Martial artist and Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen was born to newspaper editor Klyster Yen and martial arts master Bow Sim Mark. At the age of four Yen started taking up martial arts from his mother, who taught him wushu and tai chi until the age of eleven when his family emigrated to Boston, MA. From there he continued mastering wushi and tai chi. But after developing a huge interest in martial arts he eventually began getting into various others martial art styles, such as taekwondo, kick-boxing, boxing, karate etc. When Yen was sixteen his parents sent him to Beijing Wushu Academy so he could train Chinese martial arts under Master Wu Bin, well known as the coach of Jet Li. He underwent intensive training for three years. After three years Yen was about to leave back to the US but made a side trip to Hong Kong. There he was accidentally introduced to famous Hong Kong action film-maker Woo-Ping Yuen, who was responsible for bringing Jackie Chan to super stardom and was looking for someone new to star in his films. Yen was offered a screen test – which he passed – and thereafter a 4-picture deal. Yen started out with stunt doubling duty on the magical martial arts film The Miracle Fighters (1982). From there he starred in his first film, Drunken Tai Chi (1984) at the age of 19. He continued his early film career working independently with Woo-Ping Yuen and also applied for acting lessons as well as roles in TV series at TVB to gain more acting experience. He started getting a bit of attention in the late 1980s and mid 1990s, after he was offered a contract by D&B Films Co’s Dickson Poon. Poon gave Yen major roles in the action films Tiger Cage (1988), In the Line of Duty 4 (1989) and Tiger Cage 2 (1990), which became cult classics after their initial releases. These films eventually spread outside the Hong Kong film circuit and gave Yen a good reputation as a formidable onscreen action performer. But after a while, the company did not do well and in the end went bankrupt. This left Yen with no choice but to go back to TVB as well as venture into low-budget film-making making films, such as Crystal Hunt (1991) and Revenge of the Cheetah (1992). But the misfortune didn’t last long. Famous director Hark Tsui had just made a successful attempt to revive the kung fu genre with Once Upon a Time in China (1991) which starred Jet Li. For the sequel La secte du lotus blanc (1992) Hark was looking for someone to play the new nemesis. Through Yen’s early films and his rep as one of the most effective pound-for-pound on-screen fighters in Hong Kong, Hark became fascinated and decided to approach, discuss, and eventually cast him in the role of General Lan. The film became a turning point in Yen’s career and his two fight scenes with Jet Li revolutionized the standards of Hong Kong martial arts choreography at the time, and are still regarded as among the best fight scenes ever created in Hong Kong film history. Another acclaim by critics and movie goers was Yen’s acting performance. It was so outstanding that he was nominated for “Best Supporting Actor” at the 1992 Hong Kong Film Awards. After the excellent showcase, Yen starred in other successful and classic films, such as L’auberge du dragon (1992) for director Raymond Lee and Butterfly and Sword (1993) by Michael Mak. But he still continued to work with Woo-Ping Yuen on films including Heroes Among Heroes (1993), Iron Monkey (1993) and Wing Chun (1994). But after creative differences between them became apparent, both of them decided it was best to work on their own so they ended up going separate ways and haven’t collaborated with each other ever since. During this period Yen got into TV and worked on a couple of series for ATV as actor and action director. The first was The Kung Fu Master (1994) which depicted the life of martial arts legend Hung Hei-Kwan. The TV series was a big success and Yen continued the success by action directing and starring in the second successful series; Fist of Fury (1995). It retold the story of Chen Zhen, the character made famous by Bruce Lee in the original 1972 film classic with the same title. Aside the TV work, he was offered roles by prolific director/producer Jing Wong in films such as The Saint of Gamblers (1995) and got other offers which includes Circus Kids (1994) where he co-starred with action star Biao Yuen, and High Voltage (1994) which was shot in the Philippines. In 1996 – after fulfilling his contract deal with Wong Jing and returning deposit money to refuse making more films for him – Yen signed with the independent film company My Way Film Co. This became another turning point in his career in that he started learning directing and experimenting with film cameras. In 1997, he finally made his directorial debut with Legend of the Wolf (1997) and had created a different style of martial arts choreography. The film made a huge impact within fan communities around the world for its’ daring, braving, and fresh attempt of accomplishing something new for the then dying martial arts action genre in Hong Kong. There was and still is a mixture of people both admiring and looking down on this particular style. Yen continued to work as lead actor/director/action director on films such as Ballistic Kiss (1998), Shanghai Affairs (1998). In 1999, he decided to try something different and ended up flying to Germany to work on the local TV film Der Puma – Kämpfer mit Herz: La loi du Puma (1999) and its’ TV series counterpart. In 2000, things took a turn for Yen once again when US-based film company Dimension Films called and offered him a major role in Highlander: Endgame (2000) as the immortal Jin Ke, making it his US debut. But sadly the film didn’t perform well at the box-office and many fans consider it to be a part of its’ own franchise. Nevertheless, Yen’s