EXCLUSIVE: Donnie Yen Talks the Martial Arts Throwback Dragon
Donnie Yen Talks Dragon, in theaters now!
To those who are Hong Kong cinema aficionados, Donnie Yen is an actor that needs no introduction. He starred in his first movie, 1984's Drunken Tai Chi, at the age of 19 after being discovered by director and The Matrix fight choreographer Woo-ping Yuen. He has gone on to star in some of Hong Kong's biggest hits such as Once Upon A Time In China II, Iron Monkey, Hero, Kill Zone, Ip Man, and Ip Man 2.
The action legend returns in director Peter Ho-Sun Chan's Dragon, currently available on VOD formats and playing in limited theaters. Donnie Yen, who also serves as the action director, choreographing all the fight scenes, stars as Lui Jin-xi, a humble paper maker who surprisingly subdues two thugs, an act that leaves hints about his mysterious past. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Donnie Yen over the phone to discuss this action-drama, how he hasn't shot fight scenes like this in 20 years, and much more. Here's what he had to say.
I know Peter produced one of your films a couple of years ago. Did he bring up this project at that time?
Donnie Yen: Yeah, we did Bodyguards and Assassins. When we did that film, that was the first time we worked together. We were really excited, and he wanted to do another film. We put some ideas together, and the next thing you know, we made Dragon. I've always been a big fan of Peter Ho-Sun Chan's movies, but he's not really known as an action filmmaker. He's known as a serious, dramatic director. I always had tremendous respect for him, and I always wanted to work with someone like him. When that opportunity came up, I just gave it up to him and said, 'Look, whatever you want, I'll help out as an action director.' He doesn't have a lot of experience in action filmmaking, so we were just sharing two schools of knowledge and trying to combine the two. I've made a lot of commercial action movies, and he's made a lot of serious, complicated character movies. We wanted to bring the level up for action movies.
Yeah, that's one of the things I really liked about this. The action stuff is great, but it's a lot deeper than a lot of other action movies, especially with the detective Xu Bai-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and his analytical ways. It was great to see both of those things together. Can you talk about how long you shot this? I'm always interested to see how Chinese productions are different from American productions.
Donnie Yen: Action movies always take longer, especially sophisticated action movies like Dragon. We're very fortunate that we created all these kung fu movies, and we do have a long understanding. We're always at the forefront, the trendsetters. We do put a lot of pressure on our own work. I put a lot of pressure on myself.
Was there anything in particular that you wanted to bring to this film, as far as a fighting style goes, as the action director?
Donnie Yen: You know, I'm always trying to look at the story and the character before I decide which style of action I'm going to do. For example, this movie is set 100 years ago in a village, so that automatically gives me an image in my head that I wanted use older forms like Dragon and Tiger from the old Shaw Brothers movies. I thought it would be cool to do something like that. The Wu Tang Clan and the RZA, a lot of their lyrics are dedicated to the late 70s kung fu movies. I thought that would be something people wanted to see. I haven't made that kind of movie in 20 years. The last time I made a movie like that was Iron Monkey, that was shot in 1990. It will be a brand new type of audience, and if they want to see that kind of stuff, they can only see it in our movie.
Does this style of action make it easier to shoot with all of the modern technology today?
Donnie Yen: I wish I could've done more with the action. One one hand, the way we make action movies these days, we have the advantage of technology, CGI, and the hardware is a lot better. There are better cameras, better props, you know. But, at the same time, we don't have the luxury of shooting action movies like the old days. In the old days, we would spend a whole month shooting the same action scene. You would do one shot a day. In Dragon, we would finish a scene in four days or five days. The fun of watching a Hong Kong kung fu movie is that the shots are very particular, each shot is very detailed. That takes a lot of time, with lighting and the actors being able to deliver the types of performances with a high level of precision, that takes a lot of time. People don't even understand or perhaps appreciate that some of these great kung fu movies like Iron Monkey, the last scenes I did, we took a whole month to shoot that. Now, in Dragon, the whole ending took a week.
Can you talk a bit about where you actually shot this and the locations you used? Was there a certain type of look you were going for with the village?
Donnie Yen: We shot it in Yunnan, across from the mountains of Burma, in the south of China. That is a location that Peter Ho-Sun Chan wanted to shoot the film in, because of how everybody dresses there.
We reported earlier this year that Ip Man 3D is coming out. Is there anything you can say about the progress on that?
Donnie Yen: We'll see. I know fans want me to play the character one more time, but I have to finish up other projects before I can decide whether or not I want to do Ip Man 3D. I know one day I will want to do it, because I feel Ip Man and Ip Man 2 really was a highlight of my career, and they're very influential films. I think, as filmmakers, we should have a responsibility to convey messages. If I have a choice, I try to choose positive subjects, that will really represent a greater, educational vehicle for younger people.
Is there anything else that you're working on that you can talk about?
Donnie Yen: I just started a new film, Ice Man. It's kind of like a Highlander movie, where an ancient warrior was frozen for 400 years, and came to Hong Kong to try and go back in time to change the world. It's in 3D, and I started it yesterday. Next year, there will be several projects as well, but one to really watch out for, two movies actually. One is The Monkey King. It's fantastic. Siu-Fai Cheung plays the Heaven King, Aaron Kwok plays the Bull King, and I play the Monkey King. The Monkey King will be coming out next year. I want the audience to see my performance in that film. It's going to be a very fun film. Another movie I finished last year is called The Special Identity. It's kind of like a Flash Point, modern cop story. I play an undercover cop. Definitely watch out for the action. I really feel it's another elevation after Flash Point, as far as shooting these mixed martial arts on film. If the audience likes these types of films, then they'll have a lot of fun.
What would you like to say to fans of your work or fans of martial arts who might not be familiar with this style of movie, about why they should check out Dragon in theaters or on VOD?
Donnie Yen: I hope they like the film. You know, every movie you see these days, Batman, Spider-Man, James Bond, every leading man uses martial arts. It's my responsibility to stay one step ahead. It's great for me, because it also motivates me. It's motivating to me, to see the atmosphere in world cinema. I watch films from all over the world. When I watch a Hollywood action movie, as much as I enjoy it, I also get a lot of motivation from it too.
That's about all I have, Donnie. Thanks so much. It was a real pleasure.
Donnie Yen: Thank you.