Fight and flight: Donnie Yen, in "Flashpoint," made it through the hardest fight of his career.

Donnie Yen, "Flashpoint"

Laura Irvine March 9, 2008

Back in the early ’90s, every Thursday night for six years I drove across the Bay Bridge to the UC Theater in Berkeley to watch Hong Kong movies. I saw hundreds of martial arts movies, oohed and aahed over thousands of fight scenes, and developed a great affection for a myriad of HK stars. Of course I loved Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh, but one of my special favorites was the ever dependable, yet exciting Donnie Yen. When “Mister Intensity” Donnie Yen was on the screen you always knew you would get a quality fight scene from a real martial artist. And in the years since, seeing Donnie Yen’s name attached to a project as an actor, action choreographer or director has always sent me straight to the theater in anticipation of more innovative, creative fight sequences. The latest Donnie Yen film to hit the States is realistic actioner Flash Point. Here Yen wears two hats—as an actor in his signature role of a dedicated cop on a mission, and as an action choreographer who stages electric fight sequences using Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). MMA, (a concept of combining the elements of multiple martial arts popularized by Bruce Lee), is Yen’s current fave style of fighting and he’s been striving to accurately represent it in some of his most recent projects. I got the chance to ask him about it on email last week. I’ve seen Flash Point with an audience twice now. The scene during the final shoot out when Archer is thrown into the air and then used for target practice never fails to get a loud reaction from the audience. Can you talk about some of the action sequences, stunts, etc., that you are most proud of in Flash Point?

Donnie Yen: Actually, when we were shooting, some people were worried that shot might look ridiculous, but I felt I knew how to shoot it to get the right reaction. So I’m very happy to read your comment! I’m certainly proud that the shot worked. I think the whole end sequence came out well. The chasing and shooting scene was filmed in this very limited space, but, with pacing and editing, we managed to make it work. The final fight between Collin Chou and myself, with all the MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) moves, was very tough, the hardest fight of my career, so I’m glad it turned out so well. I don’t come from a martial arts background, but I have seen hundreds of HK martial arts films. When I see Donnie Yen’s name on a film, I know I’m going to see impressive high kicks and acrobatic moves. Yet with Flash Point and your previous police action film with director Wilson Yip, Kill Zone (SPL: Sha Po Lang), your fighting style has looked different—concentrating on more boxing, grappling and kickboxing techniques. Can you talk about your use of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and what draws you to that style of fighting?

Yen: Firstly, let me say that I am a huge fan of MMA, and have great respect for MMA fighters. I myself don’t claim to be an expert in MMA. All I’m doing is translating MMA moves to the screen. If you go back to the choreography in Twins Effect, and very obviously in SPL/Kill Zone, I’ve been exploring this direction for some time now. I want to create action scenes that work at every range of combat, so you can go from weapons to punches and kicks, and then takedowns and grappling. It’s still stylized, but it feels more realistic. That’s my aim, anyway. Having said that, every film is different. For Dragon Tiger Gate, I used more stylized kicks and punches. For my new film, Yip Man, I’m doing classical Wing Chun kung fu. It depends on the project. Collin Chou (Seraph from the Matrix trilogy) plays the main bad guy. The final fight scene between you and Chou is an impressive, powerful, realistic 7-minute MMA duel. What was it like working with Collin Chou and shooting that sequence?

Yen: You know, the thing about Collin is that, yes, he is a great bad guy in the film, but, off camera, he is such a nice man. Just a very gentle guy, a family man, like me. I looked at him, and felt that I could really bring out the best in him, and him in me. We gave beyond 100 percent in that fight. I’ve picked up some injuries throughout my career. When you see me shake my hands in the fight, I’m trying to bring them back to life! I was in so much pain, I was numb. In the end, from the reaction of the audience, I feel it was worth it, and I have to thank Collin for working as hard as he did. This is your third collaboration with director Wilson Yip (Kill Zone, Flash Point, and Dragon Tiger Gate). What makes the two of you such a successful team?

Yen: I think we each know our own strengths, and we work well together. I’m very much focused on the action scenes, on how they fit within the story. Wilson has a very good view of the whole script, of how each scene fits together. I’ve worked with a lot of directors, and I find Wilson has a very clear vision of what he wants, and he works towards it in his own quiet way. He’s a great guy, and I’m now working with him a fourth time, on Yip Man! I remember seeing an interview with Sammo Hung where he said that since most real fights are over in about 10 seconds, the most difficult part of film fight choreography is selling the fact that the combatants can remain standing and fighting for a full 5-minute (or more) fight sequence—and to make it visually interesting for that long. Is it more or less difficult to “sell” MMA cinematically than more traditional kung fu styles?

Yen: I think MMA actually gives you more time to work with, because if you have two guys standing there slugging each other, it can be unrealistic. With MMA, you have two fighters looking to get leverage, to execute a takedown or an armbar. There’s a lot going on, at different ranges of combat, and I think this is the direction ‘modern’ action is going. With traditional kung fu films, of course, you have a lot more freedom. With Yip Man, we’re doing kung fu, but also trying to keep it real! In Flash Point, the other move that never fails to wow the audience is your flying kick into the table during the fight scene with Tiger. That scene is difficult and changes the audience’s view of Detective Ma as a noble policeman doing the best he can to someone who is out of control. What is your take on that scene?

