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A Tribute to the Greatness that is Donnie Yen: Part VI – Old Man Yen

Allow me to be serious for a moment.

In 2008, Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen gave us the film Ip Man, a heavily fictionalized biographical-account of the life of the Wing Chun grandmaster of the same name.

Donnie Yen was 45 years old.

Throughout his career, Donnie Yen’s acting has been criticized for consisting of little more than him preening, posing, and more often than not, flexing his way through his films.

Yeah, kind of like that.

Ip Man gave us our first glimpse of a more restrained, more mature Donnie Yen.

Gone were the trademark leaping back-kicks. Gone were the cocky, “bring it on” eyebrows.

Even the cheesy windmill uppercut feints failed to make the cut.

Okay, that's not really a feint, but whatever.

Donnie Yen was 45 and finally ready to act his age.

The result was a gorgeous film that earned 2 awards out of 12 nominations at the 28th Hong Kong Film Awards.

One of those awards went to Sammo Hung for Best Action Choreography.

The other went to the production itself, as it just happened to be the award for Best Film.

While much of the film’s success could be attributed to Chinese nationalism (the plot concerns the Japanese occupation of China) and passion for martial arts culture, it’s hard to deny that the film is a solid contribution to the action-drama genre.

Production of Ip Man brought Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung together for the second time in their careers.

The first time was in SPL, where the two would clash onscreen for a climactic battle that, amazingly, matched the intensity of Yen’s alleyway duel with Wu Jing just minutes earlier within the same film. (See “Donnie Yen: Part IV – The Real Donnie Yen”)

This time around however, Hung would serve as fight choreographer, bringing his unerring cinematographic eye and untold years of experience to the production.

The above sequence, from the film in which Sammo Hung directed, choreographed, and co-starred, Wheels on Meals, (the third film to include the Peking Opera Trio of Hung, Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao) showcases the first of two epic battles between Jackie Chan, and American kickboxer, Benny “The Jet” Urquidez.  This sequence is widely regarded as one of the finest sequences in screen fighting history, and is a testament to Mr. Hung’s skills behind the camera.

How’s that for credentials?

Seriously, do NOT fuck with this man.

Hung’s attention to detail and penchant for injecting his fights with realistic passion and violence made him perfect for the job.

Ip Man gave Hung the opportunity to explore and put on display a number of different martial arts, most notably, Wing Chun.

The simple fact that he was able to convey each of these styles largely through pure physical expression, rather than superfluous exposition, is a testament to Mr. Hung’s skills as a choreographer.

Donnie Yen’s movements as Ip Man clearly reflect the Wing Chun principles of countering and establishing a “line” with one’s opponent.

Fan Siu Wong’s character, Jin, effectively portrays a practitioner of Northern Kung Fu, relying on solid stances and aggressive circular strikes.

Hiroyuki Ikeuchi’s General Miura, as well as the other Japanese characters, all include the straight punches and mechanical blocking motions of Karate.

Mr. Hung managed to communicate all of this through nothing but body language.

"So... You wanna' like, do it?"

It’s interesting to note that, stylistically speaking, Donnie Yen, while versatile and athletic, is not really the first person that came to my mind in casting a master of Wing Chun.

For one thing, Mr. Yen has never studied Wing Chun, and for another, the fighting style he employed in most of his films prior to this is contrary to the principles of Wing Chun in that it utilizes wide, flashy kicks to the head, techniques Wing Chun places little emphasis on.

But that was the old Donnie Yen, not the old Donnie Yen.

As you can plainly see, Mr. Yen managed to get the hang of Wing Chun pretty handily.

Despite this, another challenge for Mr. Yen, and Mr. Hung for that matter, was in staging and planning the choreography in such a way that it matched the tone of every scene.

The sequence above took place at the end of the first half of the film, during which the tone is bright and lively, and the drama is largely restricted to standard genre fare I.E. squabbles between rival martial arts schools and principles.

The sequence below however, takes place midway through the second half of Ip Man, within which the tone, and color palette for that matter, become engulfed with darkness.  As a result, the choreography becomes harsher, more violent, and altogether more intense.  Even the soundtrack reflects this.

A tip of the hat to Mr. Yen and Mr. Hung…  and a pat on the back to all those who may have been injured during the filming of this sequence.

