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One of the kings of the Asian action scene, actor Donnie Yen
(HERO, 14 BLADES, the IP MAN
films) again proves himself a master of flying fists and feet in the Weinstein
Company/Radius release DRAGON (a.k.a. WU XIA), which opens in theaters this
Friday and is currently available On Demand and iTunes.
In DRAGON, Yen plays Liu Jin-xi, a village craftsman whose
quiet life is irrevocably shattered by the arrival of two notorious gangsters at
the corner store. When Liu single-handedly obliterates the bad guys, he comes
under the suspicion of detective Xu Bai-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Convinced that
Liu’s martial arts mastery belies a secret history of training by one of the
region’s vicious clans, Xu doggedly pursues the shy hero—and draws the unwanted
attention of China’s criminal underworld in the process. Directed by Peter
Ho-Sun Chan from a script by Oi Wah Lam, DRAGON pays tribute to the 1967
martial arts favorite THE ONE-ARMED
SWORDSMAN, and the basic storyline also echoes David Cronenberg’s A HISTORY OF
VIOLENCE. In this exclusive interview, Yen talks about his complex character
and working on DRAGON’s exciting kung-fu sequences.
FANGORIA: How important are film festivals like Montreal’s Fantasia
and the New York Asian Film Festival to movies like DRAGON?
DONNIE YEN: Actually, I’m not too sure, but I do know that
the world is getting smaller. Instead of having to go see mainstream films,
audiences have many choices. Instead of watching the box office top-10 mainstream
Hollywood selections, you can watch all sorts of films, especially action
films. The international language is body language, so all audiences across the
world can relate to the same thing.
FANG: What attracted you to DRAGON?
YEN: It’s a very interesting storyline. It’s very fresh.
It’s a detective story. As an actor, I was very thrilled to be able to play two
roles in the film, [beginning with] a farmer with no action and no martial arts
ability. And, of course, at the end of a Donnie Yen film, you expect a little
punching and kicking, so the hero side of the [same] character gave me the
opportunity to once again demonstrate my action performances on screen. It was
quite thrilling, but at the same time, it was confusing at points because a lot
of times, in order to save time, we had to shoot scenes with me playing two
different characters back to back, so I had to switch roles. “OK, so I have to
be this person…” “CUT!” Same angle, the same shots. “OK, now I have to be THIS
character…” That was quite challenging and different for me as an actor too,
because usually you just play one [facet of a] character and you spend months
playing that character to play that character well. But for this movie, not
only did I have to play the character well, but I had to play TWO characters
FANG: Can you talk about the fight choreography that you created
YEN: In Hong Kong, if you’re the action choreographer,
you’re [also] the director of the action, so what it does is let you dictate
how the choreography is going to look at the end, from choreographing body
movements to placement of the cameras in the final cut. We have a lot of preplanning
of the concept of the action, the flavor of the action, the direction of the
action many weeks before we actually get into production, which of course you
sort of scan through it with your director and producer. So all along, I had in
mind for DRAGON that I wanted to do something aside from the normal Donnie Yen
straight-up, very-high-impact-violence-type of film. I wanted it to be a little
more fresh, simply. I wanted it to be fresh and something more than what you’d
expect from watching martial arts films. So I brought a different angle of
looking at action movies, from looking at and getting inspired by watching the
Discovery Channel. Sometimes you see programs where they mechanically dissect
the physics of the human body. So I knew that was the vision that I wanted to
collaborate with in the martial arts choreography, and that vision was brought
to our director, Peter Chan. He loved the idea and through this process,
images, shots and even editing points were created in my mind before I got into
the actual shooting. So during the shooting, [the choreography] was just pure
execution and getting the vision that I accumulated in the weeks before I
actually got into the production.
FANG: What was your inspiration for your character, Liu? Did
you also watch the original ONE-ARMED
SWORDSMAN for inspiration?
YEN: Not really. Of course, we were aware of THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, but it was more of the iconic
image that we tried to embrace rather than try to remake THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN. In fact, in the beginning,
Peter didn’t really want to recapture the whole image of the One-Armed Swordsman.
He just wanted to do something totally new so that the audience wouldn’t think,
“Oh, you’re just doing a remake of THE ONE-ARMED
SWORDSMAN.” But toward the end, as we were adjusting our storylines, which is
very common in Hong Kong filmmaking, to the part before the finale—and all the
time—I was really persistent in trying to influence [Chan] into bringing the One-Armed
Swordsman back, because I was thinking it was a cool element to have. Why not
bring in that iconic image of the One-Armed Swordsman? It’s good for people,
too, because it’s something to talk about. Simply, it could be very good hype.
But it wasn’t until we met up right before the final scenes that he realized,
“Wait, maybe it IS a good idea to have your arm chopped off!” All along, I was
trying to convince him to do this! So that’s how it came along. It just so
happened that we had Jimmy Wang [in the movie], the original One-Armed
Swordsman, so it just sort of worked out. It fit the storyline. It fit the
characters. We had the situation where he needed to sacrifice certain things.
And the fans loved it. They were like, “Oh! You had the One-Armed Swordsman!”
So we had the situation where Liu needed to cut off an arm, so we had the new
One-Armed Swordsman against the old One-Armed Swordsman. That was pretty cool.
FANG: What was the working dynamic between you and Peter
YEN: Well, I’ve always been a big fan of Peter. All his
films were brilliant films. When we worked on BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS, he was the producer. And in the end,
we ran into many shooting problems. The movie was going over-budget and the
earlier action and drama were not the way he wanted, so toward the end, I
actually helped him direct the final scenes, and he loved it. Plus, our
relationship in the industry was strong because we’ve known each other for so
long, and he loved KILL ZONE—S.P.L. So our whole relationship led to DRAGON.
After BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS,
we’ve been looking for the right vehicle to work together again. And having
that trust and respect for my action direction, he gave me freedom on the set
and basically walked off and did other things [laughs]. So I shot those scenes,
and it was great. There was a lot of mutual trust. Of course, we talked through
the storyline and everything, but it was a really great moment working with him
because not only did he give me all the freedom and support, but he also was
pushing me to do more by giving me more freedom.
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