Martial Arts Movies

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.…

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 …

Martial Arts of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Part Two)

In Part One of this blog, I noted that the sword fights from the first six Star Wars films were superior to those of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.

Fans of the films claim that because of executive producer George Lucas’ love of early Japanese chanbara films, the lightsaber duels, the force and the amazing fighting skills of the Jedi — which were based on kendo, ki (chi in Chinese) and samurai/Errol Flynn films, respectively — were emphasized.

Studying the evolution of the lightsaber duels throughout the original trilogy served as a basis for determining the extent of kendo’s real and fake influence. With Luke Skywalker using telekinesis in The Empire Strikes Back, it begged the question, Was this the force? My “yes” answer was revealed in that blog, and my “no” answer will be expounded here.

Photo Courtesy of Disney/Lucasfilm

While the philosophy of the force ties in with Native American culture (see Part One), the combative nature of the force does not. Instead, during Jedi duels, the force falls in line with Chinese literature and kung fu cinema, where swordsmen use fa jing chi strikes to send opponents flying backward without touching them. In Chinese films, they also use xi wu da fa “suction” abilities to pull opponents or objects toward them, and they apply ching gong to leap high, run atop trees and land on their feet after jumping down from tremendous heights.

Before 1977, Japanese films didn’t use these techniques, and indeed they don’t exist in samurai folklore. Yet these fantastical abilities were commonly featured in Chinese literature and films dating back to the 1950s. They didn’t become widely available to Westerners until the 1970s. However, we need look no further than the first three fights of the Chinese film The Ghost’s Sword (1971) to see many of the skills of the Jedi knights that are shown in the Star Wars movies.

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In the 1990s, when director Sam Raimi heavily used Hong Kong martial arts action in TV shows like Xena: Warrior Princess, he had an assistant whose job it was to watch “fant-Asia” action movies and make fight-scene compilation videotapes for him. When I learned fight choreography in the Chinese film and TV industry in 1980, I was instructed to do the same thing. It’s no stretch to think that the British stunt coordinator for the original Star Wars trilogy was aware of 1970s kung fu films, especially when you consider that Hong Kong was a British colony and Chinese films were more accessible in the British entertainment circles.

Photo Courtesy of Lucasfilm

How did the fights change in the prequels The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) and how do they compare to The Force Awakens?

Tapping into the success of fant-Asia films in the West, Lucas wanted to ramp up the speed, agility and aerial capabilities of the Jedi fights because the films were set during the Jedi council’s heyday, when Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, “Darth Vader,” Count Dooku and other Jedi were at the pinnacle of their fighting prowess. The standard for this new action look was set by British stunt coordinator Nick Gillard, who intelligently hired legitimate wushu and guan (pole) expert Ray Park to play Darth Maul, a vicious, fighting-machine Sith warrior who wielded a double-bladed lightsaber.

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When Gillard added one-handed, figure-8 twirling and body-hugging swordplay to block, parry and slice; spinning footwork; aerial cartwheels; and flips to the Jedi repertoire, that marked the end of any kendo influence. In reality, samurai films from the late 1970s on have become increasingly influenced by Chinese-style choreography. Yet Parks pointed out that after flashing fancy whirligig wushu swordplay, all he had to do to sell the kendo look was end the swirling with a two-handed sword grip. As the trilogy evolved, there was more one-handed sword work, acrobatics and Hong Kong-style, frenetic-paced fights. To see what I’m talking about, watch Kenobi vs. Gen. Grievous or Yoda vs. Count Dooku.

Photo Courtesy of Disney/Lucasfilm

Now, let’s briefly revisit the plotlines of Star Wars and The Force Awakens.

For those who came in late, in the first movie, Luke Skywalker joins a cocky pilot, a wookiee and two droids to save the galaxy from the Empire’s world-destroying battle station while also attempting to …

Martial Arts of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Part One)

Now that the furor has subsided, I thought it would be a good time to talk about Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and the martial arts it contains. Before I begin, however, allow me to share the fact that I’ve been an avid fan of the franchise since it debuted in 1977. In 1980 I was actually mistaken for Mark Hamill at the Taiwan premiere of The Empire Strikes Back. As such, I was among the millions around the world who were dying to see and, hopefully, enjoy The Force Awakens.

