Fighting his way to the top

Hot on the heels of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, which was released less than two weeks ago, the biopic Ip Man 3 has grabbed the headlines as it prepares its release on Friday. Both the films and star Donnie Yen. Xu Fan reports.

China's martial arts movies-the most influential when it comes to grabbing Western eyeballs-have always had an icon for every era.

Donnie Yen, following in the footsteps of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, is the latest to ascend the peak.

Now, following Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, which was released on Feb 19, the biopic Ip Man 3 has grabbed the headlines as it prepares its release on the Chinese mainland on Friday.

Both the movies starring Yen are about China's martial arts world: a somewhat romanticized existence of daredevil warriors and their legends.

The difference between the two films is that while the former is the adaptation of a novel, the latter, featuring a Wing Chun School master-the title role-is partly based on reality.

"I love every character that I've played," says Yen in an interview with China Daily.

In the last 24 years, the 53-year-old kung fu giant has acted in nearly 60 films and directed action scenes in more than 35 titles. He has a reputation not only in China, but also in Hollywood.

The new Star Wars film, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, took on Yen as the first Chinese actor to play a protagonist's role.

But restricted by non-disclosure agreements, Yen, a fan of the sci-fi franchise, says he cannot reveal more details. However, a 2016 list of films scheduled to be released by Walt Disney, the producer, says Rogue One, starring mainland actor Jiang Wen, will be released in North America in late December.

Although Yen has played many kung fu heroes in his long career, his performance in Ip Man 3 is widely regarded by critics as his most classical role on the big screen.

"Ip Man subverts the audiences' stereotyped impression of an action hero," says Yen.

"He is suave, self-restrained, and pretty respectful of his wife, which makes him a more acceptable hero for present-day audiences," he says.(China was still a pretty chauvinistic society back in Ip's day.)

Interestingly, Yen says he found the role of Ip Man "closely resembling" himself in real life.

For instance, Yen's wife is taller than him. And the director Wilson Yip selected model-actress Xiong Dailin, who is also taller than Yen, to play his wife in the movie.

"In some senses, the 'Ip Man' featured in the series is the real me," says the action star, referring to some personality traits, such as taking family as a higher priority than his career.

The real Ip Man (1893-1972), also known as Yip Man, was a Guangdong-born martial arts master who spent his later years teaching Wing Chun skills in Hong Kong.

Wing Chun is a concept-based martial arts system and an effective form of self-defense devised in southern China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Thanks to Ip's world-renowned student Bruce Lee, Wing Chun made a global impact, and has ardent fans in a number of countries including the United States, Finland, Germany, Turkey and Austria.

Yen, who began to learn martial arts at 4, says kung fu movies over the years have turned learning martial arts into a "lifestyle" and a kind of "fashion" for many foreigners.

"Many Hollywood stars such as Robert De Niro are big fans of Chinese kung fu. And I believe the unique charm of Wing Chun will attract even more Westerners."

But despite kung fu movies having a wide fan base in the West, Yen feels English speakers find it difficult to understand the values in the martial arts movies.

From his point of view, martial arts movies-a part of Chinese culture-require the audience to have a deep knowledge of China's history, art and philosophy.

For most action fans though, the most anticipated scene in the film is the fight between Yen and former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, who plays a corrupt property developer manipulating an illegal boxing market..

Tyson, who reveals that the movie marks his films debut, said at a recent media event in China that acting is kind of rebirth for him.

Yen says he had a lot of discussions about modern combat with Tyson during their shooting stints that overlapped.

"They (the producers) had a commercial motive in using Tyson in the film. But what concerned me was how to make our three-minute fight convincing," he says.

"Tyson is too fast for the audience to clearly see what happens. So sometimes we purposely slowed down things."

It seems Yen has more such cross-cultural encounters ahead.

Yen has recently taken the place of Jet Li to co-star with American actor Vin Diesel in the action sequel, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage.

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