By Jedd Jong
Donnie Yen is an action star whose career has spanned four decades. Yen’s body of work includes the Ip Man movies, contemporary action films like Flashpoint, SPL and Raging Fire, and Hollywood movies like Blade II, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and XXX: The Return of Xander Cage. Yen’s work as an actor and action director has been influential in Hong Kong cinema and far beyond, and at the age of 59, Yen is far from slowing down.
Yen was in Singapore on 12 January 2022 to promote his new film Śakra, in which he pulls triple duty as star, director and producer. Based on the novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils by legendary wuxia (martial heroes) author Jin Yong/Louis Cha set in the Northern Song Dynasty, this version focuses on Qiao Feng, one of three protagonists in the book.
Singapore was the first stop on Yen’s publicity tour. He held a press conference, a public meet-and-greet session and a closed-door dialogue session about action films on the same day.
“Jin Yong is very difficult to do,” Yen admitted during the press conference at Marina Bay Sands moderated by deejay Kenneth Kong. “To me, it’s almost impossible to tell a Jin Yong story in a movie format, which is only two hours or maybe two and a half hours. The duration of a movie is unlike a TV series; [with] a TV series you have 20 episodes where you can illustrate each character because in the Jin Yong world, you have so many colourful characters, especially Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, it’s one of the most popular,” Yen explained.
The project was brought to him by veteran director and producer Wong Jing, who was also present at the press conference. Yen recently collaborated with Wong on the comedy Enter the Fat Dragon. Yen revealed that he and Wong were gearing up to make a film with Andy Lau, but scheduling conflicts put that on the back burner, so Wong presented Śakra to Yen as an alternative.
“I told Wong Jing, ‘I need some time to tackle this project,’” Yen said. “Then I found an angle, and that was the very beginning.”
Yen reasoned that a literal adaptation of the novel would not be feasible given the limitations of a movie’s runtime. He decided to focus on Qiao Feng, a tragic hero who is one of Jin Yong’s most popular creations. “I said, ‘what is so special about Qiao Feng? Why is everybody mesmerised by this character? What are his characteristics? What are some of the classic lines?’” Yen recalled.
As a director in addition to an actor, Yen sought to make a film that would retain and capture everything fans love about the Qiao Feng character, while also appealing to audiences who might be unfamiliar with Jin Yong’s work. “I want to make an wuxia film that appeals to even those who’ve never [seen] any Jin Yong stories,” Yen said.
Tackling the sprawling story meant some restructuring. Yen said he split Qiao Feng’s arc in two, leaving the door open for a continuation. “By all means if the market enjoys this movie, then we think about maybe a sequel to it, right? But when you watch this movie, it doesn’t feel like part one of two, it’s still a complete, whole movie, so that was the most difficult part,” he said.
Yen has always pushed Hong Kong action cinema onto the world stage, with some comparing his contributions to those of Jackie Chan or Jet Li. Yen allowed himself to take some credit, saying “I believe as…a veteran action filmmaker, I’m very fortunate that a lot of my films have already influenced many action movies, not just in our Chinese action movies industry, but as well as in Hollywood.” Yen will soon be seen in the fourth installment of the Keanu Reeves-starring John Wick series. “I finished John Wick and when I came back, I realised that you know what? All along, Hollywood films have been not only influenced by our movies, but [have] also [been copying them] shot by shot,” Yen said candidly. “We should take pride in what we create, and I think I give myself credit, for the little part that is created by me,” he added.
Jin Yong’s novels are a goldmine of compelling plots and characters that have been explored in numerous film and TV adaptations across decades. Yen sees the potential for movies based on Jin Yong’s stories to be international successes on the scale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Everybody loves Hollywood pop culture. I do too, my kids do too. We watch the Marvel movies; we watch the great Disney [movies]. I was in Star Wars. That’s great. But have we ever [stepped] back and look at our own culture and what we have to offer for this industry?” Yen mused.
“If you look at all the Marvel movies, all the big Hollywood productions, all the action and artistic direction and creativity, a lot of them are influenced by our movies, right?” Yen asked rhetorically. “Marvel is Hollywood’s wuxia, but our wuxia movies are richer, more colourful,” he asserted. “There’s so, so [many] possibilities in our own literature and in our own materials. And as a filmmaker and as someone who still has a little bit of influence in the action industry, I’d like to continue to contribute and to have that type of recognition in the world,” Yen proclaimed.
Śakra opens in Singapore theatres on 16 January 2022, with sneaks on 14 and 15 January.