Hong Kong martial arts actor Donnie Yen Ji Dan still remembers the whoosh of air when a punch from former professional boxer Mike Tyson whistled past his head and landed on a sandbag. Tyson played Yen’s opponent in Ip Man 3 (2015) and Yen says he was afraid of accidentally getting killed on set by the former boxing heavyweight champion.
“I am a fan who watched his boxing matches until 4 or 5am on TV in Hong Kong when I was a child,” says Yen, adding he was thrilled to see him in person when making the movie. “I was worried that he might not hold back in using force as he is not an actor. I had to be very cautious. I saw it as a life-and-death boxing match. Just a little carelessness and it could be fatal.”
Now on a publicity round for his latest film, Raging Fire, the last film made by the late director Benny Chan Muk Sing, Yen remembers the Tyson fist flying towards him.
“In that scene, I had to duck my head when it came so near to my head that it touched my hair. I had to duck my head at the last moment so his fist missed me and landed on the sandbag next to me which flew out on impact. He had to use a lot of force to throw the punch. When his punch came, I felt like a big truck was rushing towards me. I can still remember the sense of danger now.”
Having survived his encounter with “the baddest man on the planet”, Yen says that his new film, Raging Fire, is “the most satisfactory action film with actual combat in my career”.
Raging Fire, which opened at the Shanghai International Film Festival on Friday and co-stars singer-actor Nicholas Tse Ting Fung, is Yen’s third collaboration with Chan following their work on two TV series, Kung Fu Master (1994) and Fist of Fury (1995).
“Chan was my best partner,” he says. “When he called me in 2018 for the collaboration, we had not worked together for two decades.”
Yen says Chan tried to make films of different genres, but his forte was making police dramas like Big Bullet (1996) and Who am I? (1998).
“The initially planned project was not Raging Fire. Originally we went to Mexico to make a film about a policeman taking on the drug cartel. But later, due to the exorbitant production costs, Emperor Entertainment Group put the project on hold. Chan was quite frustrated for some time. I encouraged him and suggested that he make a Hong Kong police drama,” says the 57-year-old of Raging Fire.
Yen, who has roles in Hollywood blockbusters such as last year’s Mulan and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, will join Keanu Reeves in John Wick 4, it was announced early this month.
Asked which action stars had been the most challenging to work with physically, he said Jet Li Lianjie gave him a run for his money.
“When making Once Upon a Time in China II (1992), Jet and I were very young. He played martial arts maestro Wong Fei Hung and I played his arch-enemy. We tried our best,” Yen recalls.
“He was very fast, prompting me to be even faster in response. If either of us slowed down, we might have hurt each other. So both of us fought in our top state. He is a very formidable opponent.”
Recalling his experience fighting Li in Hero (2002), Yen says it was an even more stressful experience. “I was holding a very long, red-tasselled spear and he a much shorter one,” he remembers of a scene. “I had to use all my force to contend with his swordplay. I felt under enormous pressure.”
The actor also worked behind the camera as director of Ballistic Kiss (1998) and Legend of the Wolf (1996). He says he is “too old” to sit in the director’s chair again.
“It was very hard to be a director,” Yen explains. “Both movies had very low production costs of [less than HK$4 million (S$ each]. I didn’t have money to pay my crew. I didn’t make movies for more than a year to concentrate on directing them to fulfil my dream of being a director. My health was not good then, as I smoked due to the high pressure involved.
“Now I am too old. I can’t stand that pressure any more.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.