Martial arts film star adds grit to
Actor Donnie Yen brings dose of authenticity to the space opera prequel in his role as a blind warrior — a part he took to impress his children
Have you managed to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story yet? If so, you probably found yourself mesmerised by the performance of Donnie Yen, who stars in the film as blind Force sensitive Chirrut Imwe.
Trailer scenes of the steely warrior monk taking down a group of stormtroopers with just a wooden staff whet our appetites for his appearance in the film ... and if the rapturous Twitter reaction is anything to go by, the final result has more than lived up to expectations.
Imwe, not to mice words, is completely, utterly badass. Without spoiling too much, it’s also fair to say that he plays a pivotal (and beautifully, movingly staged) role in Rogue One’s climactic battle scenes.
Unless you’re a big martial arts or Asian cinema fan, however, you may not have been that familiar with Yen prior to his casting in the Gareth Edwards-directed prequel.
The 53-year-old actor (yes, he really is 53) was born in the Chinese mainland, lived in Hong Kong until he was 11, and then moved to the US with his family. As a child, he began studying martial arts, including Tai chi and Taekwondo — his impressively accomplished mother, Bowsim Mark, is a martial arts master — and spent time training in Beijing. These days, he defines himself as a mixed martial arts (MMA) specialist: the sport allows combatants to draw upon a variety of different styles and fighting techniques.
Before Star Wars, Yen’s movie career, which consists of over 30 films (including the critically acclaimed Ip Man series), was predominantly confined (although “confined” probably isn’t the right word to use about such a dangerously talented man) to Hong Kong and Chinese martial arts films.
His career “kicked off ” in 1984, when he starred in a film titled Drunken Tai Chi, directed by the legendary action movie director Yuen Woo-ping (known over here for his Jackie Chan movies, for his fight choreography on the acclaimed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and for directing t he film’s somewhat l ess acclaimed sequel).
“Of course, I knew Yuen’s work, and realised it was a great opportunity to work with him,” Yen told Asian Movie Pulse in 2014, following another collaboration with the director, Kung Fu Jungle. “I always treat him as my Sifu/Shrfu, which means ‘fatherly teacher’. I learned a lot from him, and then later moved on to develop my own style.”
Across the years, Yen’s popularity as a genre movie star has been aided by various legends about his real-life prowess. An off-cited story from the late Nineties, covered at the time by RogueOne:AStarWarsStory
All my actions, performances, all my films, they are driven by the characters.” Donnie Yen, actor and martial arts master
Hong Kong news outlets, tells of how the actor was standing outside a nightclub with his then-girlfriend, when a group of men began harassing her.
The gang later tried to corner and attack Yen ... and all eight members, the story goes, ended up in hospital. (It’s almost impossible not to think of that Rogue One stormtrooper scene.)
While his MMA skills are an obvious factor in his success, however, Yen has also spoken about how, for him, acting is a very physical thing: the way his characters move and attack is dictated not just by a desire to show off Yen’s best moves, but by his sense of personality.
It was this desire to be authentic, he says, that really helped inform his scenes as Imwe.
Asked how the film’s choreography measured up to his previous
work, Yen told Screen Rant: “I don’t make comparisons between any movies. I compare characters. All my actions, performances, all my films, they are driven by the characters.”
“If I’m playing a cop, then I give him a particular style — I may not know that style, but as an actor I have to be responsible; to do your homework and do your research and training and stuff like that,” he added. “To play this character, he lives in this world. He’s blind. He is, I believe, the spiritual center in the film. Therefore, automatically as an actor, without ever thinking about it, it slowly form together.”
While Yen was both pleased and proud to be the first Chinese actor cast in a Star Wars movie, he recently admitted, during an interview with Collider, that his Star Wars- loving kids (he has two with wife Cissy Wang, and one from a previous marriage) were the “main reason” he decided to take on the film.
In fact, he says, at first he wasn’t even all that sure about accepting the part.
“I got a call from my agent, saying, ‘Disney just called me. They want you to be in a Star Wars movie,’ ” he told Philly.com’s Geek Blog. “I was like, ‘Are they going to make me a lightsaber or something?’, you know. Bad idea. ‘Are they going to ask me to get Darth Vader?’ ”
“I asked my kids, ‘ Do you like Papa [more] in Ip Man’... or Star Wars?’ Without a doubt or a pause, they shouted, ‘Star Wars!’ I was like, ‘OK, wait a minute! I need to be a cooler dad.’ ”
One thing is certain: Star Wars fans across the world are probably feeling especially indebted to Yen’s children right now.
Donnie Yen poses next to an “X-wing fighter” on the red carpet as he arrives at the world premiere of the film in Hollywood, California.