I'M TRYING TO FIND somewhere for Donnie Yen to sit. There's a leather workout bench in the corner, though suggesting that we both perch on that doesn't seem appropriate. Or we could take a pew on the rather intimidating workout machine in the next room, but that's connected to a series of dangerous-looking weights dangling from overhead wires. If worse comes to worst then there are a few exercise mats scattered across the floor, but I don't want Yen to have to sit cross-legged in his rather swish suit. A gym, it seems, isn't the most comfortable place to interview one of Hong Kong's leading actors.
Yet Yen himself seems right at home amid all these body-stretching, muscle-tightening devices. “Actually this morning I was in the gym,” he admits, “though I don't work out as much as I should, and lately I've been trying to get back into shape.” But Yen is just being humble, and a photo of his six-pack, which he recently posted on social media, proves that he's still fighting fit. “It was really good lighting and a really good angle,” he protests, “but I got really great feedback.”
That feedback came from the more than 1.5 million people who follow Yen's official Facebook page, a global fan base of men and women that he has built up over his 30-plus-year career. One of Hong Kong's best-loved martial-arts stars, he first caught the public's attention when he starred in the 1984 film Drunken Tai Chi, which was directed by renowned filmmaker Yuen Woo-ping. That performance led to a series of starring roles in kung-fu films throughout the '90s and early 2000s, including turns in Tiger Cage, Once Upon A Time in China II and the Oscar-nominated film Hero. He also took his fighting skills to Hollywood, appearing in the Guillermo Del Toro-directed Blade II in 2002 and acting alongside Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson in the caper comedy Shanghai Knights in 2003.
But it's Yen's performances as Ip Man, the legendary Wing Chun grandmaster who taught Bruce Lee, which have been his greatest success. He first took on the role in the 2008 film Ip Man, which was released to widespread critical acclaim. That film's director, Wilson Yip, then persuaded Yen to reprise the role for the sequel, Ip Man 2, and the duo has recently wrapped up the production of Ip Man 3, which is being released on December 24.
Yen has also recently finished work on the upcoming Star Wars film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which will be released next December. A cast-iron contract means that he's sworn to secrecy over his role in the franchise, and he apologetically but adamantly turns down almost all questions on the topic. The plot details are hazy, but the studio has revealed that the film will focus on a band of resistance fighters who unite to steal the plans of the Death Star. Yen plays one of these rebels, and his co-stars include Felicity Jones, Lupita Nyong'o, Forest Whitaker, Diego Luna and Ben Mendelsohn.
As if one sure-fire blockbuster wasn't enough, Yen also landed himself the lead role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II. He was originally reluctant to be involved with Crouching Tiger, saying during a press conference that “the first film is already such a classic. I'm afraid of the pressure, that the original cannot be surpassed”. But the film's producer, Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, wouldn't take no for an answer, and spent three whole years persuading Yen to join the cast.
And yet, in the midst of all this success, there are also whispers that Yen is going to retire from acting. Can it possibly be true? Once we find a seat (on two folding chairs behind the reception counter, in case you were wondering) I try to find out.
YOU'RE ONCE AGAIN PLAYING IP MAN, WHICH IS PROBABLY YOUR BEST KNOWN ROLE, IN THE UPCOMING IP MAN 3. WERE YOU NERVOUS ABOUT MAKING ANOTHER SEQUEL?
Not at all. I wasn't so much nervous; I just wanted to explore the character more, which I have. Ever since Ip Man 2, which came out in 2010, I've been very fortunate that I was able to choose different roles, because of all the success I got out of Ip Man and Ip Man 2. I was given different roles and as an actor I wanted to see how far I could stretch myself, so I've done – you name it, from being the kung-fu master to a bad-ass cop to a monkey in Monkey King, comedies, love movies. So I've probably reached more widely and experienced more roles than any other martial-arts actor ever. I don't take that for granted, I'm very grateful.
