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Speaking at a Shanghai International Film Festival masterclass this week, Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen recounted how one of Mike Tyson’s hooks almost knocked him out with the force of “a head-on truck” during the shooting of Ip Man 3 (2015). The actor has taken on triple duties at this year’s SIFF. In addition to sharing the highlights of his career in the masterclass, he has also premiered his latest cop thriller Raging Fire and is the ambassador for the festival’s “Belt and Road Film Week” sidebar.
Yen recalled that, as a boxing fan of Tyson’s, he relished the chance to spar with the former world heavyweight champion on-screen. But Yen also had no illusion about Tyson being a real boxer, not an actor, and knew that Tyson’s boxing moves were not only for show. “When I was in a scene with him, I had to remind myself that I have to be very cautious. I daren’t allow myself to think I was shooting a scene for a film,” Yen told the masterclass. “I had to treat it as a real fight in a boxing ring with him and it was a matter of life and death. I couldn’t afford to be distracted in any way, otherwise it wouldn’t have been a K.O., it would have cost me my life.”
In a shot when Tyson threw a hook, Yen was supposed to duck, but for the sake of the cameras, he could only duck at the last possible moment. “That was so dangerous! I literally felt the air move with his punch, which was like a truck coming towards me head-on. I felt that wind — woah, that’s still so clear in my mind, so dangerous! His fist was so huge, and it touched my hair,” Yen reminisced, still shaken. “I had to wait until the last moment to crouch down and at the same time not let myself be hurt. For me, that was the biggest pressure.”
Yen, who is set to appear in the fourth installment of Keanu Reeves’s John Wick franchise, also talked in-depth about his start in the film industry under the tutelage of acclaimed action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, who, incidentally, designed the action sequences and trained Reeves for The Matrix trilogy.
Yen came from a martial arts lineage, having learned since a young age from his mother, a famed tai chi master, and later went to Beijing to train further in martial arts. His mother counted among her pupils the sister of Yuen Woo-ping. In the mid-1980s, when Yuen was prepping Drunken Tai Chi, his follow-up to Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (both 1978), which made Jackie Chan a star, Yuen’s sister recommended the 18-year-old Yen to him, and the film became Yen’s screen debut.
Yen and Yuen went on to make contemporary actioner Tiger Cage in 1988, where Yen first suggested to his film industry mentor “a personal stamp”, inspired by Yen’s hero, Bruce Lee. “Generally, in a fight scene, the last shot would stay on the defeated,” Yen said. “But that shot was always reserved for Bruce Lee in a Bruce Lee film. You get the full blast of his charisma in that shot. The way he pulled a punch, how he retracted his fist – that is completely his personal charm.”
His latest outing, Raging Fire, was also the posthumous work of Hong Kong director Benny Chan, who fell ill and was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer during the film’s production and passed away last August at the age of 58. Yen disclosed that it was the mutual admiration he shared with the helmer of Hong Kong classic A Moment of Romance (1990) and later The White Storm (2013) that led to his signing up for Raging Fire. Chan completed filming but was not able to take charge of the post-production due to declining health.
As one of the Asian stars making a mark in Hollywood films such as Rogue One and the live-action Mulan, Yen considered these jobs an important chance, a mission even, for positive Chinese representation. “I’d always ask the producer whether the role I’m supposed to take and the content of the film as a whole is respectful of Chinese people and Chinese culture,” said Yen, a self-proclaimed patriot. “That’s something I’ve always done. Now that I have more influence, I must speak up for my country and speak out when I think something is not right. I also have a very important mission, which is to use my influence to show the audience that Chinese are not a stereotype. Whatever you can do, we can do it, too.”
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