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Donnie Yen: Persistence

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Donnie Yen is currently one of the hottest martial arts stars on the planet, having caused a sensation breaking bones in Wilson Yip's SPL: Sha Po Lang, hailed by many as an instant classic and one of the best films to have come out of Hong Kong in many years. This comes on top of roles in Tsui Hark's Seven Swords and Zhang Yimou's Hero, as well as in a number of high profile Hollywood films, clearly marking him as one of the genre's top performers. In addition to acting, Yen has dabbled in almost every aspect of filmmaking, including direction, production, choreography, and even composing soundtracks. This is perhaps not surprising considering Yen's diverse background, which has seen him train not only as a martial artist, but also as a classical pianist.

Although for Western viewers in particular, Yen's new-found superstar status may seem to mark him as an overnight success, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, since his debut back in 1984 he has spent much of his career in bit parts alongside more famous actors, and paying his dues in thankless roles in distinctly average fare. The long, hard road to fame is a sign not only of his incredible athleticism and astounding talent for martial arts, but also of his patience and persistence. With his next role seeing him reunite with director Yip for SPL follow up Dragon Tiger Gate, one of the most eagerly anticipated action films of 2006, it seems that Yen will be reaping the rewards of his considerable efforts for some time.

Yen was born in 1963 in China's Canton province, moving to Hong Kong at the age of two, and then to Boston, U.S.A. at eleven, where he spent his teenage years. He lived there with his mother, Bow-Sim Mark, an internationally recognised Wushu and Tai Chi master who ran the Chinese Wushu Research Institute in Boston. Given this, it is no surprise that martial arts became such a large part of his life, with his mother training him from the age of four. However, the influence of his father, Klysler Yen, the Boston editor of the international Chinese daily newspaper Sing Tao was also strong, and Yen first became a scholar of classical piano music, focusing on the works of Chopin.

After his passion for martial arts began to get him into trouble, skipping school to devour and study Hong Kong kung fu films and spending too much time in Boston's infamous Combat Zone, his parents decided to send him to China to study with the Beijing Wushu Team. There, he was tutored by the same master as Jet Li, and was actually the first student from outside the PRC to be accepted by the team. It was during this time that he met Yuen Woo Ping, the legendary action choreographer who had helped launch the career of Jackie Chan amongst others, before going on to work on films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Fearless.

Yen's first starring role came in 1984 with Drunken Tai Chi, although prior to this he had worked as a stunt double for Eddy Ko on Yuen's Miracle Fighters in 1982. Drunken Tai Chi was very much a traditional martial arts film in the Shaw Brothers style, complete with wacky training scenes and the usual vengeance plot, and did not enjoy a great deal of success. Yen's performance, did however, establish him as a talent to watch, despite his rather awkward acting skills.

Over the next few years Yen worked several times with Yuen, mostly on fairly standard action films, including the Tiger Cage police thrillers, and In the Line of Duty 4. They allowed Yen the chance to gradually improve his acting skills, as well as learn the trade of fight choreography, and he quickly came to develop his own style. Rather embarrassingly, he also starred in Yuen's Mismatched Couples, a slapstick comedy which tried to cash in on the current break dancing fad by combing it with martial arts and gratuitous disco music.

By the early 1990s, Yen was still appearing in the likes of the ludicrous Holy Virgin vs. the Evil Dead, a clear indicator that his career was in serious need of a boost. This came in 1992 in the form of Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China 2, in which Yen was cast as General Lan, the opponent of Jet Li's Wong Fei Hung. The two engaged in duels choreographed by Yen himself, and have subsequently become revered as classic fight sequences for their amazing inventiveness. Perhaps most importantly, Yen won a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the 1992 Hong Kong Film Awards, which finally marked his arrival as a star. This led to roles in a number of the bigger films in the new wave of historical martial arts films, including New Dragon Gate Inn, The Butterfly Sword and fan favourite Iron Monkey. He also worked on the action choreography for the latter, and created the famous "Shadowless Kick" scene which would come to be recognised as one of the most influential and copied fight sequences of the decade.