The film has already earned $1.95 billion worldwide and is on its way to becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time. Even better, the next installment boasts Donnie Yen as part of the cast! Considering that, how could I not blog about Star Wars? As you read on, please keep in mind that it’s not my intention to malign The Force Awakens; rather, I want to examine the film’s action from a martial arts perspective.

Photo Courtesy of Disney/Lucasfilm

In a nutshell, the weapons choreography in The Force Awakens is inferior to that of the first six movies. Translation into Star Wars parlance: The latest film’s fights are weaker than a womp rat on muscle relaxants.

Disagree? Envision the movie’s lightsaber scenes without the glow and without the sound effects that are unleashed whenever one blade makes contact with another. The action wouldn’t be quite so captivating.

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Film buffs know that George Lucas is a fan of early Japanese chanbara sword-fighting movies, with Seven Samurai (1954) being one of his first loves. They’ll also tell you that Star Wars was heavily influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress (1958). And they’ll occasionally explain how lightsaber skills, the force and the Jedi knights’ superhuman fighting abilities are based, at least in part, on kendo techniques, the concept of ki in Japan (chi in China) and samurai cinema, respectively.

Let’s see just how much of this is true by looking at the evolution of lightsaber combat.

Poster Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

Star Wars (1977) was the only one of the seven films that tried to cling to its kendo roots by making sure each shot was overflowing with basic strikes, parries and blocks from the Japanese martial art. Stunt coordinator Peter Diamond, a graduate of London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, was in charge of the fight choreography. If you rewatch the first lightsaber duel ever filmed — Obi-Wan Kenobi vs. Darth Vader, played by Alec Guinness and David Prowse — you’ll notice that the body posturing and fencing mimic the minimalistic samurai duels that Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune was famous for.

However, the technique exchanges are closer to the encounters that Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone had in The Adventures of Robin Hood. That 1938 release featured crusader-style single-handed sword work. Before Star Wars was filmed, Guinness had gained his skill in that type of swordsmanship onstage, so all he needed to do to sell the kendo look was hold the lightsaber with two hands. Yet because lightsabers are tubular — and, therefore, don’t have an edge — they resemble shinai, the bamboo training weapons used by kendo stylists, more than they resemble swords.

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For the Luke-vs.-Vader lightsaber battles in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) [aka Episode V] and Return of the Jedi (1983) [aka Episode VI], Lucas wanted stunt coordinator Diamond to add acrobatics and more detailed choreography. When Hamill was learning moves from kendo and other martial arts for his first Empire fight with Vader, it reportedly took him weeks to polish and even longer to shoot. Hamill would often ad-lib during rehearsals and use a one-handed grip. When Lucas came on set to review the choreography, he told Hamill to keep both hands on the lightsaber at all times.

Photo Courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

Also in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke’s telekinetic ability is introduced. Was that really a component of the force? Yes and no.

Lucas’ force is strikingly similar to a concept presented in Carlos Castaneda‘s book The Teachings of Don Juan (1968). In it, Castaneda meets a Yaqui Toltec named Don Juan Matus, who teaches him shamanism. The Yaqui are a real native people based in Mexico and the Southwestern United States. The Toltecs in the book are members of a 10,000-year-old sorcerers guild. In the text, Don Juan Matus often speaks about a life force, insisting that humans are luminous beings. He also teaches Castaneda that some humans are …

Venture ‘Into the Badlands’ With Daniel Wu: Martial Artist Battles Bad Guys in a Dystopian Future!

No American-made TV show — whether it’s produced by Netflix, the networks, cable or the premium channels — has come close to capturing the essence of Hong Kong cinema’s frenetic-paced, over-the-top, highly stylized martial arts action. Until now.

