chops for acting
There is more to the charming newcommer, Dennis To Yu-hang, than just his comely physique.
There is more to the charming newcomer, Dennis To Yu-hang, than just his comely physique.
DENNIS To Yu-hang probably has his close resemblance to Donnie Yen to thank for winning the titular role in The Legend Is Born: Ip Man. After all, it was Yen’s portrayal of the late Wing Chun master in Ip Man and its sequel that turned the character into a cinematic canon.
At first glance, Hong Kong star To comes off as a younger, leaner Yen. But there is more to the 29-year-old than his comely physique. For one, he is the reigning World Kung Fu Champion.
He is also an expert in numerous kung fu styles, including Wing Chun, which he studied for eight years. Moreover, he is the “grand-student” of Ip Chun, 86, Ip Man’s real-life eldest son. To was also a flame bearer in the 2008 Olympics.
With all his martial arts credentials, it certainly looks like To is destined for the role of Ip Man, but the rising star admits he felt a lot of pressure playing the martial arts master.
“I was worried about my acting,” a chatty To reveals. “Ip Man was my ‘great-grandmaster’. I really wanted to do justice to his character and to all Wing Chun disciples too.”
His efforts paid off. “People call me ‘ To sifu’ now,” he says with a laugh. “More people have asked me to teach them kung fu since the film’s release (in June) but I don’t have the time. My working hours are crazy. Filming either starts at 5am or I work till 5am. But I’m starting to get used to it.”
In fact, the fresh-faced actor is so busy that his recent visit here to conduct a martial arts seminar “feels like a holiday”.
To was joined by Ip Man producer Checkley Sin, who launched his novel The Legend Is Born – Ip Man at the Malaysia International Exhibition & Convention Centre (MIECC) in The Mines, Selangor. Sin’s novel chronicles Ip Man’s life from childhood to his becoming a well-known Wing Chun master.
Besides Ip Man, To is working on The 1911 Revolution, playing a soldier in the war movie alongside Jackie Chan and Chinese actress Li Bingbing.
“I’m also filming Harbour 2012 with Taiwanese director Chow Sau Fan,” he says in Cantonese, adding that he plays an intriguing character in the action film.
“Unlike Ip Man, my character in Harbour 2010 isn’t a hero. He is neither a good nor a bad guy,” says To who is also the film’s martial arts director.
“I felt quite daunted when asked to direct the action scenes. I thought of turning it down but eventually accepted the challenge.”
While he is excited about going behind-thescenes for the first time, the soft-spoken but confident newcomer admits that the experience has been a trying one.
“We’ve been shooting for a month now and it was really quite difficult at first. I’m working with a Taiwanese crew but since they do not make action films, they lack experience in that genre. I also had to coordinate and work on certain scenes at the very last minute. It’s a lot of hard work and we film up to 17 hours a day.
“There was also a typhoon at the time we were filming and then it flooded,” he adds. “We had to wait for the floodwaters to subside before we resumed work.
“But the good part about the experience is I learned how to overcome challenges,” he says, beaming.
With his busy schedule, it is no wonder that To doesn’t have a girlfriend. “Work is still my priority. I’m so busy filming, I just don’t have the time. Maybe in a few years.”
To says he likes girls who are outgoing. “I’m a Capricorn so I’m really quiet. I would like a girlfriend who is a little more talkative to balance things out,” he says, adding he is completely different from his valiant onscreen persona.
“I can’t be quiet when it comes to making movies. When I play a character, I become completely immersed in the role. I become the character.”
To will reprise his role as the legendary master in the next Ip Man movie, which follows the life and times of the Chinese hero.
“The film will focus on what happened to Ip Man in Hong Kong and how Wing Chun flourished over 20 years. It also explores his relationship with his most famous student Bruce Lee, who happens to be my idol,” says To.
“I hope to spread Chinese kung fu through my films, just like Bruce Lee did. In a way, I do feel like I’m representing the Chinese, just like he did. Someone who isn’t Chinese can practise kung fu and even be good at it, but they can never be as authentic. Kung fu is one of the most precious things in the Chinese culture.”
The fresh-faced actor himself embodies a whole new generation of martial arts masters. “I’m very honoured to be recognised alongside great masters like Sammo Hung (who also stars in The Legend Is Born: Ip Man), but I still feel very inexperienced in the entertainment industry,” he says.
“I’m taking things one step at a time but I hope to move on to bigger films and also to work behind the scenes. I want to be versatile, just like Sammo. That’s when I’ll be able to make films of my own choice.”
Dennis To (left and inset) plays a teenage Ip Man in
Everybody wants kung fu fighting: