Donnie Yen first appeared on my radar 25 years ago, when his name often graced the pages of martial arts periodicals. I learned that Donnie Yen, the son of Boston-based wushu pioneer and Black Belt Hall of Famer Bow Sim Mark, stood out from his peers because of his strong stances and aesthetic postures, which helped him dominate the competition at martial arts tournaments.
In part because he longed to follow in the footsteps of Bruce Lee, Donnie Yen decided to try his hand at action films. Like Bruce Lee, he opted to return to southern China, where he found work as a stuntman in Hong Kong. Donnie Yen quickly leveled up to starring roles, commanding the screen opposite Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China II (1992) and as hung gar kung fu master Wong Kei-Ying in Iron Monkey (1993). (The movie found U.S. distribution in 2001 thanks to Quentin Tarantino and Miramax.)
With hit after hit under his belt, Donnie Yen built himself into one of Asia’s most bankable actors. In 2008 he landed what would be his heaviest role to date: playing wing chun grandmaster Yip Man in Ip Man. (The Chinese family name Yip can be Romanized as Yip or Ip. In this article, I will use “Ip Man” to refer to the movie and “Yip Man” to refer to the man.)
Portraying the martial artist who was Bruce Lee’s master didn’t come without immense pressure and criticism, but the movie’s box-office performance and the rabid following it generated online proved the naysayers wrong — and set the stage for two sequels.
When the publicity tour for the latest film, Ip Man 3, brought Donnie Yen and co-star Mike Tyson to Los Angeles, I got an opportunity to interview Yen and hear about the struggles, triumphs, insights and visions that make up his life. Bearing a gift from my teacher, Black Belt Hall of Fame member Dan Inosanto, I entered the room, hoping for a good conversation. What I got was a great interview with a man who’s humble, hardworking and still hungry for higher achievements.
It’s an honor to finally meet you. I have a gift for you from someone you might have heard of: Dan Inosanto.
Donnie Yen: Wow! Thank you so much. I’ve heard so much about him and followed his career for years, but I never had the opportunity to meet him in person. Please thank him for me.
I spoke to him just before coming here, and he’s a huge fan of yours. Not only does he love your movies, but he also had high praise, saying that Bruce Lee would’ve been pleased with your work had he lived to see it.
Donnie Yen: That’s overwhelming. Please thank sifu Inosanto for me. [He tells his wife and his manager excitedly in Cantonese that Dan Inosanto was the training partner, best friend and top student of Bruce Lee.]
I always wanted to study Filipino kali from him. I’ve been a Bruce Lee fan ever since I was a kid, and as you probably know, I did an homage to him by reprising the role of Chen Zhen (whom Lee portrayed in Fist of Fury) in a TV series and feature film.
Absolutely. Your performance in Legend of the Fist is one of my favorites.
Donnie Yen: It’s funny … people asked me whether I knew that Bruce Lee had already done that role. The whole point of me doing those movies and playing those roles was out of respect to Bruce Lee — as a way of showing how much he inspired me in my career.
I could never be Bruce Lee. Nobody can. Nor could I imitate him in a way that would do him or the role justice. But just paying tribute to him with those roles was huge for me. I’ve always said that if Bruce was still alive, I’d have become his most devoted student.
How did that weigh on you when you were offered a chance to portray Yip Man?
Donnie Yen: The pressure was huge, and it came from a variety of angles, too. Let me share a bit of background with you. The first time I got a call to play the role of Yip Man was a couple of decades ago, but that movie never got made due to problems with the film’s backers. Years later, I was at a press conference in Beijing and got another call from a producer, saying that they’d spoken to grandmaster Yip’s family, gotten their blessing, were going to make a movie on him and wanted to cast me in the lead.
But there was already a film about Yip Man (The Grandmaster, starring Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi) that the famous director Wong Kar-Wai was going to direct. I asked about that, but the producer said not to worry since Wong has a reputation for taking his time on projects. Even though we were going to involve the same namesake character, they would tell their story and we would tell ours.
When the public got word that we were going to do Ip Man, people in the entertainment industry started drawing lines and picking sides. Critics claimed that our director Wilson Yip wasn’t qualified to direct a project of that magnitude. At that time, I’d just finished police movies like SPL: Kill Zone and Flash Point, which had a ton of over-the-top action sequences and MMA-based fight choreography. Those movies and Special Identity were the first Hong Kong action movies to take MMA grappling techniques and communicate them in a cinematic language. So critics also said that I wasn’t suitable for the role of grandmaster Yip or to showcase wing chun cinematically.
All this even before you started shooting?
Donnie Yen: Yes. I never expected there to be so many doubters, even though I knew this to be an iconic role.
Preparing for a role like that must have been different, considering your extensive martial arts background. What was your foundational training in with your mother? Was it modern wushu?
Donnie Yen: No, it was traditional Shaolin kung fu and then tai chi, but my tai chi is a little different. My mother’s master Fu Wing-Fay had a different style, and I’ve added my own flavor to my tai chi.
Growing up in Boston, did you get to experiment with different martial arts?
Donnie Yen: When I was a kid running around Chinatown, hung gar was really big, really popular. I used to study the old Lam Sai-Wing books on hung gar with the line drawings and practice those stances and postures. But back then, I was so curious and excited to learn martial arts from any source, regardless of style. I just wanted to absorb as much as I could. I’m still that way when I see something I like.
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Did you get any formal wing chun training back then?
