Donnie Yen: “Dragon (Wu Xia)” Q&A – 2012 New York Asian Film Festival

Donnie Yen answers questions about Peter Chan’s DRAGON (WU XIA), addressing the rumor that it was a remake of THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, his favorite birthday present ever and other topics. The Q&A took place at the Film Society at Lincoln Center on July 9, 2012.

Donnie Yen: Good looking crowd, huh?

Moderator: Yeah, I think there’s a word for that movie and it’s intense. An intense movie. Every year at the New York Asian Film Fest, there’s a couple of, you know, moments in movies that are just the ‘oh my effing god’ moments and this movie had at least two of them, one of them being when you cut off your own arm. That was amazing. Now I heard rumors that this was originally planned as a remake of “The One-Armed Swordsman.”

Not really.

Not true?

No, after I worked with Peter Chan on a movie called “Bodyguards and Assassins,” we were looking for a… vehicle we wanted to both do and we came up with this. But he didn’t really want to, it was my idea cutting the arm because I thought it would be really cool to have Jimmy Wang, you know, who played my father, the original one-armed swordsman and I play a new one-armed swordsman. How cool is that, right? And Peter Chan said, “No, you know I don’t want people to think that I’m doing a remake of ‘The One-Armed Swordsman.’ I want to create a new story.” Then we dropped that idea until all the way into, we were adjusting, improvising the storyline, adjusting the storylines on a daily basis. All the way until right before the finale scenes and Peter agreed to have me cut off my arm. That’s how I ended up being the new one-armed swordsman.

Jimmy Wang was terrifying in this film. I mean…

Yeah, he was great.

You face-off with him in some pretty intense, dramatic scenes. This seems like a more demanding, dramatic role for you than you have in a while. I mean, you have to dig deep for this. What was it like doing a role with this much pathos and tragedy and drama?

You know, I think I talked about this past, some of you may attend the preview of the other movies in the past two days, right? I talked about having the success from “Ip Man” 1 and 2. I was blessed and fortunate to be given different, various different roles to choose and, which was something that, as an actor, I always wanted to do, you know, for the longest time. I wanted to show the impossibility of being an action guy, the acting ability. You know, for the longest time, people look at action actors, their perception of an action actor is, at best, an action icon, right? You never really take an action actor really seriously and compared to a very serious, dramatic actor, right? But that was something I wanted to achieve and then, you know, came “Ip Man” and everybody just wanted me to be the best.

I took that opportunity to really try to explore the possibility there all the way up to “Dragon.” “Dragon” is really something, a very complicated character to carry especially… The one character we have played, the paper maker. That’s really hard. It’s easy for me to play the on-screen hero, because I’ve been doing many years of martial arts training. Naturally, I would posses a certain martial arts macho element, in my gesture, in every step of the way I walk, but to drop every martial arts knowledge and feeling in my blood was really really difficult. That was something that I spent weeks trying to find the proper accuracy of the trait of that character.

Donnie Yen with Subway Cinema's Daniel Craft (left) and Goran Topalovic (right), and Anita Chan (second from right), director of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, New York. (photo by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine)
Donnie Yen with Subway Cinema’s Daniel Craft (left) and Goran Topalovic (right), and Anita Chan (second from right), director of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, New York. (photo by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine)

So the Chinese title of “Dragon” is Wu Xia.


And that’s a really big meaningful title to give to a martial arts movie. It’s like calling a comedy movie “comedy.” Or a drama movie “drama.” I mean, what do you think that this film has to say about Wu Xia?

That is a question to ask Peter Chan.

Well he’s not known, generally, as a martial arts director. He’s only made one action movie other than this,  “The Warlords.” And, I mean, how did you find – you generally work with directors who have some experience shooting action what was it like designing action for a guy who’s known largely for dramas, character pieces?

I think, first of all, again, after “Bodyguards and Assassins” we wanted to do something really, we both felt passionate about. It was down to story lines, and visions, and I know that my work with him being a non-action guy it would a total- element of freshness to – if you compare it to something from the past. Obviously, we saw that.

Yes. Yes, and please don’t hit us. By the way, my wife told me she would kill me with her own hands if I didn’t tell you that she has a huge crush on you. She wanted me to ask you a question, you were born in Boston, yes?

Actually, I was born in China.

You were born in China?

I grew up in Boston.

Grew up in Boston, okay. But you were raised outside the industry, certainly. And I guess I was curious about your development as a martial artist and who trained you, and, you know.

My mother teaches martial arts.  In fact, she, for many years, she was semi-retired, she was over 70 years old, for many years, she was one of the most prestigious female martial arts instructors in the United States. Actually, she part-time teaches students in Boston. So I started off my martial arts training from my mother, and then I went on to explore different martial artists, martial art styles, especially since I became a martial art filmmaker, it was just natural for me to learn other styles and have enough knowledge to be able to tap into different elements, put in different martial art elements into the different films.

And you see yourself not just as a martial art film star, but also as a martial artist?

I’m a martial artist, but, you know, there’s a big difference between a martial artist and a martial, an action actor.

Donnie Yen as Wong Kei-Ying in “Iron Monkey.” (still courtesy of World of Martial Arts TV)

Right. I’m really curious, you’ve collaborated with pretty much, everyone important in the Hong Kong film industry, who are your favorite collaborators?

