A masked thief. A rousing rooftop pursuit. Kung fu masters locked in mortal combat one minute, united against a common enemy the next. It could be a description of last year's Oscar-winning "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." But it isn't. This story belongs to the 1993 Hong Kong martial arts film "Iron Monkey."
"Nothing is really new under the sun, right?" Donnie Yen says and smiles, and with good reason. Eight years after the fact, the movie that helped catapult him to stardom in Hong Kong is finally being released in the U.S. on Friday, riding the wave of "Crouching Tiger's" success and generating speculation as to whether Yen's star may at last begin to rise over Hollywood as well.
Few would deny that the China native has the credentials to be taken seriously in the U.S. Raised primarily in Hong Kong and Boston, he is the most versatile and cosmopolitan of Hong Kong's major action stars, skilled in a wide variety of martial arts, fluent in English and unencumbered by the typecasting with which Asian action stars are often unfairly saddled. And Yen is one action star less concerned with action than acting.
"Obviously, you want to see great martial arts," he says. "But ultimately it's about interpretation, how you act, how you perceive a character. Can you communicate with the audience? Can you make them like you? Can you get them excited about your performance? I think that's more important than what you can do physically."
"There are a number of ways to describe his appeal, but when all else fails you'd have to say charisma," says Mark Gill, president of Miramax, Los Angeles, which is releasing the film. "Certainly ability, of course. But then you could say that Jet Li has tremendous ability, as does Jackie Chan. But I think in Donnie's case it's just enormous charisma."
Technically, Yen's Hollywood career began last year with a brief role in "Highlander: Endgame," on which he also served as fight choreographer. But it's "Iron Monkey" that Miramax is betting will elevate him to the next level.
Among fans of Hong Kong cinema, "Iron Monkey" has long been a revered favorite, a seminal component of the so-called Hong Kong New Wave that, during the 1980s and 1990s, helped establish the careers of such icons as Jet Li, Tsui Hark, John Woo, Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and, of course, Jackie Chan. Produced and co-written by "Once Upon a Time in China" director Tsui and directed by "Crouching Tiger" wirework master Yuen Wo-Ping, "Iron Monkey" owes much of its loyal following to a clever melding of legend and history.
Set in 1860 China, it centers on two larger-than-life figures--the titular masked hero, played by Yu Rong-Guang, and real-life Chinese patriot and martial arts pioneer Wong Kei-Ying, played by Yen. At first pitted against each other by a corrupt official seeking to catch the Zorro-like Iron Monkey, they eventually join forces in the interest of justice.
"Frankly, before I made 'Iron Monkey' I'd never heard of this story," Yen confesses in a recent interview. "But after 'Once Upon a Time in China,' Tsui Hark was looking to produce something unique. So he was digging around and found this household story about a Robin Hood-type of character. He wanted to build on that so he added in the character of Wong Kei-Ying."
Mother Becomes His Martial Arts Teacher
Chinese folklore and movies have historically focused more on Wong Kei-Ying's equally famous son, the great turn-of-the-century hero Wong Fei-Hong, portrayed in the "Once Upon a Time in China" films by Jet Li and the "Drunken Master" films by Jackie Chan. Here, however, the younger Wong is depicted as a boy (though played by a girl) still living in the shadow of a famous father.
It's a filial dynamic that Yen understands intuitively from firsthand experience. Yen was still an infant when an exit visa enabled him and his father to depart for Hong Kong, leaving Yen's mother behind in China for the better part of the Cultural Revolution. During this time Yen's mother, Bow Sim Mark, studied martial arts as a form of physical therapy but soon emerged as a budding master herself. When the family was finally reunited eight years later, young Donnie became his mother's student.
By the time Yen was a teenager, he had a new baby sister and the family had relocated again to Boston, where his father assumed the editorship of a Chinese-language newspaper while his mother's reputation as a teacher continued to grow. But Donnie was no longer her ideal student. "I never listened exactly to what she taught me," he says with a mischievous grin. "I'd change things here and there. And she had a problem with that to the point where it became unbearable. So she sent me back to China to train."