drunken Tai Chi that took eight months to film, to only a handful of days filming and quick takes that eventually earned Yen the title of One Take Donnie. "I had the hardcore training that Jackie Chan had," which gave him the stamina needed for filming one fighting scene over and over for a month. According to Yen, he was the last of this type of action star.
The warm up to the Asian financial crisis of 1997 brought hard times for kung fu films and eventually pushed Yen into directing two mediocre movies. During Ballistic Kiss, Yen discovered, after a week of reconstructing the film, that the money promised for the movie had been cut and he was forced to use his own funds to finish the film. "I was concerned if I stopped production it would ruin my career as a director and people in the industry would no longer take me seriously," says Yen. From one of the highest paid Asian actors in the mid nineties to a washed out director. Ouch.
But like every great tale, the hero bounces back.
Yen's saviors came in the form of the Weinstein brothers at Miramax who asked him to visit the States for acting opportunities. "They loved me," says Yen, "and Iron Monkey made them a lot of money." Back on track, Yen found himself discussing deals with Steven Segal and rapper Jay Z, but when asked if he has any boys on the town stories he shrugs, "I mostly stayed at the hotel. I don't drink." Which may be why this forty-something man looks more like a twenty-something boy.
But what will it take to keep the last dragon out of Hong Kong breathing fire? "Ironically," says Yen, "it's the Western audiences that are stimulating a renaissance in kung fu films now." While the hard-core filming of martial arts films is gone, Yen is just warming up.
(Cityweekend July 25,2005)