Despite this run of success, the rest of the 1990s were mixed for Yen. Whilst he did manage a few hits, such as Yuen Woo Ping's Wing Chun, in which he starred alongside Michelle Yeoh, he also found himself in a number of unremarkable martial arts vehicles, including Heroes Among Heroes and the disastrous Iron Monkey 2. These were followed by roles in several run-of-the-mill action thrillers such as the dire Satan Returns, and Wong Jing's The Saint of Gamblers.

Perhaps due to the lack of decent film roles available, Yen turned to television work in 1995 with the series Kung Fu Master and Fist of Fury, in which he both starred and worked as action choreographer. Based on the 1971 Bruce Lee classic, Fist Of Fury gave Yen the chance to pay tribute to one of his heroes, and also take on a role played by both Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Yen's take on the material proved incredibly popular, and also gave him the opportunity to learn other aspects of production, such as camera work, editing and sound recording.

In 1997, keen to put his skills into practice, Yen formed his own production company, Bullet Films, and made his cinematic directorial debut with Legend of the Wolf. The film, a martial arts gang thriller, which was released in some countries as New Big Boss to suggest that it was a Bruce Lee remake, was notable mainly for its unique style and look, despite being shot on a relatively low budget. Although Yen's rather experimental and over-stylised direction does give it an uneven feel, the action sequences are frequently stunning, and the film's melancholic tone made for a refreshing change from the tacky boisterousness which was taking over the genre. Yen returned to the director’s chair in 1998 with Ballistic Kiss, a gritty urban thriller which represented an improvement on his debut and showed a refinement of style which won him praise from many critics.

Almost inevitably, Yen eventually went Hollywood in 2000. Unwisely, he chose the awful Highlander: Endgame as his first project, the third sequel in a tired series that had long since run out of steam. This was followed by the more successful Blade 2 in 2002, and although confined to a small role, Yen's face was rapidly becoming recognisable to Western viewers. The year proved to be an important one, as he travelled back to China to star in the pivotal role of Sky in Zhang Yimou's international blockbuster Hero. This helped to further establish him on the international stage and allowed him once more to duel with Jet Li. Yen returned to America to work with fellow martial arts icon Jackie Chan on the comedy Shanghai Knights, in which they shared several memorable fight scenes. Yen’s next two films saw him back in Hong Kong, firstly in the romantic comedy Love on the Rocks and then a brief cameo in The Twins Effect II.

Yen's next film reunited him with Tsui Hark on the director's comeback epic, Seven Swords, for which the actor learned to speak basic Korean. Although the film met with a mixed reception and enjoyed only moderate box office success, it at least provided Yen with another respectable big screen role which helped secure his position as one of the top martial arts performers in the industry. His status was confirmed with SPL, an explosive and brutal crime thriller in which Yen starred alongside Simon Yam and the legendary Sammo Hung, who plays against type as a murderous gang lord. Yen also provided the film's stunning action choreography, which allowed him to demonstrate his skills to the full in some breathtakingly vicious and fast moving sequences. SPL is one of the few genuinely great films to have come out of Hong Kong in recent years. It features commendable performances from its cast, not least from Yen himself, and represents a return to the hugely popular down and dirty thrillers of the 1980s, when directors like Ringo Lam were at their best.

From here, the sky is the limit for Donnie Yen. With Jet Li talking of retirement from martial arts films, and Jackie Chan having long since become a joke, an opening for a new Asian action idol has emerged. With his impressive ability both in front of and behind the camera, Donnie Yen seems like the natural successor to the throne. Dragon Tiger Gate should be the film that sees Yen finally get his name into the martial arts hall of fame, a well-deserved reward for one of Asian Cinema's true action heroes.

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Published May 26, 2006

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