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How Donnie Yen is quietly educating Hollywood

IT’S EVERY ACTOR’S dream to be in a hugely successful movie franchises such as John Wick and Star Wars.

But when Donnie Yen sees the scripts for such movies, he sighs.

You can probably guess what he tends to see, even in big budget productions with the highest paid writers and producers on board. For example, his character in the new John Wick movie (“John Wick: Chapter Four”), which opens this week around the world, was a Chinese martial arts expert named “Shang” or “Chang” who wore a mandarin collar.

Nope, said Yen. He wanted the mandarin collar ditched and the generic name changed. The character had to be made rounder and more complex. So film fans will find Keanu Reeves battling a villain named Caine who wears a sharp dark Western suit with a super-thin tie instead.

In John Wick 4, a generic martial arts fighter became Caine, a man in a sharp suit. Image: Lionsgate Films.

The need for revision reminded Donnie Yen of the time he was given his script for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. No surprise: he was being asked to play a wise, monk-like character who could do amazing martial arts feats, despite being blind. The character’s personality was dry, with no sense of humor, and he had a certain stoic quality—and of course the ability to leap into the air and fight.

It would not do. “I expressed this to Disney, as well as everybody on the set,” Yen said. “I said, listen: if you want me to do this movie, first of all, this character needs to be a little bit more.”

For a start, the character had to have a sense of humor, he told them. He then went on to fight for changing the lines of the script. As result, his character in the show has a richer, more complex personality, and is very popular with Star Wars fans. For example, there’s a moment when the bad guys capture the heroes and put hoods over their heads. “Are you kidding me? I’m blind,” Donnie’s character deadpans.


He’s been doing this in every film in which he appears – gently training the world’s most successful filmmakers to see Chinese people as complex human beings, not just inscrutable kung fu fighters.

“I’ve been doing it every single film, and the whole Hollywood industry knows that if they want Donnie in the film,  first of all they have to be respectful to our Chinese culture. They have to understand our Chinese culture.”

Click below to watch our interview with Donnie Yen, or scroll down to read more of this feature article.


China and the Chinese are greatly misunderstood around the world and Yen feels that fate has given him a high profile, so he needs to use it—but to make sure he does it gently and respectfully.

Perhaps that’s why the recent campaign by the anti-China activist lobby in the United States and the UK to have Donnie removed as a presenter on the recent Academy Awards show was such a failure. (His “crime” was to have used the word “riots” to describe violent, arson-filled protests which caused massive injuries to people and property.)

Despite the noise these activists made on Twitter, the Oscar organizers did not flinch, happy to keep him in the show. His non-hostile view of China is widely shared among people in the Hong Kong creative industries, including Jackie Chan. Furthermore, Yen is seen as a well-liked, respected figure, at the highest echelons of the film industry, in both east and west.


This was not always the case. Born in Guangzhou in 1963, the family moved to Hong Kong when he was two, and then settled in Boston when he was 11. As an adult, he moved back to Hong Kong, but the film industry was tough going, and he battled hard to make any sort of progress for years.

By the time he had reached his mid-30s, he was struggling badly. His Hong Kong films were getting good reviews, but it was hard to make money. On one occasion he was producing a movie and found that he had precisely HK$100 (about US$13) left to his name. After paying HK$25 for rice lunchboxes for his colleagues, he was completely broke.


In the late 1990s, he moved back to the United States – where Hollywood had happily developed the habit of feeding Hong Kong-style fight scenes into their movies. He was hired to choreograph battles in Highlander Endgame and Blade II, and given cameo appearances in both.

China also wanted him at that time, and he was given a role in Zhang Yimou’s famous 2002 film Hero. From then on, his career took an upward trajectory. He appeared with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson, playing the bad guy in Shanghai Knights, in 2003. And he has been busy ever since.

Donnie Yen was interviewed by Patrick Tsang On-yip for Friday Beyond Spotlights. Image: Friday Beyond Spotlights.


Today, his focus is not on winning awards from movie judging panels or getting great reviews from critics. It’s the audiences he cares about. “For me, my single goal is to make a movie where most people in the world can see the film,” he says.

And if serving the largest number of people is the goal, the best place to start is at home, with the domestic market.

These days, the Hong Kong film industry is deeply tied into the mainland China film industry, and together they have the biggest single audience in the world.

“As a Chinese filmmaker, as a Chinese actor, I see still many obstacles for us to overcome, being Chinese,” he says. “So why don’t we look internally? After all, we have the biggest market in the world, right? Why not focus ourselves into our own markets?”

This turn to the east has been working well for him.

He has enjoyed working in the west, but has also grown to love the country in which he was born. Travelling around to see the place transforming before his eyes has been a huge delight.

“Fortunately, many of my stories take place in mainland China, and I got to use that as great opportunities to rediscover my own motherland. Because when you make films, you travel everywhere, from north to south,” he said.


Today, he is back in the limelight as Caine in the above-mentioned new Keanu Reeves movie, John Wick: Chapter Four, which opens this week around the world.

Sleeping Dogs, a Hong Kong crime story, has been one of the most successful open-world games of recent years. Image: Square Enix.

He’s also preparing for a starring role in Sleeping Dogs, a movie based on a hit video game about an undercover cop working in modern day Hong Kong. Donnie will be playing the lead role, and the movie is being produced by the team behind the hit series Fast and Furious.

Blending the best of east and west, the movie has the potential to be an obvious hit – and to play to Donnie Yen’s desire to bring east and west together.

Image at the top from John Wick: Chapter Four: Lionsgate Films.

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