But I knew that one day, because Ip Man is so rooted among so many fans and so many audiences, I would be asked to play the role again. It just had to be the right timing; the right timing meaning that if I'm mentally ready, if I've explored enough but – most importantly – it was [about] the director. Wilson Yip, our director, is he ready? Does he have another angle to it? So for many years, Wilson and I went on to explore different genres of films but, ultimately, we were waiting for when he was ready. So last year he came back and said, “I've really figured out what to do with episode three.”
AND WHAT WAS THAT?
It's something that I can't really reveal at this point. But I can give you a basic theme to episode three. If we're going to put episode one as the theme of survival, Ip Man surviving that era of the Japanese occupation, the second episode was about making a living – he came to Hong Kong, he's trying to make a living by teaching martial arts, he opened up a school. And the third one is about life, what is the purpose of life, which we all face. Obviously we'll have all the action elements in it, we have Mike Tyson in it. But it's not what the story's about, and we don't have a villain in the film. Every character has their perspective on how they perceive right and wrong.
SO DO YOU THINK YOU ADD MORE EMOTIONAL DEPTH TO THE CHARACTER IN THIS FILM?
I think every episode we've tried to really deliver the story based on Ip Man's character. It's a very character-driven film, actually, even though it's full of electrifying action. I personally think that Ip Man was so successful not because of all these great action elements – which it has – but more because this character is so attractive to a general audience, not just a male audience that loves hardcore action. It appeals to women, children, people from all walks of life. At the bottom line, Ip Man is a family man who everybody can relate to.
Ip Man is not larger than life – his ability is larger than life, obviously he's able to use his ability at times to protect his family and defend what he believes in – but he's just a normal guy. Everybody can relate to him. It's not like theprevious many, many successful action films or kung fu films where the hero is larger than life, a superhero. Ip Man is just a normal guy, he just wants to stay out of trouble, he's got problems at home, he's got to make a living.
I HEARD A RUMOUR THAT THIS MAY BE YOUR LAST KUNG FU FILM. IS THAT TRUE?
Yes, I actually have every intention to [stop]. I've been in the business for so long and made so many films and played so many heroic martialarts characters that I think, “Can I truly find another character that can be as successful and have as equal an impact on the audience as Ip Man?” Probably not. So why not leave the game and let people remember you as this.
But with that said, I still have a lot of enthusiasm for exploring another genre, which is contemporary action movies. There are two schools of films that I've done in the last three decades: traditional kung fu movies as well as these modern action, contemporary films – cops or gangsters, where we incorporate a lot of modern fighting into it. For example, in Flash Point we incorporated fighting choreography into the film. This is something that I want to continue to do and I still feel that I have a certain creativity in me that I want to continue to explore. But as far as the kung fu genre goes, I want to put a stop to it, just focus in the next few years on sharing the knowledge that I've accumulated over the past more than 30 years, and then produce or direct for however many years left.
SO YOU PLAN ON DOING MORE DIRECTING AND PRODUCING IN THE FUTURE?
In some ways I've always been directing because when you're action directing you're really directing – especially in Asian action films, because an action director's responsibility and the creativity and control is equal to the director – we're very detailed and specific with the action we want to do. I will always action direct because it's something I like to do for fun, I like to action direct different actors from my perspective. Maybe I'll direct again, I've directed in the past but I just don't have the time to dedicate to one film as a director because that will take up a year or two and I don't have that time to focus on one film. But as I slow down as an actor, in a few years from now hopefully one day I'll probably focus on producing and directing.
IS IT TRUE THAT THERE'S GOING TO BE A CGI BRUCE LEE IN IP MAN 3?
I can share this with you: for many months we were in negotiation with the Lee Foundation, the Lee estate, and though we have the full support of Bruce Lee's brother, Robert Lee, I believe, based on my understanding from the film company, that [other family members] felt a certain concern about having a CGI Bruce Lee. It was unfortunate because I personally feel that if anyone is going to pay full respect to Bruce Lee, it would be me and the Ip Man movies. There's no other film that would have the same kind of focus – the films are about Bruce Lee and his master, Ip Man. We'll still have Bruce Lee in it, we have an actor playing Bruce Lee, but I'm not going to reveal too much.