Regardless of how much praise I shower upon it, Ip Man is not a great film.

It is however, a great kung fu movie.

Every cliche and trope you would expect to find in an entry from the genre is present here in some form, and I think that was the point.

Ip Man doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel, it merely tries it’s best to give it a spit shine and more importantly, do it with heart.

Sure, the story can be hokie at times.

Sure, the script was largely forgettable.

I’d sooner accept both of those shortcomings in exchange for a decent film with a handful of scenes where Donnie Yen beats people like a fucking drum.

You know you'd buy it...

End serious moment.

Well okay, maybe that wasn’t all that serious, but hey, I tried.

Check back for the exciting conclusion to my MASSIVE tribute to Donnie Yen, in “Part VII – Mr. Yen to the Future and Beyond!”

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A Tribute to the Greatness that is Donnie Yen: Part V – All Hail Emperor Yen!

2005 was just the beginning of Mr. Yen’s newly established reign in Hong Kong action cinema.

... And he can pull off a skinny tie. Man, it's hella' not fair...

With the exception of 2009, Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen would continue to team up for a film every year after this, leading up to the present.

’06 brought us the forgettable and effects heavy comic book movie, Dragon Tiger Gate, within which Donnie Yen, a complex wire crew, and dozens of CGI artists banded together to make pop stars Nicholas Tse and Shawn Yue look like martial arts masters.

Behold: The Original Masters of Emo Fu.

The result was a film that wasn’t bad, just kind of bland.

To their credit, Nicholas Tse and Shawn Yue legitimately put some time into the fight work, coming across as competent action stars. In fact, both have remained impressive screen combatants ever since and are sincerely on my “good” list in regards to their performances.

2007, brought us Flash Point, a prequel to SPL.

Needless to say, as soon as the trailers started popping up online, I was psyched.

All the bad ass atmosphere of SPL with a new, brighter color palette, and the promise of even more bone-crunching fights.

Make no mistake though, between SPL and Flash Point, SPL is definitely the better film.

However that’s not to say Flash Point wasn’t special in it’s own right.

On the contrary, it was very special.

Flash Point had no less than 3 fight choreographers involved in the production. Donnie Yen, his longtime friend, John Salvitti, and Japanese choreographer Yuji Shimomura of Versus and Death Trance fame.

Together, the 3 constructed some of the most intense and skillfully crafted fight sequences ever seen, incorporating complex grappling and other MMA based techniques in the process.

The results were, as you can plainly see, magic:

Click here for awesomeness. (Sadly, you can’t plainly see, because the stupid link won’t embed.  Sorry!  I’ll try to get this fixed sometime down the road.)

The brutality of Donnie Yen and Collin Chou’s climactic balls-out, no hold’s barred throw down at the end of Flash Point is matched only by it’s beauty.

The choreography is intentionally “ugly”, with many of the movements and strikes being executed with a clear emphasis on displaying power and ferocity, as opposed to the more elegant motions found in traditional kung fu movies.

In addition to this, Donnie Yen and his crew managed to accomplish the seemingly impossible by incorporating grappling and holds while maintaining a constant level of energy throughout. Even though the action does in fact come to a stop during some of these moments, they never once break the rhythm of the fight.

In stark contrast to the hard-edged choreography, the cinematography throughout this sequence is smooth and focused. Combined with the bright greens of the background foliage, as well as the hanging glass bottle props, many of the crane shots are just plain breathtaking, in particular the one that kicks off the fight immediately after the fall from the roof.

Kudos to whoever managed to choreograph the camera work amid the various pillars and obstacles.

Flash Point was the movie that solidified Wilson Yip’s role as Donnie Yen’s go-to director, as well as cemented Mr. Yen’s position as the guy in Hong Kong action cinema.

But of course we knew that already now, didn’t we?

Check back for the second to last post in my MASSIVE tribute to Donnie Yen, “Part VI – Old Man Yen!”

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A Tribute to the Greatness that is Donnie Yen: Part IV – The Real Donnie Yen

A funny thing happened in the 2000’s.

Jackie Chan got old.

Jet Li was tied up doing movies with rappers.

Guess who stepped forward into the spotlight?

Close, but not quite.

That’s right, Donnie Yen, and he was bringing the sexy back!

