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Interview with IRON MONKEY star, Donnie Yen

On Sunday night, Sep. 7, Films at the Gate will wrap up five nights of outdoor films with IRON MONKEY (1993) featuring Boston’s Donnie Yen. IRON MONKEY contains some of the best fighting sequences ever captured on film. Director Yuen Wo-ping and his team of hand-picked martial arts experts packed this movie with nonstop action, making it a virtual encyclopedia of classic kung fu moves. In 2001, Yen, longtime protege of Yuen Wo-ping, and “Yuen Clan” member, discussed the kung fu techniques on display in IRON MONKEY with Jean Lukitsh, Films at the Gate curator.

Q: Since the choreography in a Yuen Wo-ping film is usually the work of “the Yuen Clan”, perhaps you could explain what it was like to work in a Hong Kong martial arts/filmmaking clan at that time.  

Yen: I’ve been working with Yuen Wo-ping for many years. We have a very long mutual working relationship. For every project, we try to be as creative as possible. With IRON MONKEY, which was Yuen Wo-ping’s first directing project after working with Tsui Hark and Jet Li on the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA series, we were going back to “traditional kung fu” style, which we hadn’t done since starting the TIGER CAGE series (1988). The challenge was to take the standard higher, give audiences something they hadn’t seen before.

We had meetings before we even started shooting. We decided to go back to the traditional martial arts choreography and film it the traditional way too. That means long shots, more movement seen, uncut, in one shot. We wanted to show genuine martial arts skill, on camera.

Yuen Wo-ping asked me, “What do you want to do this time?”, and I said I wanted to do real Hung Gar style. You know, there isn’t really any Hung Gar in ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA. But it was popular in the ‘70s, in the Shaw Brothers movies, for instance. And Yuen said, “Isn’t that outdated?” And I said, “Not the way I do it – I’ll use my own rhythm and flavor to interpret it.”

Q: Did you ever study Hung Gar?

Yen: I’ve studied a lot of different styles, starting with my early years, learning from my mother (Yen’s mother is famed wushu master Bow Sim Mark), and moving on to many years of research and hands-on experimentation with the essence of various martial arts styles. You have to be able to pick up moves fast, and learn new styles fast, if you’re going to work with an expert like Yuen Wo-ping. In IRON MONKEY, I primarily kept the signature animal style of Hung Gar, the Tiger and Crane  techniques which I used as the skeleton of the combat choreography. And I emphasized another traditional technique, one of the Hung Gar classic moves, the hand technique with one finger extended. The name of this technique is translated as “To control the central land with one finger” – some say it dates back to the days of secret societies, with hand signals to identify the anti-Qing dynasty patriots.

So I took what I knew of Hung Gar, and gave it “Donnie Yen flavor”. Actually, shortly after IRON MONKEY, I was cast as Hung Gar founder Hung Hsi-kwan in the Hong Kong TV series THE KUNG FU MASTER. 

Q: What is the Shadowless Kick? What does that mean?

Yen: Well, a lot of kung fu moves have those poetic names. Obviously, in real martial combat, the Shadowless Kick is less dramatic. It was glamorized in ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA, where it was geared toward wire work rather than the origin of the technique itself. I wanted to build on that image of Wong Fei-hung by showing how the son learned from the father, but also to find a way to bring out the most realistic approach toward the essence of martial art, while still creating a dynamic effect which the audience would enjoy.

Q: What about the scenes where you draw a circle on the ground with your foot before kicking? What’s that all about?

Yen: It’s like a warning: Don’t come too close or you’ll be sorry. Like a gentleman’s warning, don’t come any nearer unless you want to feel my kick.

Q: In one shot, you jump up in the air, kick two guys simultaneously, then swing one leg to the side to kick a third guy before landing! Was that done with wires?

Yen: No! 

Q: It’s a real jump?

Yen: Oh yeah. I have always tried to limit wirework. After all, what separates good martial arts films from great martial arts films is not cinematic techniques like wirework, computer graphics, rapid-fire editing, etc., but the actual skill of the actor himself!

Q: How do you train for something like that?

Yen: Of course one needs to have a solid martial arts background as well as knowledge of the language of film.

Q: What do you know about the monk’s deadly palm strike?

Yen: We choreographed his moves first, looking for something that would look good on film. When we found something we liked, we gave it a name. “This looks good, let’s call it Wonder Palm!”

Seriously, there are a lot of myths around traditional martial arts. “Iron Palm” technique, “Iron Body Armor”…I believe there’s something to it, but the kung fu writers probably exaggerate it. It’s easier to show these techniques in historical films. As the stories get closer to modern times, it’s harder for people to accept it.

Q: There is quite a range of weapons displayed in IRON MONKEY, from unusual types like the Monk’s Spade and Chain Whip to a simple staff. But the most unorthodox weapon used is an umbrella. Once again, it foreshadows an experience of the adult Wong Fei Hung in ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA II. How do you do “umbrella kung fu”?

Yen: In the highest standard of Hong Kong martial arts choreography, one can turn any prop into a weapon, to allow the characters in the story to be more versatile, and to give each movie something new, something different.  For example, many classic kung fu films use props like wooden benches, wine jars, chopsticks – whatever is on hand -as weapons. In IRON MONKEY, we wanted to transform the umbrella by giving it the characteristics of various traditional weapons, e.g. chops and blocks from broadsword technique and thrusts, jabs, and Wu Dang-style wrist movement  from double edged sword (Wu Dang sword technique is a specialty of Yen’s mother Bow Sim Mark). The handle of the umbrella was also used for hooking and trapping joints. Basically, anything is possible – the key is how you use it! 

Q: The scene at the end of IRON MONKEY, where you and Yu Rong-guang and Yan Yee-kwan balance on flaming poles as you fight is one of the finest examples of “wire fu”. But were you really standing on those poles? How did you keep from slipping off as you fought?

Yen: That scene was designed to be very dramatic, kind of over-the-top. But real martial arts skills are still there. You can’t take the skill away. We were fighting on poles! We were stepping around from pole to pole. The wire catches you if you fall, but it can’t make you look stable. You have to be a superb martial artist to work with an expert like Yuen Wo Ping. 

We spend a lot of time on these movies, doing retake after retake, trying to get it just right. In the West, (fight scenes) aren’t as much of a priority. The support they give martial arts scenes in the West is a lot less than the typical Hong Kong movie, let alone a Yuen Wo-ping movie.

Q: How long does it take to shoot a Hong Kong fight scene?

Yen: That depends on who’s doing it. For my scenes with Jet Li in ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA II, we spent about 3 days on our first  battle. Something like that would take maybe 20 days in the USA, to get the same level of quality. Yuen Wo-ping used to take one month to shoot his more complex action scenes, in the old days. The filmmaking is just as important as the action. Hong Kong camerawork is more sophisticated when it comes to getting the movement on screen. We know how to emphasize little details.

Q: What was the hardest part about making IRON MONKEY?

Yen: The hardest thing was pulling off the concept! First, can we top the action in ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA? That’s what we were measuring ourselves against. I was playing Wong Fei Hung’s father, and audiences know what Wong Fei Hung can do. That was a challenge. And second, we were using Hung Gar, not the Northern style kung fu associated with the Jet Li version of Wong Fei Hung. That was hard, not knowing how audiences would react to a return to traditional Hung Gar style.

Q: How did audiences react?

Yen: They loved it!