Donnie Yen: “The Lost Bladesman” Q&A – 2012 NYAFF

Donnie Yen talked to the crowd before and after the screening of THE LOST BLADESMAN (關雲長) on July 7, 2012, at the Film Society at Lincoln Center.  The 2012 New York Asian Film Festival marked Yen’s first-ever appearance at a film festival in North America.

Before the screening

Donnie Yen: Thank you guys for making me really nervous. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Just in case you’re wondering, I am so thrilled to be here in New York. I thank you all for coming here to create this wonderful moment. I don’t know what to say, you guys are making me nervous.

Samuel Jamier, moderator: The film already dates back to early 2011, but would you like to say a few words about the film? We’ve talked more before the Q & A session.

Well, you’ve basically told the whole story. I don’t have to say anything, right? But this film is probably one of the hardest roles that I’ve taken. Because, number one, I have no knowledge whatsoever about The Three Kingdoms. So when the director asked me to do this role, I was kind of reluctant and I wasn’t sure if I could do this. But, you know, I wanna try different things, right? And I said, the first obstacle was legendary, this person’s supposed to be, I don’t know, eight feet tall. Giant, right? And then a beard all the way down to the floor. Which, nothing, anything I have.

But primarily, I have not much knowledge of The Three Kingdoms, but I did the best I could. Did some research and tried to stay into character. Ate a lot of food. I was eating five meals a day, you know. But I did it, man. I was on a diet, eating one meal a day. So, I did this film. I was eating five meals a day. So, you know where the money went. The money went to the food. But, you know, I’m so happy.

Thanks for that, though, thank you. We’ll be back on stage later.

After the screening

All right, I’m only going to ask a couple of questions. And I know you have… I’m sure you have plenty of questions for Donnie Yen. But, first of all, I want to say it’s not just about your acting.  You’re also the action director of that film. You’re very well known for your action directing work. And I want to ask you about your to approach various styles. You, I think, that you are known for your boxing style, particularly “Ip Man” is your signature role at this point I would say.

Well, first I was trying to figure out, how do you swing such a big sword with long hair? It would always get tangled up with my beard. I don’t know. You know, anytime I do action dimensions I try to stay stay with the character. And, you know, like I said in the beginning before the show, I told you guys that I didn’t know too much of the Three Kingdoms books, right? I did my research and tried to understand the character, and how could I bring this character alongside with trying to bring some freshness to the action choreography.

First, I came up with the whole idea of fighting on the horses. Then, we built the set, and I want to make it even more complicated – interesting, by having the alley as narrow as possible: wide enough for two horses to fight in there, but narrow enough where you see the difficulty of having that complication of choreography in that whole fight alley scene. That’s probably one of my favorites… And then at the end, of course you all know that director directed “Infernal Affairs,” so they are big fans of a lot of heavy action. So, we kind of collaborated and at the end it was more like a General Guan kind of like slash SWAT, you know? I was running around shooting people. That’s great, but human.

I thought that scene in the alley way was absolutely amazing. I have to say I think it’s probably one of the best.

It was on of those that was difficult to shoot, actually. You know, sometimes you guys probably… Maybe, you know, you don’t realize how difficult it is to work with animals. It’s very difficult to keep control of the horses. You tell them to move but it doesn’t move, you know. So, you’re kind of stuck in the middle of the alley, and, you know, you can, “Go! Go, boy! Go!” It’s making us go back uncomfortably fast, you know? And I’m fighting this guy behind me and my horse doesn’t move. And, you know, we just kind of got jammed up in the middle of the alley scenes. And then we have to do it again, you know. The shots at the beginning of the alley. So, it’s quite complicated.

So you played Guan Yu, this mythical figure, historical figure from Chinese history, big martial arts. So, you know, you’ve been in “Ip Man.” Are you interested in exploring more roles like this, other Kung Fu masters– Wong Fei-hung… Is that the kind of things you want to do? ‘Cause right now you’re at this junction, you’re an action man…

I pretty much did a lot of stuff, you know I did play [Wong] Kei-ying [in “Iron Monkey”].

That’s right.

I just finished another, kind of like a SPL/Flash Point. Definitely undercover cop, gangster movie…I like modern films better, but I know a lot of my audience love my period films, like “Hero,” “Iron Monkey,” like really classic films. But in the near future I probably want to focus more on contemporary, ’cause I feel you have less restriction.

For example: If you play a period film you play someone like General Guan, there’s a lot of burden and limitation, because you have you have to stay true to the historical background, as well as the audience expectation of playing that character. So, I dunno, as an actor I want a little but more freedom, or trying different things or exploring different things. I prefer more contemporary set backgrounds where I’ll be focusing on the things I want to do.

Would you consider a film with no action?

I just finished a romantic…

[“Together”] with Michelle Chen, it’s good.