2005 marked the first collaboration between Donnie Yen and Bio Zombie director Wilson Yip.

The film was called Sha Po Lang, (S.P.L.) and it kicked some serious ass.

See that baton? It's goin' right up your ass.

In the late-90’s one of my brother’s videophile friends screened for me a laser disc of John Woo’s The Killer.

With Jackie Chan having just become the next big thing in the states with the domestic release of Rumble in the Bronx, the climate was just right for me to get into Hong Kong cop and robber movies.

Needless to say, Tiger Cage, Hard Boiled and Beast Cops were old hat in my book by the time I was in high school.

SPL was a throwback to the Hong Kong “hard boiled cop” movies of the 80’s and 90’s, and it accomplished what very few Donnie Yen films had done before it.

With a star studded cast including the likes of Sammo Hung and Simon Yam, SPL presented us with an emotional and dramatic story, populated with characters we cared about, and did it all with a smaller than expected dose of action.

However nobody said that what fighting was there wasn’t some of the best of Mr. Yen’s career.

This brutal fight, between Donnie Yen and, then, up-and-comer Wu Jing, is what I proudly refer to as “The Best Weapon-Based Fight Scene of All Time.”

No fooling, I’ve watched it dozens of times and I’ve never once felt any doubt in my sentiments.

I love how you can read the intent behind every move in the fight just by looking at the intensity in both men’s facial expressions.

I love how the pace of the choreography has a natural and realistic sense of progression and crescendo to it.

I love the energy of the camera work and how it darts in and out like a fencer on the sidelines, hinting to us the perceived openings in each man’s guard from each fighter’s perspective.

I love this movie, and I’m glad it was the one that finally introduced me to the real Donnie Yen.

It was well worth the wait.

Check back for “Part V – All Hail Emperor Yen!”

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A Tribute to the Greatness that is Donnie Yen: Part III – My Relationship with Mr. Yen

I first ran across Donnie Yen in 2001.

I had just purchased Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: All-Out Monster Attack on DVD from a mail-order bootleg service.

While the movie itself was great, (leading up to this I was suffering from post-Gamera trilogy Shusuke Kaneko withdrawals) there was an Easter egg on the disc menu (just click on Godzilla’s eye!)that included a number of trailers for upcoming Japanese films.

The first few were for older Godzilla movies that were finally seeing DVD release.

'Bout mother fuckin' time!

The last few however, were some of the coolest trailers I had seen up until then:

Ichi the Killer

and Shura Yuki Hime (2001)

I like the guy with the Fozzie Bear ears at 1:06 in the Ichi the Killer trailer. He’s silly.

Okay, now picture what it’s like seeing those for the first time when you’re a bloodthirsty 14 year old boy who’s only just starting to identify with his racial background.

I watched those trailers more than I watched that Godzilla movie.

And I loves me some Godzilla.

While neither of these movies were all that good in my opinion, (remember, I’m not a Miike fan) I was very impressed by the fight scenes in Shura Yuki Hime.

While he wasn’t in the film, after watching the trailer for Shura Yuki Hime so many times, my limited katakana comprehension at the time allowed me to read at :46 into it, that the “Akushon Direkuta” of the film was “Doni Iiyen.”

That’s Donnie Yen to you an me. Well, me anyway.

Unfortunately, the bootleg service I used only specialized in Japanese films at the time, with only a limited number of Chinese ones, leaving me with no real way of getting a hold of any Donnie Yen films.

Then I discovered that Donnie Yen had been featured in a number of American films.

I promptly looked them up and was treated to stuff like this:

… and Donnie Yen being mysteriously killed, OFF CAMERA, in Blade II.

Needless to say, I felt cheated.

In almost 4 years of searching, I was only able to see Donnie Yen in Iron Monkey, 3 shitty American films, and I guess if you get technical about it, I got to see his choreography in Shura Yuki Hime and Onimusha 3.

Where was all the good stuff?

Almost forgot... In his pants.

I figure you guys are a little sick of having Donnie Yen’s man-package thrust in your faces every day, so I think I’ll give you a reprieve tomorrow.

Check back the day after next for “Part IV – The Real Donnie Yen!”

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A Tribute to the Greatness that is Donnie Yen: Part II – Director Yen

Around 1997, Donnie Yen began directing his own films.

