Entertainment

Donnie Yen: The Martial Artist Who Brought a Wing Chun Legend to Life in 3 Ip Man Movies

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.

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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.]

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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.…

Enter the Mind of Master Ken, the Martial Artist Behind Enter the Dojo, Part 2

Caution: You’re about to read comments from a real martial artist (Matt Page) interspersed with comments from a fictional character (Master Ken). To make it easier to distinguish the two, we’ve italicized the words of Master Ken.

Go here to read Part 1.

BLACK BELT: WHEN A PERSON TEACHES AN ART AS DEADLY AS AMERI-DO-TE, IS IT ESSENTIAL TO COUNSEL STUDENTS ON HOW NOT TO WIND UP IN JAIL?

Master Ken: Absolutely. Some of the moves I’ve invented simply cannot be taught for liability reasons. For example, recently I created an inescapable hold where you trap your opponent’s arms and legs, then you sit on their head and release a lethal barrage of flatulence to suffocate them. It’s called the “gas chamber.” I can’t send civilians out in public with that kind of knowledge. It’s just too dangerous.

Years ago I took an invaluable class called Introduction to Business Law at the Central New Mexico Community College, and my instructor, a one-legged veteran named Jim Hooker, gave me the most important piece of legal advice I’ve ever heard: “Dead men don’t sue.” And he was right. Because a year later, he died in a freak accident at a meat-processing plant and ended up being served as ground beef at three Albuquerque public schools. Nobody even noticed until some cheerleader bit into a sloppy Joe and broke her tooth on what turned out to be a piece of his catheter. But the point is he never pressed charges because he was deceased at the time of the accidental ingestion.

BLACK BELT: WHERE DID THE CONCEPT FOR MASTER KEN AND ENTER THE DOJO COME FROM?

Matt Page: In creating Master Ken, I was influenced by something I noticed: Some instructors, no matter how skilled or intelligent, tend to bad-mouth other styles. They see a move from some other martial art and say, “That’s not bad, but in our style, it’s better because we do it like this.”

Each time something weird happened in any dojo, I would take a mental note and say, “Someday I’m gonna do something creative with all this.” Eventually, I found my way to New Mexico and went to College of Santa Fe, now Santa Fe University. Once I received my bachelor’s degree in moving-image arts, I saw that everyone was making their own Web series. At the time, I’d become obsessed with Ricky Gervais’ original version of The Office on the BBC, and I decided I wanted to try that but in a world I understood. So I chose martial arts.

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BLACK BELT: WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACCOMPLISH WITH ENTER THE DOJO? IS IT PURE ENTERTAINMENT?

Matt Page: The goal now is really the same as when we created the first episode: I want to entertain people while making a commentary on things that are important to me. It’s not just about the jokes; it’s about pointing out the contradictions in various teachings and the commercialization and the issue of theory vs. practice in the martial arts world. But I want to address it all with humor. I’ve gotten emails from soldiers with PTSD, martial artists who struggle with depression and people from all walks of life who thank me for making them laugh and helping them forget their troubles for the moment. That’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever gotten out of what I do.

BLACK BELT: YOU’VE APPEARED AT THE MARTIAL ARTS SUPERSHOW IN LAS VEGAS TWO YEARS IN A ROW. HOW DID THAT GROUP OF EXPERIENCED, PROFESSIONAL MARTIAL ARTISTS FEEL ABOUT THE MESSAGE YOU PROPAGATE?

Master Ken: The first year, I was like a tsunami of truth that forced many so-called “masters” to re-evaluate their training and, quite frankly, their lives. I think that’s why they wouldn’t allow me to perform at the opening ceremony this year. They lost too much business on people closing their schools so they could take up Ameri-Do-Te. I’ve made a lot of enemies, but then again, so did Napoleon. And he was able to conquer most of South America despite the fact that he was shorter than a Shetland pony.

BLACK BELT: DO YOU HAVE FORMAL TRAINING IN ACTING?

Matt Page: I’ve been taking acting classes and performing in plays since I was a kid. My influences range from old episodes of Saturday Night Live to mockumentaries by Christopher Guest to more serious cinematic works like the films of Robert Zemeckis, David Fincher, etc. But I’ve loved comedic movies and television shows for as long as I can remember.

Wang Bo, formerly of Shaolin Temple,

Enter the Mind of Master Ken, the Martial Artist Behind Enter the Dojo, Part 1

If you haven’t watched the wildly popular Enter the Dojo comedy series, do it now. Before you read this article. Go to YouTube and click. That’s the only way you’ll be able to put a face, a voice and a moustache behind the wacky words that come from the martial artist known as Master Ken.

Caution: You’re about to read comments from a real martial artist (Matt Page) interspersed with comments from a fictional character (Master Ken). To make it easier to distinguish the two, we’ve italicized the words of Master Ken.

BLACK BELT: WHEN YOU’RE IN CHARACTER AS MASTER KEN, YOUR MOVES REMIND ME OF KENPO. DO YOU COME FROM A KENPO BACKGROUND?

Matt Page: My first style was Okinawan kenpo and kobudo. I received my first-degree black belt from Rich Pelletier in 1996. He was an amazing instructor and instilled discipline and structure in my life when I really needed it. His school was very traditional and gave me a strong foundation not only in martial arts as a way of self-defense but also in martial arts as a way of life.

After that I moved around a lot and sampled various arts: aikido, boxing, stick fighting, etc. Then I settled on American kenpo, studying under Tony and Erika Potter in Santa Fe at one of Jeff Speakman’s kenpo 5.0 schools. I’d always wanted to learn the kind of kenpo I’d seen in movies like The Perfect Weapon, so that was great fun.

More recently, I’ve been studying Brazilian jiu-jitsu. There are so many styles I’d like to study — hapkido, kung fu — but for some reason, I’m always drawn back to some form of kenpo.

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BLACK BELT: MASTER KEN, I KNOW YOUR BACKGROUND IS IN AMERI-DO-TE, BUT IN THE MAGAZINE, WE NORMALLY DON’T USE CAPITAL LETTERS WHEN WE WRITE THE NAMES OF MARTIAL ARTS. ARE YOU COOL WITH US SPELLING THE NAME OF YOUR ART “ameri-do-te,” OR IS THAT AN INSULT TO EVERYTHING YOU STAND FOR?

Master Ken: I notice you don’t have a problem capitalizing Black Belt. How would you like it if I called you “black belt magazine”? It’s not only an insult; it weakens the word. The capitalization of not one, not two, but THREE letters in the name of my street-lethal fighting system lets people know how serious it is. Speaking of serious: By the authority vested in me as the creator of and 11th-degree black belt in the most dangerous martial art in the world — Ameri-Do-Te — I hereby demote you to white belt.

BLACK BELT: DID YOU LEARN ameri-do-te FROM A MASTER, OR DID YOU CREATE IT?

Master Ken: I wasted years of my life studying pretty much every combative system in the world. In kenpo, they’re always slapping themselves. For every time a kenpo guy hits his opponent, he hits himself three times — which is great because if you fight a kenpo black belt long enough, eventually he’ll kick his own ass.

In krav maga, they don’t even use the belt system. How are they supposed to know who’s more advanced? All they do is trade patches like a bunch of Girl Scouts.

Tai chi is a martial art designed specifically for sissies and old people. I once saw a tai chi instructor get beat up by a mime. He got thrown into an imaginary wall and choked with an invisible rope.

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Each time I learned a new martial art, I could see a few moves that worked — with my own special modifications, of course — but I also found flaws and weaknesses everywhere. My style takes the best parts of every other martial art in the world with none of the weaknesses. That’s why we like to say “Ameri-Do-Te: Best of All, Worst of None.”

BLACK BELT: DO YOU HAVE YOUR OWN KENPO SCHOOL?

Matt Page: I’ve never run my own school. I have helped teach kids’ classes and the occasional adult class at a few schools, but I’ve always thought of myself a perpetual student.

