Donnie Yen is synonymous with his role of Ip Man, the Wing Chun grand master who was the martial arts teacher of Bruce Lee.
He is reprising his role in Ip Man 3, which opens in Hong Kong and China on Christmas Eve, but also recently shot Star Wars spinoff Rogue One, traveling to a galaxy far, far away.
Explaining that his children are fans of Star Wars, Yen says about his Rogue One role: "I am very proud to be the first Chinese actor cast in Rogue One. It was a good and benevolent character." Beyond that, Yen said he was not allowed to say more about his character in the film.
But he told THR that he was like a kid in a candy store while filming. "I felt like I was in a theme park everyday when shooting RogueOne in Pinewood Studios in Britain," he said. "I have learned and experienced a lot."
Ip Man 3 is opening in Hong Kong a week after Star Wars: The Force Awakens bowed at cinemas. But Yen wasn't concerned about the competition: "When Star Wars succeeds at the box office, I succeed, because I'm now part of the family. Other than that, I feel like there should be options for the audience. I will definitely go see Star Wars, but I'm even more determined to go see Ip Man 3," Yen said, laughing.
One of the main attractions of the third installment of the martial arts franchise is a fight scene between Yen's Ip Man and former world boxing champion Mike Tyson.
Yen said he has been a fan of Tyson's for years. "I've seen every one of his boxing matches. It's my pleasure to be able to make a film with him, and we became friends," he told THR. "He said the reason why he took on the role in Ip Man 3 was because he enjoyed watching the first two Ip Man films. Coincidentally, his buddy is a student of my mother's; my mother, now retired, used to be a grand master of martial arts. So it's a series of coincidences that led to us making this film together. We had a fun time making the film. The scene of Ip Man versus Mike Tyson is an attraction in itself."
But Tyson was injured during the fight scene, and Yen was there to give his advice on how fighting on set differed from fighting in real life. "Accidents do happen on set. As an actor, Mike Tyson was very professional and very humble," Yen said. "Since fighting in a ring is different from fighting for the camera ... we need to have a different set of skills to perform a fight scene in a movie. We have to remember the choreography, and a fight scene onscreen might take weeks or even a month to shoot."
Tyson broke his finger while Yen remained unscathed. Does that mean that Yen won the fight? "The main character usually wins. I was very lucky in that respect," Yen laughed.
But he wasn't always so lucky while shooting, saying he was injured in a sword fight scene with Paul Chang (TheGrandmaster). "He hit me with a sword on my nose, and a piece of flesh was left dangling," Yen said. "But I couldn't worry too much about it at that moment, when the whole crew was waiting for us to finish the scene. I put some spray liquid bandage on and it was fine." Later, he went to the doctor.
The injuries were a result of the high demands of the action sequences, which Yen made a key focus. "There are action films all over the world; but kung fu movies are a product of Chinese-language cinema," he said. "It's a special film genre. Kung fu cinema is a sophisticated film art that embraces Chinese history. So we set very high standards for ourselves because we know we're making a film for the world to see as an example of this precious Chinese film genre."
While Sammo Hung was the action choreographer for the first two Ip Man films (and one of the actors in a fight-on-a rolling-table scene in Ip Man 2), the action choreography in IpMan 3 is done by Yuen Woo Ping (The Matrix trilogy). Yen said he was respectful of both masters' action styles, but what mattered was his own interpretation of them. "The difference in their styles can't be described in a couple of sentences. But I have no preference for either of their styles," he said. "After all, I'm interpreting the action as the character. It is as if I'm a singer, and they are composers, they've written a composition, and when I sing it, I have to interpret their composition. One of them might be rock and the other one jazz, but I have to interpret their compositions through my emotions and feelings to give it a Donnie Yen flavor."
The character of Bruce Lee, who was an idol for Yen since he was a boy, is also going to make an appearance in Ip Man 3 as the protege of Ip Man. Yen said it was fate. "I was lucky enough to have made two productions that paid tribute to Bruce Lee," he said. "One was the Fist of Fury television series (1995), and the other was Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010). I had played Bruce Lee's role, and now I'm playing his master in real life. So it was fate. About a few weeks ago, I was at an event that commemorated Bruce Lee's 75th birthday. His widow Linda and his daughter Shannon were there as well."
Ip Man 3 is opening in the U.S. on Jan. 22, and Yen said he had high expectations for the film's international release. "I have the utmost confidence in Ip Man 3. I've traveled to many countries around the world in the last few years — Los Angeles, Milan, Paris, Dubai. Everywhere I go, they recognize me as Ip Man, not as Donnie Yen," said the star. "In fact, I received a phone call last year. That was from Robert Downey Jr. He was a fan of Ip Man. He has been practicing Wing Chun for 10 years. We talked for half an hour about Wing Chun. From that moment onwards, I realized the range of influence of Ip Man."