They’re so different, you know. Jackie [Chan], Jet [Li], Sammo [Hung], you know, everyone just has a different flavor, by working with any one of them, it brings out a whole different chemistry.  Like, when I worked with Sammo twice…and our collaboration in “Ip Man 2,” you know, you generally assume chemistry opposed to Jackie, which I also worked with him twice, and Jet Li as well, I also worked with him twice.

Okay. And do you have a either sentimental or just personal favorite of the films that you’ve made, something that really speaks to you, really expresses you know, obviously, there’s a quote from you, in the trailer, saying they’re seeing your – they have a trailer for you, it says that they’re seeing your heart on screen. Is there a film that particularly expresses, I guess, you, among your work?

Me? Well you know, I think, when you are acting, a role, you actually bringing a lot of yourself into that character. That’s why you have casting. That’s why one, same role, but different actors, bring out different flavors. So when I tackle different characters, you see a lot of Donnie in that character. But my favorite I’d say, still, probably “Ip Man.” Probably “Ip Man.”

So not the guy from “Mismatched Couples”? That’s not-

That I love too.

Moderator: If you haven’t seen it, he break dances. See it. I’m gonna open up the floor to – okay, we have about five minutes, I’d love to open up the floor to some questions. This hand shot up like a rocket. What is it?

Woman in audience: Thank you so much… What I wanna know is, The New York Times says that you will retire. Is that a lie?

Big lie!

Moderator: You heard it here, Donnie Yen, not retiring at 50, ladies and gentlemen.

No, actually, it was kind of true, but I’m 28.

Moderator: And you heard it here, he’s 28. Okay, I saw a hand go up back there, yes. You, Miss, the one who looked around.

Second woman in audience: I’m just like his wife, I’m a big fan of yours. Your birthday is coming up, what is your best gift that you have received?

Moderator: The question was, “best birthday gift that you’ve ever received.”

In the past?

Not in the future, sure, yeah, in the past.

Well, I have to say, my wife [Cissy Wang] is here with me, she gave a surprise for my birthday party, when I finished making “Bodyguards and Assassins.” I remember, the week prior to my birthday, she called me and she said, “When you finish this film and you come back home…” – I was living in Shanghai – “…when you come back home, there’s an event on your birthday.” I said, “An event?” “Yeah, you know, I’m committed to it, I signed a contract, show up.”

So on my birthday, you know, shouldn’t we have something more, private? Family dinners, kids, and whatever, it was just something within ourselves, right. So when I went back to Hong Kong, we did have the family dinner, but then the event started, she told me it starts at 9:00, something, right. After dinner, I told her, “Can you just, kind of, give the deposit back? You know, I don’t want their money, can we not go?” And then she said, “no, all the press is gonna be there,” so, I went to – by the way, I hurt my back, you know, after “Bodyguards and Assassins” I was limping, you know, it just wasn’t, I was not in the mood to attend an event. And then after dinner she got me in the car, and kidnapped me to the event, and got off the smokescreen, and actually she spoke to me before this to keep this secret, of telling, it was supposed to be, a surprise party. So I spoke to the reporters, and then we went up to this club, by the way, a posh…No really, I, Stephen Chow and me would always go there and, it’s a pool hall, back in Hong Kong.

Anyway, we went up there, the elevator door opened, I see throngs of people, holding up these you know these pop, like, rock stars, you know fans have these little lights, and hold up these signs? Right? The like, Justin Bieber Like, wow, you know, what kind of event is this? And I see all these Hong Kong celebrities, like Sandra Ng, Leon Lai, and then I said, “What is this?” “It’s a party! Birthday party.” Well, my wife threw this birthday party, and she called 150 friends and family members, one-third of the whole Hong Kong industry in there. So that was a really touching moment for me, you know. Big round of applause for my wife.

Moderator: I think we have time for one more question. And you know what, that young lady, I saw her hand go up first. Yes. You.

Third woman in audience: What is your favorite form of martial arts, and why did you choose not to be a part of “Expendables 2”?

Moderator: Okay, the question was, for those of you who couldn’t hear it, “what is your favorite form of martial arts, and why did you choose not to be a part of ‘Expendables 2’?”

I really don’t have a favorite style, I like all styles, I like all food. Why did I turn down “Expendables 2?” You know, making a film is tough. You spend months on set, away from family, you spend more months prepping to be in those few months, and then a few more months, you try to get away from the character. So, you spend a good amount of time in your life dedicated to making one movie, right? So, if that role is not something that you’re passionate about, I’d rather not do it. “Expendables,” they were really gracious to ask me to be in it several times, I was in LA, they asked me to be in it, but, unfortunately, that role was not for me, but maybe in the future.

Okay, and I think that about wraps it up. Thank you very much.

Yeah. Thank you guys, wait a minute! I’ve got something to say! Listen. Right before the film, I asked you guys to take pictures with me. Well, it was out of focus, so, if you guys don’t mind, can I take a picture with you guys again? I really wanna treasure this moment, this is really fun. Do you mind if I sit here? And then, I kind of have this camera, and lean back?

Donnie, hail to the king. Thank you so much for being here.

video by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine