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

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE - By RE­BECCA HAWKES

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’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.

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