One of the ways Hong Kong martial arts star Donnie Yen makes sure he “strives forward” in his career is by finding ventures that motivate and inspire him.
“I always tell myself that every time I take on a new project, I’d like to see if I can break some ground rules and be innovative,” says the 59-year-old martial arts film icon who made his acting debut in Yuen Woo-ping’s 1984 action comedy Drunken Tai Chi.
Yen was speaking to the Malaysian journalists during a press meet in Kuala Lumpur when he came down to promote his latest film, Sakra,
This challenge, he says, applies especially to Sakra, which he adapts from the classic wuxia novel Demi-Gods And Semi-Devils.
Written by Louis Cha in the 1960s, the novel is considered one of the most influential works of martial arts fiction ever. It has been adapted into films and television series in Hong Kong, Taiwan and China numerous times since the 1970s.
“With Sakra, not only did I want to make the fans of the novel happy, but more importantly, I wanted to make a wuxia movie that would appeal even to the non-fans of the novel. That was my biggest challenge,” shares Yen, who is the producer, director and star of Sakra.
Not keen on just another remake, Yen took his time to figure out how he wanted to bring Cha’s work to the big screen as there are many intertwining storylines revolving around three protagonists in the novel.
“For me, to take on something that all Chinese are familiar with, and to do it within a two-hour format, it’s almost impossible. It’s like putting Shakespeare’s work into a two-hour movie.”
Re-reading the novel, Yen got the idea of making Sakra as the first instalment of many other movies to come based on the book’s many sub-plots.
With that in mind, the Ip Man star spent a few months working with young writers on making the story more accessible to audiences everywhere, while ensuring he got the details from that period right and staying true to Cha’s multi-layered examinations about society.
According to Yen – who’s known for his skills as an action director in many big films like Raging Fire and SPL – wuxia films have become more fantastical over the years with characters flying around that it has become “a little silly”.
“What I mean by that is, if you have two characters just standing there and their hair is flying, and everything is in slow motion, that is categorised as a wuxia. But that isn’t wuxia,” he says vehemently.
“Wu mean martial and Xia depicts a person with integrity, someone who is good and righteous. So, I felt I have to keep that world and the characters in it grounded, so audiences can find them relatable.”
The actor who will turn 60 in July continues: “Why does everybody like Ip Man so much? I’m sure it is driven by, at first, the action, but (eventually) they become engage with Ip Man the character, because you can relate to him. ‘Oh, this guy has the same feelings that I have. He gets hungry, he gets angry like I do, he gets tired.’ So, it’s grounded.
“And it’s the same with wuxia movies – they need to have characters that are real.
“Yes, he can still fly from roof to roof, but you can relate to him on a more personal level – as a human being. He has his problems, he’s loyal to his family, he feels betrayed, he falls in love... you can understand all that.”
Sakra centres on Qiao Feng, a young man who rises up the ranks in a gang to become its leader. Not only does he boast of intelligence and fairness, he is also a skilled martial artist.
However, his brothers soon turn on him, and he is accused of murdering the gang’s deputy chief.
Even as Qiao Feng sets out to find the truth, he is challenged again and again to duels when he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. However, he fights them in order to keep the one he loves safe.
Just like it’s important the characters feel real to audiences, Yen places utmost care on all the action sequences he’s done in film.
Yen breaks down the action movies in his film resume to three main categories – contemporary action movies (Raging Fire, Kill Zone, Flash Point) where the action styles are based on MMA fights and more modern self-defence fighting style; kung fu movies set in recent past (the Ip Man franchise, Dragon) and wuxia movies (Hero, Sakra) which takes place in ancient China and the martial artists have “some sort of superpower abilities”.
But all of them have a very unique tone and style – there’s real martial arts happening on the big screen.
“Don’t forget, I didn’t start out as a filmmaker; I started out as a martial artist. And I always believe that the best kind of action movies are those in which the action feels most real.
“And having been in this business for 40 years, I believe there’s a certain connection between me and the audience when they come to see my movies.
“They want to see a specific Donnie Yen flavour. And in order for me to keep that flavour intact, I have to make sure everything meets that standard,” he says.
Yen adds that the expectations of today’s audiences are higher than before, but he is grateful they – including Malaysian audiences – have always supported him every time he has a movie out.
“They’ve given me the greatest love. So, I told myself that I better make something that I’m proud of. And I’m very proud of this movie.”
Sakra opened at cinemas nationwide on Jan 16.