Donnie Yen: Unfortunately, I did not. But there was one kid that knew a little bit, and we’d skip school and train in the park together, sparring and practicing techniques on each other. Back then, I was just trying to learn moves from the different styles and systems, including taekwondo — not just Chinese martial arts.
You mentioned Bruce Lee as a source of inspiration. Did you watch other kung fu flicks?
Donnie Yen: Oh, yeah. I was a big fan of those movies as a kid. I’d see some move that I thought was cool or some character that inspired me, and I’d try to imitate them physically or philosophically.
When it came time to prep for Ip Man, I understand that you spent time with both of Yip Man’s sons.
Donnie Yen: I actually spent a lot of time studying Yip Man’s personal story in terms of his history and background, not just studying wing chun. To get as close as I could to the source, I spent time with his sons, listening to them talk about their father, their family life and their art. I even went to Futsan (Foshan, China) to see where he lived.
Were the Yip brothers your technical trainers for the movie?
Donnie Yen: I actually had a bunch of different wing chun trainers to help me learn the forms and the basic drills, like the lap sau and chee sau (sticky hands) drills. The big thing they helped me with was learning the forms. I didn’t have three years to devote to mastering wing chun, so I could only try to embody the mindset and philosophy.
So there wasn’t just one master who oversaw all your training?
Donnie Yen: No. I didn’t want to try to be a clone of any one sifu. I knew that I could never imitate grandmaster Yip Man perfectly. I could only do the role justice by offering my interpretation of his philosophy in movement. Actually, studying the old black-and-white films of grandmaster Yip was very valuable. If there was one source that I tried to draw on most, that was it.
I also tried to get a sense of Yip Man’s movement and personality from his students outside the family. I actually used social media a lot to see how the different groups interpreted wing chun. It was very interesting. It gave me a chance to see how different wing chun people expressed the system physically and strategically. From the super-traditional to the more modern and aggressive versions, I wanted to get a broader view of what direction people were taking the art. All that figured into how I moved and how I portrayed the character. Luckily, the public reacted well to it.
There seem to be some signature moves in the fight scenes throughout the Ip Man franchise.
Donnie Yen: You see a lot of the mun sau posture from Yip Man because it fits [him]. He was originally from a well-to-do family, scholarly, very reserved. Wing chun is also a physically conservative style. You’re not going to see a lot of flash or wasted movement. So making the action exciting meant that the fight scenes had to educate the audience in a way that made those more efficient movements visually appealing.
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In Ip Man 3, as in the two previous movies, there’s a strong thematic element of family. There’s a push-pull that’s evident between Yip Man and his family in which he’s pulled out of involvement in some aspects of the martial arts while being motivated to accomplish more as a martial artist because of them. Is this a bit of art imitating life with you?
Donnie Yen: Absolutely! As you can see, my wife Cecilia is here in the room with us, as she’s also my business partner, but I absolutely know how that goes. Luckily, my wife sees everything I go through. She understands me and what I need to do.
For an actor to really nail the character, he has to live through something similar to be able to call on that kind of emotion and bring it to life for the camera. If you’ve never been through something, you won’t have the same depth of experience to be able to share on-screen.
What’s smart about Wilson Yip, the director of the Ip Man movies, is that he not only understands filmmaking but he understood what kind of stages I was going through in my personal life. So he wasn’t just creating another role for me to play. He made it so that I could bring something special to the character as it was written and the character would allow me to express those aspects of myself, as well. I can’t tell you how precious that kind of work environment is in acting.
After you did Ip Man and Ip Man 2, did the wing chun world give you any special status?
Donnie Yen: Look, I come from a traditional martial arts household, so I know how it goes with status. [chuckling] I don’t care about seeking status in martial arts from my films. Like if you asked me to teach you wing chun, I’m not the guy who’s a wing chun master. There are many other people who’ve devoted their lives to learning, researching and developing wing chun. Those are the wing chun masters, not me.
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What’s important to me is that authentic, traditional martial arts were overlooked for years in favor of making more exciting action films. But now that audiences are more educated and can recognize traditional martial arts, it’s more important than ever for me to portray these arts and the personalities around them with a certain dignity that’s appropriate. The fight scenes have to convey a sense of realism, as well as communicate the principles of the styles that are portrayed.
When the movie does well and inspires people to do more with their lives, that’s the reward for me. With the Ip Man movies, it’s not about what I did for wing chun; it’s about focusing on a character that inspires people. It’s not about wing chun versus this style or that style anymore.
Last question: I heard a rumor that you were phasing out martial arts films. What’s the scoop with that?
Donnie Yen: I’m human. Sometimes we say things in the heat of the moment. For me, there have been days when my body is just tired of the beating that I put it through in a high-powered, high-intensity action flick. But at the end of the day, if I sit down and watch TV or see an action sequence on the screen and think, “Oh, come on! That’s it? I can do better than that!” then it stirs that competitive spirit. I’m an actor, but inside I’m also a fighter.
As for kung fu movies, I don’t really have as much motivation to conquer anything more, especially after doing roles from Guan Yun-Chang in The Lost Bladesman to the Ip Man franchise. But especially when it comes to contemporary fight scenes, I feel like there’s a lot of knowledge about using martial arts and cinematic techniques in harmony that I still have left to show, that I still want to show.
Dr. Mark Cheng is a Black Belt contributing editor and doctor of traditional Chinese medicine. In his free time, he teaches shuai chiao, tai chi and kettlebells.
Photos Courtesy of Well Go USA