Donnie Yen is a man that needs no introduction, but his fists and feet are happy to provide one nonetheless. He has been plying his trade as Kung Fu star for years, but most of those films have never really seen international theatrical release. But now with his latest film, Dragon, he’ll be hitting the foreign market with a martial arts spin on a well known story. A story that has everything from redemption and family drama to kung fu fighting with cows.
Yen spoke to ComingSoon.net about it all.
Playing out like A History of Violence but with way more punching and kicking, Dragon sees Yen as “Liu Jin-xi, a village craftsman whose quiet life is irrevocably shattered by the arrival of two notorious gangsters in the local general store. When Liu single-handedly saves the shopkeeper’s life, he comes under investigation by detective Xu Bai-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Convinced that Liu’s martial arts mastery belies a hidden history of training by one of the region’s vicious clans, Xu doggedly pursues the shy hero–and draws the attention of China’s criminal underworld in the process..”
The film was directed by Peter Chan, but Yen choreographed all the fight sequences and even directed most of them himself. He’s done similarly on a number of past projects, but what was different about Dragon, is Chan’s decision to focus on detective angle of it, as Xu Bai-ju tries to piece together everything that happens. And with him running through multiple scenarios, Yen had to choreograph/direct multiple versions of the same action sequences.
“There’s a lot of thinking when you choreograph something. You’re not just choreographing some bodies, arms, legs flying around to look cool. It’s a lot more complicated and sophisticated. You also have to deal with the connection of the whole film, so when I choreograph, I think of the movement itself, the camera angles, the characters. “Does that fit for that character and their emotion at that moment? How does it play overall, that action scene in balance with the rest of the action scenes?” Because you can’t overpower the rest of the action scenes; you have to think of pacing, along with creating something fresh.”
“When [Peter Chan] came to me and wanted to do an action movie, we had several discussions on how to approach it, and we thought, “Let’s do something more detective-like, how about something more like the Discovery Channel, dissecting the punches and kicks and why we use them?” The beginning scene of “Dragon” was just that.
“In Peter’s version, we only had two versions but then I said, “Let’s make it more fun. Let’s make it three versions.” I was shooting and conducting those big scenes and I shot it and Peter literally puts his full trust in my directing on the set and he just went off and when he came back I said, “You know, Peter, I have three versions for you. Check it out.” That’s probably one of my favorite scenes in the entire film.”
The movie also features several fight among and with various animals. Some viewers may suspect that the animals used were CGI creations, but instead Yen and Chan when for a more Top Secret approach.
“…I’ll share that secret with you. First of all, they’re not CG, because we couldn’t afford it, and they’re not live. (laughs) They’re only live when we shot having them in the background. So the question is “When we’re fighting with them, how did I shoot it?” Well I actually made these big bull cow outfits.”
“…yes, the heads are the real animals but then the bodies and the legs are all fake. If you look really closely, if you pause in one or two clips, you see two stuntmen, like a line dance. It was really tough and I had to use different camera angles to hide it and how I shot it. If I shoot it this way, it just looks too fake but if I shoot it a certain way, I cannot bring out what I need to bring out. That was really challenging itself, trying to make these fake-looking humans playing cows (look real).”
Over the years, Yen has played numerous roles (some of them real life Kung Fu masters) which has required him to acquire quite a wealth of martial arts skills. But for a movie like Dragon, which takes place in a past period, he often has to forget some of those skills when doing the fight choreography, as some techniques had not been developed yet. This leads to trying to come up with a lot more inventive ways of punching people in the spleen.
“I have to do a lot of research. When I did “Ip Man,” I knew that I would be playing Ip Man, a Wing Chun Master basically, so I went onto dissecting that system as much as I could in that short period of time and learned from several instructors. At the end of the day, it’s normal acting as well. Once you understand it, I believe when you’re so in-tune with your body, so in control of your body–which given, for many years of my experience, being an action actor, I understand how to execute my body, so it wasn’t that difficult, especially after I did spend nine months researching and studying that martial arts style. That’s how I approach every character. When I did “SPL,” I knew that at that time, MMA wasn’t that popular, at least in Asia anyway. I always follow what’s in out there and I saw that and said, “You know, let me see if I can put that in a film.” I watched a lot of UFC fights and thought, “How do you shoot that stuff?” Recognizing that if an audience wants to see real fights, they’re watching UFC, so you have to use a cinematic way but without losing the idea of having real combat. The first experiment was “SPL” obviously with the MMA and then I moved onto “Flash Point” and me actually practicing a little bit of Ju-Jitsu and studying more tapes, more fights, and playing it myself more times. In that regards, “Flashpoint” was filmed in a more sophisticated way than “SPL.” I actually just finished another “SPL” and “Flashpoint” which was even more sophisticated than “Flashpoint.” I also will watch more fights and learn more. Each movie and each character I tend to do that, I do endless research and endless experiments.
You can head over to ComingSoon.net for the full interview where talks some about more about his experienced in shooting Dragon, as well as why turned down a role in The Expendables 2 (The role just didn’t appeal to him), branching out into non-action roles, what it’s like playing legendary martial arts practitioners and all the CGI work in his next film, The Monkey King.
Dragon is already out on VOD and will hit limited US and international theatres this Friday, 30 November. Unfortunately South Africa is not among them, but the Chinese version of film (under it’s original title Wu Xia aka Swordmen), is already available on DVD at Amazon. Just a note though, there have been complaints about the subtitles and transfer of this version.
If you can’t wait until the the proper international version though, then here’s a newly released clip – that brings the house down – from the film to hopefully tide you over until then.