Chinese star: Donnie Yen甄子丹


Martial artist and Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen was born in Canton, China, on July 27, 1963 to newspaper editor Klyster Yen and martial arts master Bow Sim Mark. At the age of four, Donnie started taking up martial arts from his mother who taught him tai chi and wushu until he was eleven when he moved to Boston, MA, with his family. From there, Donnie continued with tai chi and wushu but soon also began experimenting with various others martial art styles, such as taekwondo, kickboxing and boxing, after developing a huge interest in martial arts. When he was sixteen, his parents sent him to Beijing Wushu Academy so he could train Chinese MA under Master Wu Bin, well known as the coach of Jet Li. He underwent intensive training for three years.

After those years passed by, he was about to leave back to the States, but made a side trip to Hong Kong, and there he was accidentally introduced to famous Hong Kong action director Woo-ping Yuen, who was responsible for bringing Jackie Chan to super stardom and was looking for someone new to star in his movies. Donnie was offered a screen test and thereafter a 4-picture deal after passing it; first starting with stunt doubling duty on the movie Qi men dun jia (1982) before starring in his first film, Siu Tai Gik (1984), at the age of 19. He continued his early film career working independently with Woo-ping Yuen and at TVB, gaining more acting experience, and then started getting attention in the late 1980s and mid 1990s after he was offered a contract by the D&B Films Co. whom gave him major roles in the well known films Dak ging to lung (1988), Wong Ka Si Sei IV – Sik Gik Sing Yan (1989) and Sai hak chin (1990) which got his reputation spread out within the Hong Kong film circuit. But after a while, the company did not do well and in the end went bankrupt which left Donnie with no choice but to go back to TVB and venture into low-budget film-making.

But the misfortune didn’t last long. Famous director Hark Tsui had just made a successful attempt to revive the kung fu genre with Wong Fei Hung (1991) which starred Jet Li, and was looking for someone to play the new nemesis in the sequel Wong Fei Hung II – Nam yi dong ji keung (1992). Through Donnie’s earlier films and his rep as one of the most effective pound-for-pound on-screen fighters, Hark became hooked and decided to approach, discuss, and eventually cast him in the role of General Lan which became a turning point in Donnie’s career. His 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 fights ever created in Hong Kong film history. Another acclaim by critics and movie goers was Donnie’s acting performance, which was so outstanding that he was nominated for the “Best Supporting Actor” award at the 1992 Hong Kong Film Awards.

After that excellent performance, Donnie starred in other successful and classic movies, such as Sun lung moon hak chan (1992) for director Raymond Lee and San lau sing woo dip gim (1993) by Michael Mak, but still continued to work with Woo-ping Yuen on movies including So Hak-Yee (1993), Siu nin Wong Fei Hung ji: Tit Ma Lau (1993) and Wing Chun (1994). But after that, 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, Donnie got into TV work and worked on a couple of TV series for ATV as actor and action director. The first was “Hung Hei Gun” (1994) which depicted the life of martial arts legend Hung Hei-Kwan. The TV series was a big success and Donnie continued the success and starred in and action directed “Jing wu men” (1995), also successful, which retold the story of Chen Zhen, the character made famous by Bruce Lee in the original film classic with the same title. Aside the TV work, Donnie was offered roles by prolific director/producer Jing Wong in movies such as Dou Sing 2 – Gai Tau Dou Sing (1995) and got other offers which includes Ma hei siu ji (1994) where he co-starred with local action star Biao Yuen, and Ah sau ging gat si gou aat sin (1995) which was shot in the Philippines.

In 1996, after leaving out a contract deal placed by Jing Wong, Donnie signed with the independent film company My Way Film Co. and started experimenting with directing and camera shooting. In 1997, he finally made his directorial debut with Chin Long Chuen Suet (1997) and had created a different style of martial arts choreography which made a huge impact around the world for its’ daring, braving, and fresh attempt to accomplish something new for the then dying martial arts action trend; with equally many both admiring and looking down on this style. Donnie continued to work behind-the-scenes on projects such as Sat Sat Yan, Tiu Tiu Mo (1998), Sun Tong San Tai Hing (1998), the German-produced TV movie Der Puma – Kämpfer mit Herz (1999) (TV) and its’ TV series counterpart one year after.