BLACK BELT: WHAT’S IT LIKE RUNNING THE SCHOOL THAT TEACHES THE MOST EFFECTIVE MARTIAL ART IN THE WORLD? ARE YOUR COMPETITORS JEALOUS? HOSTILE? HOW COME THEY’RE NOT ALL OUT OF BUSINESS?

Master

Cynthia Rothrock: Best Advice for Beginners in the Martial Arts

“I was nervous as anything,” Cynthia Rothrock said of her first tournament, after which she started to laugh.

“I was an orange belt competing against black belts in forms. I was doing the most basic forms, and they were so advanced.”

She ended up placing second in that event. It was but the first in a string of victories, for she went on to win the world forms championships from 1981 to 1985. In 1982 she became the weapons champion in the men’s division, as well.

She has also succeeded in other areas. She was one of the first women to appear on the cover of national martial arts magazines, and she was one of the few female martial artists to become a star in the action movie genre.

Beginning the Martial Arts

“I started at 13 years old,” Cynthia Rothrock said. “I had some friends in tang soo do, so I gave it a try. When I was younger, I tried everything — piano, music lessons, other sports — but the martial arts were the first thing I really stuck with.”

Since that time, she’s earned a black belt in tang soo do and taekwondo. She also holds instructor-level rank in three Chinese arts: northern Shaolin kung fu, wushu and eagle-claw kung fu. It seems she definitely found something she could stick with.

Cynthia Rothrock on the cover of the February/March 2017 issue, on sale now!

Despite all her experience, however, she still gets fidgety before performing in front of groups. “I always get nervous,” she said. “It is sort of a nervous energy starting the form — but then I tune right in.”

Joining a Competition

Cynthia Rothrock offers beginners some simple advice for dealing with butterflies in the stomach before kata competition: Make sure you know your form 100 percent. When you compete, don’t perform any kata you’re still working to perfect. Always do one you know well.

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Although forms competition is great for kids, she believes youngsters should avoid full-contact sparring events. “Point sparring is good for kids as long as the tournament [officials are] in control and looking out for the children’s safety,” she said.

If you decide to get involved in tournaments, she added, always remember that competition is just one small part of the martial arts. If you lose, ask yourself why. Nine times out of 10, the answer will be that you weren’t fully prepared.

Picking a School

Back in 1973 when Cynthia Rothrock started in the martial arts, choosing a style was tough enough. These days, with the hundreds of schools operating in large cities, it’s even tougher. So how does a person choose?

“Find a couple of styles you are interested in,” she said. “Watch the instructors. [Watch] how discipline is handled. Talk with the instructors. See if you can take a couple of classes for free. Check out a couple of different places before you start at one.”

Martial arts training is never easy, she said. You’ll feel uncoordinated at first, but you shouldn’t give up. If you practice, you’ll get better, and the results will be extreme, she promised. You’ll get stronger and stay in shape — and one day the training may save your life.

“When you take a martial art, try to learn the true art and keep the tradition,” she said. “Each style has something different to offer.”

Finding a Role Model

Having a mentor or a martial artist you look up to can help you through the tough times in your training, Cynthia Rothrock said. For many years, her favorite was Jackie Chan.

“When I was taking classes in New York, we had a Chinese instructor who taught on Sundays,” she said. “After the workout, he’d take everyone to Chinatown to see kung fu movies. I’ve always looked up to Jackie Chan and still respect him very much.”

Rothrock is also a big fan of Chuck Norris: “He is a great martial artist who has made it big in film and television,” she said. “He is the most friendly person out there.”

Starring in Movies

Cynthia Rothrock’s own acting career blossomed for many years — despite obstacles posed by on-again-off-again complaints about violence in movies and the fact that studios are reluctant to invest money in projects with female martial artists.

“There are far fewer [roles] for women in action movies,” she said.

But she never let that hold her back. In fact, she viewed it as just one more challenge. In much the same way …

Jon Foo: Co-Star of the New Rush Hour TV Series Worked With Jackie Chan, Tony Jaa and Yuen Woo-Ping!