…with no action whatsoever. You get paid, and I don’t have to sweat. I’ve been very blessed and fortunate the past couple of years, you know? I’ve been given many opportunities, especially after the release of the “Ip Man” series. I’ve been given opportunities where I was able to explore different types of film: comedies, romantic, you know… But I will never forget my roots. I know this is what I do best. So, as an actor I want to explore more, but at the same time I will continue to try and elevate what I do best which is the action movie genre.

Jamier: I think it’s time to turn to the audience. Don’t be shy. You can ask your questions. Raise your hand and shout it now. It’s tough to hear you, for me. Right here in the front, yes?

Woman in audience: Do you still dance?

Oh man, I did a comedy… I did a comedy last year, ’cause in Hong Kong, usually, during Chinese New Year we have these comedies, ’cause you know, Chinese New Year, you take your family, you watch something funny, right? So, again, I was fortunate to be asked to be in a comedy – actually, two years ago, and that was my first comedy… First phase of being in comedy. And the movie came out and it wasn’t that bad. No one threw eggs at me. So, I took another dip last year playing another role, a rock singer, actually. And in the movie where I’m [supposed] to sing and play guitar, I watched a lot of Jack Black’s movies. “The School of Rock.” Do I still dance? No, not as much.

Man in audience: Show us your moves!

I knew that was coming. You can watch “Mismatched Couples.” Just ask them to bring this title, and invite me back. Maybe next year. Invite me back here.

Moderator: Yes, we will do that. The lady right here.

Woman in audience: I don’t know much about your background. But the catalog says you grew up in Boston, and your mother taught you martial arts. Could you tell us more about that?

Yes, I spent a lot of teenage years in Boston. I emigrated from Hong Kong to Boston in… Starting in… 1975? Like late ’70s. My mother does teach martial arts. She recently retired. So, I started off studying martial arts from her. They still have a school in Boston.

Moderator: Thanks. Yes, the gentleman right here.

Gentleman in audience: Is Bruce Lee a role model of yours?

Absolutely.

Man in audience: ‘Cause I know you did Ip Man which was, I believe, the future of…

Yes, Ip Man, was… Well, you know, I also did some TV series. Fist of Fury, the TV series. I did Legend of the Fist, also. Bruce Lee played a very inspiring role in my life. Inspired many pe ople I believe. Still is.

Man in audience: Who are your favorite on-screen fighting partner?

On-screen? Thank God you didn’t ask me off screen. Onscreen… I guess I probably have to say Mr. Jet Li. Because I was very fortunate he and I we did two movies together. One that is “Once Upon a Time in China Part II,” and the other one’s “Hero.” And both of them, fortunately, came out to be quite classics. Hopefully in the future I get to work with him again.

Man in audience: Will you do another Ip Man film?

That’s a big question. You know, actually, me and Wilson Yip, director of “Ip Man” we have talked and, ya know, we want to do part 3, but at the same time we don’t want to spoil it, right? So, we’re thinking of different angles if we are going to do part 3, we want to do it… We want to try and not make it the last one. So, he’s still in a stage of building… Yeah, maybe next year. We aren’t going to make it… It’s not going to be just “Ip Man 3.” It’s going to be Ip Man 3D.

Man in audience: What have you heard about the Wong Kar-wai version of his life story?

I look forward to watching his, man. But I don’t know what exactly he’s going to come up with. I mean, I really… Ya know, he’s a brilliant director.

I will share a little story with you guys. Actually, I was approached to play Ip Man back in 1997. A director called Jeff Lau, he asked me to play Ip Man and Stephen Chow play Bruce Lee. And then somehow the project… The contract was signed and the budget got canceled, and several years later, and I found out that Wong Kar-wai was planning to do Ip Man. And right after he did a film called “An Empress and the Warriors,” I was in Beijing and I got a call from a friend of mine, producer Raymond Wong. We were planning to do Wai Si-Lei, Wisely, which is kind of Chinese version of James Bond. And then he called me up and said, “You know, let’s push this project aside. Let’s do Ip Man.” I paused for five seconds. Number one, ya know, I wonder why no one is doing it. Do you have the rights? You know we have the blessing from Ip Man’s son. And then it took me another five seconds to think to myself, maybe it’s destiny because I was approached to play Ip Man in 1997… ’96, ’97. And then years later I was approached again, and then we made Ip Man.

Jamier: Thank you. We have time for one last question, one last question. Yes, yes, you. The lady in the back.

Woman in audience: Well, first of all, um… What is happening at Bullet Films, your production company?

It’s Bullet Films. Actually we… It’s still here. We kind of are reinventing Bullet Films, the new Bullet Films. Starting next year I’m going to produce my own films. Working with a very big, prestigious… Not yet able to announce it at this moment, but I will. So, next year you can see more Donnie Yen films produced by Bullet Films.

(Apologies for the shakiness in the first part of the video – the crowd stood up to greet Donnie before the screening.)