Donnie Yen first appeared on my radar 25 years ago, when his name often graced the pages of martial arts periodicals. I learned that Donnie Yen, the son of Boston-based wushu pioneer and Black Belt Hall of Famer Bow Sim Mark, stood out from his peers because of his strong stances and aesthetic postures, which helped him dominate the competition at martial arts tournaments.
In part because he longed to follow in the footsteps of Bruce Lee, Donnie Yen decided to try his hand at action films. Like Bruce Lee, he opted to return to southern China, where he found work as a stuntman in Hong Kong. Donnie Yen quickly leveled up to starring roles, commanding the screen opposite Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China II (1992) and as hung gar kung fu master Wong Kei-Ying in Iron Monkey (1993). (The movie found U.S. distribution in 2001 thanks to Quentin Tarantino and Miramax.)
With hit after hit under his belt, Donnie Yen built himself into one of Asia’s most bankable actors. In 2008 he landed what would be his heaviest role to date: playing wing chun grandmaster Yip Man in Ip Man. (The Chinese family name Yip can be Romanized as Yip or Ip. In this article, I will use “Ip Man” to refer to the movie and “Yip Man” to refer to the man.)
Portraying the martial artist who was Bruce Lee’s master didn’t come without immense pressure and criticism, but the movie’s box-office performance and the rabid following it generated online proved the naysayers wrong — and set the stage for two sequels.
When the publicity tour for the latest film, Ip Man 3, brought Donnie Yen and co-star Mike Tyson to Los Angeles, I got an opportunity to interview Yen and hear about the struggles, triumphs, insights and visions that make up his life. Bearing a gift from my teacher, Black Belt Hall of Fame member Dan Inosanto, I entered the room, hoping for a good conversation. What I got was a great interview with a man who’s humble, hardworking and still hungry for higher achievements.
It’s an honor to finally meet you. I have a gift for you from someone you might have heard of: Dan Inosanto.
Donnie Yen: Wow! Thank you so much. I’ve heard so much about him and followed his career for years, but I never had the opportunity to meet him in person. Please thank him for me.
I spoke to him just before coming here, and he’s a huge fan of yours. Not only does he love your movies, but he also had high praise, saying that Bruce Lee would’ve been pleased with your work had he lived to see it.
Donnie Yen: That’s overwhelming. Please thank sifu Inosanto for me. [He tells his wife and his manager excitedly in Cantonese that Dan Inosanto was the training partner, best friend and top student of Bruce Lee.]
I always wanted to study Filipino kali from him. I’ve been a Bruce Lee fan ever since I was a kid, and as you probably know, I did an homage to him by reprising the role of Chen Zhen (whom Lee portrayed in Fist of Fury) in a TV series and feature film.
Absolutely. Your performance in Legend of the Fist is one of my favorites.
Donnie Yen: It’s funny … people asked me whether I knew that Bruce Lee had already done that role. The whole point of me doing those movies and playing those roles was out of respect to Bruce Lee — as a way of showing how much he inspired me in my career.
I could never be Bruce Lee. Nobody can. Nor could I imitate him in a way that would do him or the role justice. But just paying tribute to him with those roles was huge for me. I’ve always said that if Bruce was still alive, I’d have become his most devoted student.
How did that weigh on you when you were offered a chance to portray Yip Man?
Donnie Yen: The pressure was huge, and it came from a variety of angles, too. Let me share a bit of background with you. The first time I got a call to play the role of Yip Man was a couple of decades ago, but that movie never got made due to problems with the film’s backers. Years later, I was at a press conference in Beijing and got another call from a producer, saying that they’d spoken to grandmaster Yip’s family, gotten their blessing, were going to make a movie on him and wanted to cast me in the lead.…