In 2000, things took a turn for Donnie 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, that became his Hollywood debut. But sadly, the movie didn’t performed very well at the box-office and many fans consider it to be a part of its’ own in the franchise. Despite this, others also consider Donnie’s action scenes to be highlights of the movie; especially his duel with Adrian Paul. To the movie’s as well as Miramax’s credit though, offers followed shortly afterward. Donnie was invited to work behind the camera on Shura Yukihime (2001) for Japanese director Shinsuke Sato and Blade II (2002) by Guillermo del Toro, the latter of which he also appeared in briefly as the mute vampire Snowman.

In 2002 and 2003 respectively, Donnie’s career went sky-high after he was offered and took up two memorable roles. Firstly, highly acclaimed Chinese director Yimou Zhang offered Donnie the part of assassin Sky in Ying xiong (2002) that starred Jet Li and resulted the most anticipated fight scene of 2002 and huge income at the box-offices around the world. Secondly, director David Dobkin casted him alongside Jackie Chan as the traitorous Wu Chow in Shanghai Knights (2003), the follow-up to Shanghai Noon (2000), which marked the first time Donnie worked with him in his career. Both of these collaborations gave Donnie Yen more recognition in the States and back in Hong Kong which in turn gave him more opportunities as an actor and action director.

In the same year, Donnie decided to put hold of pursuing a career in Hollywood and flew back to Hong Kong to find quality work. Through his dear friend and Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan, he got signed up as action director on Chin gei bin (2003) which was produced by Emperor Multimedia Group Co. (EMG) and starred the pop stars Gillian Chung and Charlene Choi, and with Jackie Chan in a cameo appearance. The movie earned him a nomination for “Best Action Design” at the 2003 Hong Kong Film Awards and also the 2003 Golden Horse Awards, both of which he won. He continued to work on few movies after that, including Gin chap hak mooi gwai (2004) as director and action director, and Chin Kei Bin 2 – Fa Tou Tai Kam (2004) as actor, where he once again worked with Jackie Chan on an anticipated fight scene which was satisfying enough for fans.

Later on in 2004, Donnie’s career took a different turn when Hark Tsui offered him a leading role in Qi Jian (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 the movie got when it was released locally, the movie was nonetheless a great showcase for Donnie as an actor and action performer which was unlike anything he did in previous works. Around the same time, Donnie Yen also teamed up with Wilson Yip, another acclaimed director in Hong Kong, and together they made the highly anticipated crime drama Saat po long (2005) which successfully combined intense drama and unique storytelling/visuals with groundbreaking martial arts action that went on to become favored by many fans and Hong Kong movie viewers after its release. Donnie’s way of shooting MA 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 HK action movies where storytelling/visuals along with hard-hitting MA action was to be highlighted as much as possible.

After the success, Donnie and Wilson Yip teamed up immediately for more collaborations which includes the comic book adaptation Lung Fu Moon (2006) and the hard-hitting action drama Dou fo sin (2007), both of which were very successful at the box-office and among viewers who today considers him as the new pinnacle of Hong Kong martial arts/action movies, thanks to these accomplishments. Donnie 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 Lung Fu Moon (2006) ending up winning the latter, while he was awarded for his action design on Dou fo sin (2007) at both the 2007 Golden Bauhinia Awards and the 2007 Hong Kong Film Awards.

In recent years, Donnie had a leading role in the battle epic Jiang shan mei ren (2008) directed by acclaimed Hong Kong action director Siu-Tung Ching which was a big success in Mainland China, and continued further with the supernatural romance movie Hua pi (2008) by Gordon Chan, and the martial arts biopic Yip Man (2008) helmed by Wilson Yip which was based on the life of one of Bruce Lee’s martial arts teachers, Yip Man. The latter became a sensational mega success all over China and people within the HK film industry started taking note after Wilson Yip’s matured style of filmmaking, Sammo Hung’s fresh MA choreography which many considers to be a redefinition of his career behind the scenes and, above all, Donnie’s acting performance which many doubted at first but eventually highly praised. This has also led to other successful directors and producers approaching Donnie 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 any other action performer, to nowadays as arguably the most offering leading martial arts actor and the most promising action director it’s been proved that as long as Donnie Yen is still active in movie-making, whether working in front of or behind the camera, he will most certainly break grounds and create more innovative concepts of MA and fight choreography for the martial arts action genre realizing them with either his own brand of unique MA skills or with others, which fans are eager to see on the big screen.

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