This article comes from Black Belt’s December 2012 issue — long before Jon Foo was selected to take on Jackie Chan’s role in the 2016 CBS TV version of Rush Hour.

— Editor

Although Jon Foo is most notably known for acting in 2010’s Tekken, the film adapted from the hit video game, his martial arts and movie résumés extend far beyond that role. Foo has an extensive background in the Chinese arts, and he’s the first Westerner to have the privilege of doing film fights for Jackie Chan, Yuen Woo-ping and Panna Rittikrai, three of the greatest martial arts moviemakers of this era.

Born in 1982 to a Chinese father and an Irish mother, Jonathan Patrick Foo grew up in London not far from the world’s most famous football arena (soccer to the unenlightened), Wembley Stadium. Whereas most London lads would have cultivated a commitment to cheering on one of the city’s renowned football teams, Foo chose to forge a connection to the martial arts — in particular, those of his father’s homeland.

Influenced by Jackie Chan films and enthralled by the associated acrobatic skills, 8-year-old Jon Foo began practicing southern Shaolin kung fu. At 15, he joined the London Chinese Acrobat Circus and performed at various locations in the city. Several years later, he took up wushu, after which he met a coach who taught him a couple of competition forms that opened Foo’s eyes with respect to dynamic martial arts performance.

After he graduated from secondary school, Jon Foo opted to continue his education by attending art school. In retrospect, it wasn’t the best decision. “One day, I was designing a door handle and thought, ‘This is rubbish — I don’t want to design door handles,’” he told Black Belt. “I had a good demo reel and felt I needed to leave school and go to Hong Kong to do film.”

One of the reasons Jon Foo longed to head east was during his wushu training, his instructors would often lament that in China, coaches were able to push their students to greater heights because they weren’t constrained by the same rules and conventions. His curiosity sufficiently piqued, Foo booked a ticket to China, where he promptly sought entry into Beijing’s hallowed Shi Cha Hai Sports School — the same facility where Jet Li trained.

“In London, you go to the club once or twice a week, but in China, everyone lives in the school and trains all day,” Jon Foo said. “My most memorable moment there was watching an 8-year-old kid trying to squat 100 kilos (220 pounds). Once you see something like that, you think everything is possible.”

Big Break

Foo spent two intensive weeks honing his wushu skills in Beijing, then headed back to London. From his U.K. base, he sent his demo reel to the JC Group in Hong Kong, half expecting it to wind up in a pile with the hundreds of other reels Jackie Chan no doubt gets every week from aspiring martial arts actors. Much to his surprise, Foo received a letter from Chan’s manager saying the superstar was impressed by his video. Even better, the correspondence contained an offer: If Foo wished to fly to Hong Kong to join the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, they’d be happy to have him.

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“I went to Hong Kong and basically knocked on their door,” Jon Foo said. “Willie Chan (Jackie Chan’s manager — no relation) took me to some sets and introduced me to some directors, and I started working, doing fights on Yuen Woo-ping’s House of Fury (2005). Then I [went to] China to work on Jackie Chan’s The Myth (2005).”

While shooting The Myth, Jon Foo landed a role in The Protector, with Tony Jaa. Foo’s reputation must have preceded him, for he was afforded the top honor an up-and-coming film fighter could hope for: “I was asked to do a fight against Tony,” he said.

The stylistic differences between a Jackie Chan production, a Yuen Woo-ping production and a Tony Jaa production were stark, Jon Foo said. On the set of a Chan movie, “you have to basically learn that style, that rhythm,” he said. “So when I was not shooting, I’d be training with the stunt guys just to pick up the kind of pace that Jackie likes. It’s very specific — I mean, even if you see it in silhouettes, you know it’s Jackie Chan’s style.”

Working with Yuen Woo-ping was a very different experience, Foo said. “Woo-ping is on the ball. He knows what moves he wants and the angle of the moves he wants, …

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