As I mentioned previously, the results were far from stellar.

In most cases, the storylines of Yen’s films were muddled, confusing, and often times just plain tedious, even by Hong Kong action movie standards.

Being as Donnie Yen was, at this point, already a supremely talented performer and fight choreographer, you would think he would put his best work on display in the films he directed, right?

Sadly this was not the case, just look at this example from Legend of the Wolf:

Yikes.

I don’t know how much coke they were on when they edited this, but I know someone had one hell of a time dubbing in the audio.

To be fair, the fight isn’t actually all that bad.

The fight is conducted at an incredibly frenetic pace, and some of the sparring is modestly complex, but the excessive use of confusing close-up shots and exaggerated undercranking result in a sequence that is just plain off-balance.

Although I do have to admit that the numerous “arm fencing” sequences are just plain fun.

Cinematography: It's what's for dinner.

The use of strange and experimental cinematography was rampant throughout most Donnie Yen directed films.

From the strangely artistic colored lighting in Ballistic Kiss, to the over-the-top undercranking in Legend of the Wolf, Yen was not a man afraid to deviate from the norms of Hong Kong cinema.

When you think about it, that’s actually a pretty admirable feat.

Though most of his movies were mediocre at best, (I personally thought Shanghai Affairs was his best, and even then it kind of sucked) they were always different, and never solely relied on his physical prowess to carry the show.

... Although it probably could anyway.

Check back later for “Part III – My Relationship with Mr. Yen!”

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A Tribute to the Greatness that is Donnie Yen: Part I – The Early Years

Okay let’s get one thing straight: Donnie Yen is the man.

Blue Jeans and Donnie Yen... All you'll ever need, baby... All you'll ever need.

Outside of his surgically altered face, and sculpted physique, his perfectionist tendencies and picture perfect form, both in front of and behind the camera, have blessed him with a colorful film career spanning 4 decades… and a super model wife.

Okay, things were cool at first, but now I'm starting to hate this guy a little.

Oh yeah, did I mention that he’s also a concert pianist, as well as a former breakdancer?

Okay, well maybe that whole breakdancing thing didn’t pan out so well, but hey, nobodies’ perfect.

The man is a living legend in the art of cinematic fight crafting and performance, and yet despite this, for most of his career he was regarded as sort of a middle-tier star in Hong Kong cinema.

In some ways its easy to see why though.

At age 46 he is only just now learning how to act, and in the few instances he set out to direct and star in his own films, the results were, how shall we say… ASS.

"Why did I let you convince me to be in this shitty movie? Did you really have to film every fight like it was straight out of Dragonball Z!?"

Combined with the fact that some of his contemporaries just happened to be Jackie Chan and Jet Li, Donnie Yen’s career was largely overlooked early on.

Despite this, he was always busy, turning out solid performances throughout the 80’s and 90’s, in the form of fun flicks like, Mismatched Couples, In the Line of Duty IV, Crystal Hunt, Iron Monkey I and II, and my personal favorite of his 80’s films, Tiger Cage II.

During this time, he often worked under the guidance of the great Yuen Woo Ping, as well as shared the screen with a laundry list of screen legends such as:  Ken Lo, Dick Wei, Billy Chow, Yu Ruong Guang, Michael Wong, Collin Chou, Yuen Biao, Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li, as well as his good friends, John Salvitti, and Michael Woods.

Oh yeah, and he also got to beat Robin Shou’s ass on at least one occasion.

THAT'S RIGHT! GOT YOUR ASS BEAT, LIU KANG!

His pair of battles against Jet Li in Once Upon a Time In China II as the villainous General Lan are often considered the scenes that put him on map among Chinese action film enthusiasts. In fact, the reception for these fights was so high in China, that the public anticipation of a “rematch” between the two figured into the promotion of the film, Hero.

Personally, I felt these fights were technically well crafted, but have never really been considered some of my favorites. Too many camera tricks and fantastical wire gimmickry for my tastes.

As you can probably tell, I’m not really a traditional wuxia enthusiast.

... Although this is pretty fucking cool.

Well, that concludes the introductory segment to my MASSIVE tribute (not innuendo, I swear) to the apex of pimp himself, Donnie Yen.

Check back for “Part II – Director Yen!”

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