I am, of course, raving about the outrageous and audacious martial arts action served up by the hit AMC series Into the Badlands. More than 8.2 million people tuned in for its premiere in November 2015, making it the top-rated new fall series on either cable or broadcast television. It was also the third-largest audience for the launch of a cable series.

I interviewed Badlands star Daniel Wu a wee while ago for the cover story of the February/March 2016 issue of Black Belt. He discussed in depth his martial arts pedigree and philosophy, as well as how he got into filmmaking and why he wanted to do the series.

Don’t worry! This blog won’t give you deja vu if you’ve already read that article. All I’ll say is that Wu, a Chinese-American, is a legitimate martial artist who’s famous in Asia for his non-martial arts roles. His latest film, a doctor-and-patient-who’s-going-to-die tear-jerker called Go Away Mr. Tumor, is China’s 2015 Academy Award contender for Best Foreign Language Film.

Inasmuch as there’s been some decent martial arts action in series like Netflix’s Marco Polo and Daredevil, several fair stabs with ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a few good seasons of the CW’s Arrow, none has gone beyond the call of duty the way Badlands has.

Photo by James Dimmock/AMC

Badlands is being labeled a martial arts drama, akin to Chinese television’s lien xu zhu, or “kung fu soap operas.” It just so happens that this is the genre in which I honed my choreography skills while attending National Taiwan University circa 1979-81 as a graduate student. (Yes, I fake-fought my way through college.)

Because I’ve seen so much in this wonderful genre, I knew the martial arts world would love Badlands as soon as I watched the opening episode’s first fight. In it, Sunny (Daniel Wu) takes on a band of Mad Max-ian, apocalyptic ruffians using a combative tai chi skill that’s never been seen on American television. The technique was first featured in Hong Kong cinema by Donnie Yen in his debut film Drunken Tai Chi (1984). Yuen Woo-ping choreographed the scene, in which Donnie Yen kills a crazed villain named Iron-Steel, played by Yuen’s brother Sunny Yuen.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the fight choreographer for Badlands is one of Yuen Woo-ping’s disciples, a man named Dee Dee Ku. He choreographed Donnie Yen’s fights in Iron Monkey (1993) and Jet Li’s action in Tai-Chi Master (1993), both of which were directed by Yuen Woo-ping. It’s an interesting yet convoluted tie-in.

Photo by James Dimmock/AMC

Filmed in Louisiana, Badlands takes place 500 years into America’s future, during a time when a feudal society known as the Badlands is run by seven barons. Each baron controls a vital resource and owns a private army of enforcers called “clippers.” Sunny is the head clipper for the most powerful baron. No wonder all Daniel Wu’s fights end up being close shaves!

I’m not joking. I’m referring to the rain-drenched sword showdowns, slice-and-dice mayhem, blood-squirting gore and broken-bone bashing that viewers get in every episode. “We had six days to do each fight, compared to two weeks in typical Hong Kong films,” Wu told me. “When we got into it, we were like, Now we know why no one else is doing this — because it’s so hard!”

Image Courtesy of AMC

Unlike his Hollywood counterparts, Badlands executive producer/action-unit director Stephen Fung, who directed Tai Chi Zero (2012), doesn’t have to use the “earthquake cam” effect or extreme close-ups to hide the fighting ineptitude of the star. That’s because Wu is a skilled martial artist!

Instead, Fung uses wide angles so you can see that, in this case, it’s actually Daniel Wu who’s fighting 10 opponents in one scene. Furthermore, Fung ensures the stunts are filmed so you can tell that Wu (and a few other talented Badlands actors) really have been knocked backward by a strike and really have crashed into a wall.

Photo by James Minchin III/AMC

It’s rare to see a fresh Asian-American face burst onto the American small screen. It’s ever more rare to see someone do it by busting the Asian-American stereotypes that the major networks seem to be perpetuating. Daniel Wu is doing both. Yet there’s an ironic conundrum attached to his portrayal of Sunny.

“He’s Asian but not an Asian character,” Daniel Wu said. “There’s nothing Asian about him — Sunny could have been black or white. So on the cultural side, it wasn’t the point for him to be from Asia …

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