ON TOP OF YOUR WORK ON IP MAN 3, YOU'VE ALSO RECENTLY BEEN FILMING THE UPCOMING STAR WARS: ROGUE ONE. WERE YOU A FAN OF THE SERIES BEFORE YOU WERE CAST IN THE FRANCHISE?
I can't talk about Star Wars too much, but it is one of the biggest movies – from the cast to the props, everybody that comes together on this franchise – it's going to be a phenomenal, huge blockbuster movie. Star Wars was my very first sci-fi movie, which I saw when I was 14, 15, and now my kids are very excited for their father to be in this film. There are so many Star Wars fans in the world that I'm sure this film is going to make a tremendous impact in the industry.
THE ROGUE ONE CAST INCLUDES ACTORS FROM THE UK, THE USA, MEXICO, KENYA, AUSTRALIA, DENMARK AND CHINA. WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH SUCH AN INTERNATIONAL CAST?
I've been in several American films in the past, not on this scale, but for me it's no different. Prior to Star Wars, I was starring in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II, which is coming out at Chinese New Year and then a week later I believe it will show on Netflix. I'm using Crouching Tiger as an example because, although it's a Chinese movie, it's not really a Chinese movie because it's all shot in English. So I'm used to working in international casts anyway. Acting is just acting;you're just using different languages. So there's no difference, the only difference is the size and scale of this film.
WHERE WERE YOU FILMING? SOME OF IT WAS FILMED AT PINEWOOD STUDIOS IN THE UK, SOME OF IT IN THE DESERT IN ABU DHABI, SOME OF IT WAS FILMED IN ICELAND.
We filmed at different locations. I can't really say, out of respect to the franchise and to Disney.
SO YOU HAVE STAR WARS, IP MAN 3 AND CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DARGON II COMING UP IN THE NEXT YEAR. ARE YOU WORKING ON ANYTHING ELSE?
I have my own production company [Bullett Films] where I'm developing different projects. I'm just picking the projects that I want to focus on. I want to do fewer films, but do a film where I have more time control. That's why I'm more into the producing. That's one of the reasons. Another reason is that I do have my production company and I want to use this platform, if it's possible, for some of the locations to be shot in Hong Kong. I wouldn't say to boost the industry, I can't do it alone, but at least it energises the atmosphere for the industry, as well as providing opportunities for other, younger actors.
DO YOU SEE LOTS OF YOUNG TALENT IN HONG KONG?
I wouldn't say just in Hong Kong, it's all over the world. But compared to back in the days when I was striving and breaking my body and falling off buildings, it's slightly different, things are changing. For young people, they have different outlets, different hobbies. When I was growing up, there was nothing for me to do except practice martial arts. During the '70s when I grew up in Boston Chinatown, everyone was wearing kung fu uniforms because kung fu was the cool thing, it was the hip thing. Everybody was doing one martial art or the other – either you do kung fu or karate or judo or taekwondo.
Nowadays you can have a bunch of guys or girls who dedicate themselves and who are indeed very good martial artists, but they also have other things to do in their life. You know, the social media, hanging out – especially living in Hong Kong, they can do all kinds of stuff. They can spend two hours in the gym but then another two hours in Lan Kwai Fong hanging out. But in those days, we had nothing else to do. We'd spend four hours in the gym doing nothing but punching and kicking, so it was a different mentality.
BUT YOU THINK YOU'LL REMAIN BASED IN HONG KONG?
I will always be in Hong Kong because Hong Kong is my home, my kids go to school here, my company's here, this is my foundation. But I don't see myself staying in one spot because filmmaking is not isolated in one spot. You can make a total local Hong Kong film but entirely shot in Italy, or vice versa. Transformers can be shot in Hong Kong. As a filmmaker, unfortunately, we always have to leave our family and go anywhere in the world to get the film made.
PHOTOGRAPHY OLIVIA TSANG
STYLING HARRY LAM
HAIR KENJI NG AT ALCHEMY
STYLING ASSISTANTS HAM AND VIN