Bruce Lee. Jackie Chan. Jet Li. These are the names that define the martial arts genre. For the next generation of moviegoers another name is moving up into the pantheon: Donnie Yen.
Martial arts stars have always been made in Hong Kong, and Donnie Yen is already considered Hong Kong’s top action star.
“Every one or two decades a new wave of action stars evolves for the generation,” notes Peter Chan, one of Hong Kong’s most successful film producers and directors. “We had Bruce Lee in the 60s and 70s, Jackie Chan and Jet Lee in the 80s and 90s. Now it is Donnie Yen. He has built himself into a bona fide leading man who happens to be an action star.”
Donnie Yen was born in Guangzhou in China’s southeastern Guangdong Province on July 27 1963. His family moved to Hong Kong when he was two, then immigrated to the U.S. when he was eleven. As soon as he could walk he was taught martial arts by his mother Bow Sim Mak, a renowned Tai Chi master and a founder of the International Institute of Chinese martial arts.
While growing up in Boston Donnie picked up martial arts moves from watching Bruce Lee movies. He also studied a wide variety of martial arts styles. His teen rebelliousness, including rumored involvement with a Boston Chinese gang, worried his parents. They sent him to China’s Beijing Shichahai Sports School for two years of moral education and professional martial arts training with its famous Wushu team.
Another force in Yen’s early life was music. His father Zhen Yun Long, an editor of the international Chinese newspaper “Sing Tao Daily” in Boston, plays the violin and the erhu, a Chinese stringed instrument. He influenced Donnie to study classical piano. To this day Yen particularly admires Chopin. His younger sister Chris Yen is also a martial artist and actress. She appeared in film Adventures of Johnny Tao: Rock Around the Dragon (2007).
Yen began his career in Hong Kong’s film industry during the 1990s when kung fu films had fallen into decline. Back then, Yen was 19, finishing his training in Beijing Shichahai Sports School. On his side trip to Hong Kong before he returned to the U.S., he met film director Yuen Woo Ping. Yen’s talents and his physical quality deeply impressed Yuan. Upon his return to the U.S. in 1982 Yen entered a local martial arts competition and won the championship, which solidified Yuan’s impression with Yen. This ultimately led to Yen’s first movie, Miracle Fighters 2, and subsequently “Drunken Tai Chi”, where he played a leading role for his first time, with both movies directed by Yuan.
Yen’s martial arts skills won him many parts as policemen and martial arts masters. In his early career Yen won acclaim for the HK TV version of the movie Fists of Fury in which he played Chen Zhen. It was the same role played by Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Lee. Yen’s fans took to calling him Chen Zhen.
Another of Yen’s early successes was Tiger Cage 2 (1992), a cop story with nonstop action. Playing a recalcitrant ex-cop, Yen revealed a delightful comic flair that is utterly missing in his other films. The fight scenes in that film are also considered some of the best of the action genre. Industry professionals were also deeply impressed by Yen’s choreography and fluent display of varied fighting styles.
The apex of Yen’s career to date was reached in 2008 with his starring role in Ip Man, a biopic about the Wing Chun grandmaster who taught Bruce Lee. “Yen perfectly exhibit the Wushu of Wing Chun, and sufficiently shows Yip Man’s master temperament as well as his characteristics,” raved Yip Man’s family. This film won widespread acclaim from critics and audiences while grossing over US$21 million worldwide.
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