Before becoming a well-known actor, Donnie Yen faced several ups and downs while working in the film industry throughout the decades, including taking on a romantic comedy role that almost jeopardized his career.
Yen, whose full name is Donnie Yen Ji-dan, landed his first acting role in the 1984 movie “Drunken Tai Chi” after the brother of one of his mother’s students asked him to go to a casting call, according to South China Morning Post (SCMP).
This person turned out to be renowned choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. In a past interview with SCMP, Yen recalled how Yuen also asked him to audition for the 1985 romantic comedy “Mismatched Couples.” While “Drunken Tai Chi” was well-received, Yen’s second film – which explored a combination of breakdancing, kung fu and slapstick – almost jeopardized his future in the film industry.
Speaking about the early days of his career, the 58-year-old action star said he was confused about pacing and the absence of physical contact while filming fight scenes.
“I remember when my master Yuen Woo-ping brought me to a film to watch a shoot,” he said in an interview with Clarence Tsui. “I asked him why everything was so slow. Why couldn’t they fight faster? Why didn’t they really smack each other? I only discovered later that it’s not really like that.”
“Filmmaking deploys another language, which is very different from what we martial artists know,” he added.
Before becoming an actor, Yen was a martial artist who learned from Bow-sim Mark – both a Tai Chi grandmaster and his mother – at the age of 9.
Speaking to SCMP in 1995, Yen admitted he yearned for attention at a young age and was rebellious while both his parents worked. His father was a violinist and his mother taught martial arts in Boston, where Yen grew up. He eventually moved to China and studied kung fu.
As a martial artist, the actor greatly admired his idol, the late legendary martial artist Bruce Lee.
“I will not let Bruce Lee down,” he told SCMP in 1995. “I think he was a great kung fu fighter with unsurpassed skills. I also respect his wisdom and foresight. If his spirit is watching now, I won’t let him down.”
Aside from being an actor, Yen also directed a few films. He was first credited as a director in the 1997 movie “Legend of the Wolf,” followed by two 1998 films: “Ballistic Kiss” and “Shanghai Affairs.”
His directing days, however, were filled with struggles. Yen claimed he only had 100 Hong Kong dollars (approximately $12) to his name and had to rely on his production team for food when he began directing in 1997.
Yen’s massive success did not come until 2008 when he was cast as Wing Chun Grandmaster Ip Man, a teacher of Bruce Lee. The film franchise now consists of four installments, with “Ip Man 4: The Finale” having been released in 2019.
“Every successful actor can boast of one role he’s best remembered for, and people now relate Ip Man to me, so I guess I didn’t do too bad a job,” Yen said, noting that the film franchise earned him a spot in Hong Kong cinema. “It allowed audiences to understand my potential, and that stood me in great stead for broadening my roles.”
“I could have done 10 films like ‘Ip Man’ after that, but I didn’t,” he continued. “I’ve tried to be selective, looking for roles that would subvert the audience’s opinion of me.”
Yen was also praised by organizers of the New York Asian Film Festival in 2012, who said that “while many people were wondering who would be the successor to Jackie Chan and Jet Li Lianjie, it never occurred to them that he was right in front of them all along, and his name was Donnie Yen.”
The Hong Kong martial artist is set to appear alongside Keanu Reeves in “John Wick 4,” which the film’s director Chad Stahelski confirmed in 2021.