HONG KONG – For years, Donnie Yen worked in the shadow of Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Having fought both on-screen, the 47-year-old actor was considered a worthy opponent but not necessarily a leading man in his own right.
The dynamic changed after Yen took on the role of Bruce Lee's kung fu master in 2008. "Ip Man" was a hit and two years later, the sequel was also successful. "Ip Man 2" is the top-grossing local film in China in the first half of the year with a box office take of $34 million, second only to "Avatar" and beating other Hollywood blockbusters like "Iron Man 2" and "Clash of the Titans."
With Chan and Li cutting down on output and seeking more dramatic roles, Yen is now the most prolific action star. Last year, he had three releases. This year, four are scheduled, including "Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen," which was chosen as one of the two opening movies at the Venice Film Festival in September.
His breakthrough role as Ip best showcased his personality and was right for the times, Yen told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Yen said Chinese viewers have tired of the superhuman feats of action heroes like Lee, Li and Chan and found Ip more accessible because he "just comes off as your friend, a friendly neighbor."
"What people want to see is someone closer to the people, someone with family values, maybe even a man who's afraid of his wife, a domesticated man. We crafted this character — but at the same time he excels at kung fu. He's powerful. He can protect his family and the people around him," he said.
Film scholar David Bordwell said it's exactly that pedestrian quality, the lack of a "star persona" that has defined Yen's career.
"He isn't fierce and short-tempered like Bruce Lee was, or a comic figure like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung," said Bordwell, a leading expert on Hong Kong cinema.
"He can play many different roles, so in a sense he might be considered the first top-rank Hong Kong martial arts star who is a character actor rather than automatically a hero," the retired University of Wisconsin at Madison professor said.
"Ip Man" marked a "major step forward" for Yen because it was a good fit and the veteran actor skillfully handled Ip's transformation from a reserved martial arts teacher to fearless defender of Chinese pride, Bordwell said.
Three years shy of 50, Yen, who was born in China and raised in Hong Kong and Boston, is capitalizing on his new level of stardom and says he has no plans to slow down. In "Legend of the Fist," he plays the nationalistic fighter Lee made famous in his 1972 movie "The Chinese Connection." In two other upcoming releases, Yen tackles the Three Kingdoms period general Guan Yu from ancient China and the mythical Monkey King. He's also working on a martial arts film with Peter Chan, a Hong Kong director best known for his love stories. The actor, who was trained by his mother, a martial arts teacher, is also fight choreographer on all four productions.
"I want to continue to make breakthroughs in kung fu film and action film," Yen said, adding his biggest challenge now is to combine dazzling fight scenes and compelling storytelling.
"Flashy, fierce and fresh fight sequences are no longer the only requirement. Now they also need to move the emotions of the audience," he said. "If the drama is unsuccessful, no matter how spectacular your fight sequences, it doesn't matter."
However, Yen, who appeared in "Highlander: Endgame," "Blade II" and "Shanghai Knights," isn't interested in a Hollywood career, preferring to focus on cultivating his following in the growing mainland market, calling it a "golden opportunity."
"For an actor, a Chinese-speaking filmmaker, given how gloriously the mainland Chinese market has developed in the past few years — foreign markets can't match the kind of creative space that brings," he said.