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Thursday October 17, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Thursday October 17, 2013 MYT 1:33:40 PM
by michael cheang
Ip Man who? With a new film out, Donnie Yen is hoping fans will see him in a different light.
DONNIE Yen is not Ip Man.
Almost as soon as we sat down for an exclusive one-on-one interview with the martial arts superstar last week to chat about his new movie Special ID, Yen was distancing himself from the role that made him a global superstar.
“Ip Man has been really popular and now everyone thinks Donnie Yen is like Ip Man. Hence, I’ve put a lot of effort trying to break away from that. This (Special ID) role is so radical ... it’s the complete extreme opposite of Ip Man,” he stressed.
Never mind the role, Yen himself could not be more different from the legendary Wing Chun master he played in the two Ip Man movies. Looking sharp in his dapper dark grey suit, the 50-year-old seems humble and self-effacing at first, but exudes an aura of immense self-confidence and calm power.
When you look him in the eye, you can see a hint of danger behind that steely stare, which immediately reminds you that this is a man who can go toe-to-toe with some of the greatest martial arts actors in the world. Even when he flashes that gentle, humble smile that his Ip Man is so well-known for, you still get a sense that this is a man whom you really don’t want to mess with, ever.
Yen was in town last Thursday to promote Special ID, a visit that included a meet-the-fans session at Paradigm Mall as well as closed door meet-and-greet event for UOB Bank Privilege Banking customers.
Directed by Clarence Fok, the movie has Yen on triple duty — besides starring in the film, he is also the action choreographer as well as the producer of a film for the very first time.
In the film, Yen plays Chen Zilong, an undercover police officer within one of China’s most ruthless underworld gangs, whose leader, Xiong (Collin Chau), has made it his priority to weed out every single mole within his organisation.
With his fellow undercover agents disappearing one by one, Chen must now risk everything to take down the gang once and for all, and reclaim his life and his identity before it is too late. The movie also stars Andy On, Zhang Hanyu, Ronald Cheng and China actress Jing Tian.
Calling Special ID an “upgraded version of SPL and Flash Point” in terms of production values and martial arts techniques, Yen said he made a conscious decision to make sure his role was as different as possible from that of Ip Man.
“I don’t think the audience has ever seen me play a role like this. It’s very different from what I’ve done before,” he explained. “Here, I’m undercover as a gangster, the fighting style is very MMA (mixed martial arts), and the character is very violent and very aggressive.”
Special ID marks a return to the contemporary MMA action he utilised in SPL and Flash Point, and the brutal action of the film is a distinct contrast to the almost Zen-like qualities of the Ip Man movies.
“I’ve studied many martial arts before, but my favourites are still contemporary ones especially the MMA styles,” he said. “Ten years ago in SPL, I was the first one to recognise the potential of MMA and put it in a movie. People were asking what is this style about. Is it judo? What is it?”
Thanks to the popularity of competitions such as Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), MMA is now well-known throughout the world, but SPL and Flash Point remain the benchmark for incorporating MMA into movies.
“I know many UFC fighters and action filmmakers all over the world who used my movies as textbooks for how to make MMA look good on a film,” he said, beaming proudly. “Movie-making is very different from the actual fighting. It’s not as simple as getting a couple of UFC champions and putting them in a film — it just wouldn’t look right.”
According to him, the action in Special ID really sets the bar higher on how to deliver MMA fighting on film. The fighting in it certainly seems more aggressive and brutal in this movie than in SPL or Flash Point, a perception Yen puts down to the nature of his character.
“I don’t think it’s the MMA techniques that are brutal, but the character itself. The character, Chen, contains a lot of rage, so it appears to be more brutal. Chen is a badass, aggressive fighter, so he wouldn’t react the same way Ip Man does,” he said.
“Ip Man would go home and have dinner, before accepting the challenge and then pick the opponent up after it is done. That’s Ip Man. Chen? He would stomp your face and make sure you’re crushed!”
Eye for a fight
So much has been said about his roles and fighting styles that sometimes people forget that Yen is also an acclaimed action choreographer who, over the years, has developed a unique style and an eye for action scenes.
His first credit as an “action director” was in 1988’s Tiger Cage, and since then, he has gone on to direct the fight sequence in movies such as Blade II, The Twins Effect (for which he won his very first Golden Horse and Hong Kong film awards as an action choreographer), The Lost Bladesman and many others.
For him, the hardest part of action choreography is directing other actors, whether it is a seasoned veteran or a newbie.
“There’s a different tactic to directing someone like Sammo (Hong) or Jackie (Chan). When I directed Jackie in The Twins Effect, I knew he was only coming in for only four days and was busy with other things,
so I wasn’t going to ask him to jump off buildings or something like that!” he said with a laugh.
“I knew he was coming in to do a cameo and have fun, so I created a Jackie Chan scene for the movie with a lot of comedy, acrobatics and so on. I asked him what he would like to do, and interacted with him (while planning the scene).”
It was slightly harder with a newbie like his Special ID co-star Jing Tian though, especially since this was her first action film and he had to train her to do things that were out of her usual range.
“With Andy (On), it was easier because I’ve worked with him before. He is quite experienced with action movies and is quite a martial artist himself. But Jing has never done an action movie before, let alone a Donnie Yen high-level kind of action movie!” he explained.
“When I work with actors, I study their physical potential and determine what they can do on screen. I require full contact and perfect precision, and that alone is very intimidating for Jing because she’s a very fragile girl.
“But I really wanted to make her look like the best female fighter out there, which is Michelle Yeoh. That’s the standard I wanted her to reach,” he said.
All the same, Yen was fully aware that Jing was no Yeoh, so he and the actress had to work on building the character through training, practising and choreographing.
To help her along, he also gave Jing one outstanding action sequence that you need to see to believe, in which she gets into a brilliantly choreographed fight with On inside a car.
“We made them fight with jujitsu inside the car, which had never been done before! I think that her performance in the car scene really set high standards not just for herself, but also any other female actresses who want to do fighting scenes,” he said.
“Try something that has never been done before” — that is the philosophy behind Yen’s action direction.
“I will always try to feel and think about a scene from the point of view of the audience. What would I like Donnie Yen to do? I like the audience to think, ‘What did he do?’ and try to copy it, but end up not being able to! That’s how I try to do it,” he said, adding that although he has turned 50, he is not looking to retire and go behind the camera full-time just yet.
“I still have a lot of fire, even though I’ve been getting a lot more injuries. It takes me longer to recover now, but I can still generate the same kind of speed and precision (I used to). Would I make my own scenes easier to film? There are no easy scenes in my films. I’m always trying to think of something difficult to do!” he concluded with a laugh.
> Special ID opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.
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Lifestyle, Entertainment, Donnie Yen, Special ID, Andy On, MMA
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