Yen: A lot of people have asked me about that. My feeling is that, by this stage of the film, my character has really been pushed to the edge, and the audience has seen it. In the early part of the scene, Tiger throws this little girl into the street. He’s clearly someone who doesn’t care about human life. I’m not saying I agree that someone should behave like my character in the real world, but I certainly think that, in terms of the film, that scene is understandable, if not justifiable. Detective Ma is a very intense, dedicated, often angry policeman. You’ve played the same type of character or that of the loose cannon cop in many different films including Kill Zone (SPL: Sha Po Lang), Tiger Cage 2, In the Line of Duty 4, and Asian Cops: High Voltage. Do you enjoy playing this type of intense character?

Yen: I think director and producers feel that someone who is going to fight in films should have that kind of fierce personality. I’m really not like that in real life! I stay home with my son and daughter, listen to music, watch Disney films with them… I get to express so much rage on screen, I don’t have much left for the real world! That said, I have many years experience as an actor now, and would like to play different roles. I’ve been a Donnie Yen fan for years. I remember seeing Wing Chun in 1994 and thinking that your comic timing was terrific. Plus you were just so darn charming! It was a fun change of role for you from the intense martial arts hero. Did you enjoy that role? Any plans to do more comedy, or (for us women who love you) maybe a romantic drama:-)?

Yen: You’re too kind! I hope my wife doesn’t see this interview, or I’ll be in trouble. Wing Chun was a challenging shoot. What I remember most about it is how Michelle Yeoh and I became such great friends during the production. As I mentioned earlier, I would like to try different roles. I guess people still want to see me do action, but it could be action and romance, maybe* Mr. and Mrs. Smith *with martial arts, something like that. You have been featured in on-screen fights with some great HK stars and martial artists including Jet Li and Sammo Hung. Who do you enjoy working with the most? What would be your cinematic dream fight: Donnie Yen versus______?

Yen: Honestly, my stunt team, some of the guys who have been with me for a lot of years now, like Kenji (Tanigaki) and John (Salvitti). I really appreciate their effort. Working with other stars is challenging and rewarding. I certainly appreciated working with Jackie (Chan) on Shanghai Knights. We had a great time together. Jet Li and I have fought two times now, and I know the fans really enjoy seeing us work together. My dream opponent would be Bruce Lee! That would be quite a fight scene, I think. Many of your fight scenes are especially memorable—the Iron Monkey fight balancing on the posts above the fire pit, the New Dragon Inn gorgeous final battle in the desert, pole combat versus Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China 2, and the elegant black and white duel in Hero against Jet Li. What do you think is your best cinematic fight scene?

Yen: The next one! Seriously, right now, the toughest fight of my career, and the one that I’m happiest with, is the final fight in Flashpoint. Collin and I really put our heart and soul into it, and I think it shows. What do you think of wirework in martial arts films?

Yen: I think it has its place, but can be overused. There was a period when a lot of films were using too much of it, too much CGI, and the audience got tired of it. Flashpoint is kind of a reaction against that. Wires are great if you know when to use them. If you just have everyone flying about, it looks like a cartoon. If it’s an appropriate project, like Dragon Tiger Gate, I’ll use wires, but my own preference is towards more reality, as was the case with Killzone and Flashpoint. Your mother is a famous martial artist, and you’ve been training since you were a child. What prompted you to pursue film martial arts rather than competition or opening your own martial arts studio?

Yen: Actually, I went to train in Wu Shu in Beijing, and was planning to compete in forms and fighting in the US. I came back via Hong Kong, and it was then that I was introduced to Yuen Woo-ping. His sister had been one of my mom’s students. He asked me to show him what I could do, and then offered me the chance to star in my first film, Drunken Tai Chi. Making a movie just seemed more interesting than competing or running a kung fu school! You’ve been working in the Hong Kong film industry since the 1980s. Can you talk about how the industry has changed over the years—especially since the 1997 handover to China?

Yen: Firstly, I am totally not a political person, so I don’t want to make any political comment. There are many people better qualified than me to talk about these things! In terms of the film industry, the big change since 1997 is that my films now tend to be co-productions with China, which means they can be released there. Flashpoint was a big hit in China, which I was very happy about. You’ve worked internationally in many different film industries including Hong Kong, Mainland China, Hollywood, and Japan. What are the differences in shooting a martial arts scene or movie in these different industries? Do you prefer one to another?

Yen: I have to say that, in terms of the freedom to create my own style of martial arts action, Hong Kong is still the best. I learned a lot working in different environments. I even did a TV series in Germany before! The only place I really get given the time and resources to pursue my vision is in Hong Kong and China. What are your upcoming projects?

Yen: Right now, I’m shooting Yip Man in Shanghai. It’s the story of Bruce Lee’s teacher, an expert in Wing Chun kung fu. We have the full support of Yip Man’s family, and I’ve been training hard in Wing Chun, working on the wooden dummy. The director is Wilson Ip and the action director is Sammo Hung, so I’m very confident that we have a great team behind the camera. Okay, this question is for me because it’s about my favorite scene:-) The final fight scene in Dragon Inn where your character and the three other leads are battling it out amongst the sand dunes is still one of the most beautifully cinematic fight scenes ever put on film. How crazy and difficult was that scene to shoot?

Yen: It was very hard, not so much because of the techniques, but the environment. Also, I sustained one of the most potentially serious injuries of my career. For one shot, I have to kind of explode up out of the desert sand, and a piece of bamboo gave me a deep cut just above the eye. If it had hit my eye, it would have been all over. It actually cut through my eyebrow, which is really bad luck in Chinese! When we were fighting, I was wearing these heavy robes, and moving on the sand, which kept shifting beneath me. Thanks for reminding me of the pain!