fan-base consider his action scenes to be highlights of the film; especially his duel with Adrian Paul. To Dimension Films’ credit though, offers followed shortly afterward. Yen was invited to work behind the camera on The Princess Blade (2001) for Japanese director Shinsuke Sato and Blade II (2002) by Guillermo del Toro, the latter of which he also appeared in as the mute vampire Snowman. In 2002 and 2003 respectively, Yen’s career further progressed after he took on two memorable roles. Firstly, highly acclaimed Chinese director Yimou Zhang offered Yen the part of assassin Sky in Hero (2002) starring Jet Li and resulted in one of the most anticipated Chinese films of 2002 which eventually became a mega hit around Asia. Secondly, director David Dobkin casted him alongside Jackie Chan as the traitorous Wu Chow in Shanghai Knights (2003), the sequel to Shanghai Noon (2000). This film marked the first time Yen worked with Chan in his career. Both of these collaborations gave Yen more recognition in the US and in Hong Kong, which in turn gave him more opportunities as an actor and action director. In the same year Yen decided to put hold of pursuing a career in Hollywood and flew back to Hong Kong to find quality work. Through his good friend and Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan he signed up as action director for Vampire Effect (2003), produced by Emperor Multimedia Group Co. (EMG) and starring the pop stars Gillian Chung and Charlene Choi with in a cameo appearance by Jackie Chan. The film earned him a nomination for “Best Action Design” at the 2003 Hong Kong Film Awards as well as the 2003 Golden Horse Awards, both of which he won prices for. He continued to work on few films after that, including Black Rose Academy (2004) as director and action director, and Blade of Kings (2004) as actor where he once again worked with Jackie Chan on an anticipated fight scene which was satisfying enough for fans to see. Later on in 2004 Yen’s career took a totally different turn when Hark Tsui offered him a leading role in Seven swords (2005) which was an adaptation of a lengthy novel written by Liang Yu-Sheng about seven warriors and their mystical swords. Despite the disappointing box-office reception when it was released locally, the film was nonetheless a great showcase for Yen as an actor and action performer unlike anything he did previously in his career. Around the same time, Yen also teamed up with acclaimed Hong Kong director Wilson Yip and together they made the highly anticipated crime drama S.P.L. (2005). The film was remarkable in that it successfully combined strong acting and unique storytelling/visuals with groundbreaking martial arts action. This concept went on to become favored by action film fans and Hong Kong Cinema fans in general after its’ release. Yen’s way of shooting martial arts action – which was nothing like people had already seen – earned him a nomination and a price at the 2005 Hong Kong Film Awards for “Best Action Design”. The movie also led to a trend of similar Hong Kong action films where storytelling/visuals along with hard-hitting action scenes were to be highlighted as much as possible. After the success, Yen and Yip teamed up immediately for more projects which includes the comic book adaptation Dragon Tiger Gate (2006) and the hard-hitting action drama Flashpoint (2007), both of which were very successful at the box-office and within fan communities globally. These accomplishments made people regard Yen as the new pinnacle of Hong Kong martial arts/action films. Yen both earned the “Best Action Design” nomination at the 2006 Hong Kong Film Awards as well as the “Best Action Direction” nomination at 2006 Golden Bauhinia Awards for Dragon Tiger Gate (2006). He won a price for the latter while he was awarded for his action design on Flashpoint (2007) at both the 2007 Golden Bauhinia Awards and the 2007 Hong Kong Film Awards. From there on Yen continued to work as a lead actor and also developed an interest in improving his acting skills. He got a leading role in the battle epic Kingdom of War (2008), directed by acclaimed Hong Kong action director Siu-Tung Ching, which was a big success in Mainland China. He continued work starring in the supernatural romance film Painted Skin (2008) by Gordon Chan. Then he starred in the martial arts biopic Ip Man (2008) helmed by Wilson Yip. This film was based on the life of one of Bruce Lee’s wing chun teachers, Yip Man. The film became a sensational mega success all over Asia and people within the Hong Kong film industry started taking note after Wilson Yip’s matured style of film-making, Sammo Hung’s fresh martial arts choreography which many action film fans consider to be a redefinition of Hung’s career as action director. But most impressive about the film for the audiences and critics was Yen’s acting performance. During production, people had been very skeptical about Yen being the choice for the Yip Man role. But when the film was released, all pressure from the cast and crew were gone and people eventually went on to praise Yen for his portrayal of Yip Man. The success of the film also led to other successful directors and producers approaching Yen and giving him offers to work in front of the camera. Through his progression in the Hong Kong film industry from the start – when he was just like other action performers in Hong Kong trying to make a name for themselves – to nowadays as arguably among the most offering leading Hong Kong actors and the most promising action director, as long as Donnie Yen is still active in film-making (whether working in front of or behind the camera), he will almost certainly break new grounds and create more innovative concepts of action choreography for the martial arts action genre.
Action, Adventure, Thriller