Donnie Yen was born in Guangzhou, China. His mother, Bow-sim Mark, was a kung fu master and his father, Kylster Yen, a newspaper editor and amateur musician. When Donnie was just two years old, the family moved to Hong Kong and then, when he was 11, to Boston, Massachusetts.
There, Master Bow-sim Mark became a pioneer for Chinese martial arts in America, and it was only natural that her only son was trained from early childhood in the same skills. At the same time, Donnie was influenced by his parents’ love of music and reached a high level of proficiency as a pianist. All these interests would have a manifest influence on Yen’s later life.
In his teens, Donnie defined his own persona by rebelling against his parents edicts. Beyond the limitations of his mother’s school, Yen began training in various different fighting arts, including Japanese karate, Korean taekwondo and western boxing. Donnie also took up hip-hop and break-dancing. At the same time, he began spending his nights in Boston’s notorious Combat Zone. Given that he was by now a serious practitioner of modern Wu Shu, his parents decided to send him to Beijing to train at the Chinese capital’s famed Wu Shu academy.
It was when Yen returned to Hong Kong en route back to Boston that he met the famed martial arts movie director Yuen Woo-ping.
Donnie exploded onto the Hong Kong movie scene when he was cast in the lead role of director Yuen Woo-ping’s ‘Drunken Tai Chi’. His debut film immediately established him as a viable leading man, and Yen has remained a major figure in Chinese action cinema to this day.
Yen skills as a street dancer were to the fore in his second starring role, ‘Mismatched Couples’, in which he showed off his breakdance moves, as well as his general athleticism. This slapstick romantic comedy was produced by Hong Kong’s prestigious Cinema City studio.
Donnie was subsequently signed by the newly formed D&B Films, and cast in the hit cop actioner ‘Tiger Cage’. In this movie, and his follow-up features for the company (‘In the Line of Duty 4’, ‘Tiger Cage 2’), Yen showed off his own unique form of contemporary screen combat, a form that included elements of rapid fire kicking, Western boxing and grappling moves.
Having established a worldwide fan base, Yen moved on to star in a string of independent Asian action features before director Tsui Hark tapped him to co-star in ‘Once Upon A Time In China 2’. The film’s two action highlights saw Donnie’s character duel the legendary martial arts master Wong Fei-hung, played by his old friend Jet Li. The film brought Yen his first real attention as a thespian and he was nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category at that year’s Hong Kong Film Awards.
Tsui Hark went on to produce a remake of King Hu’s classic ‘New Dragon Inn’, which provided another showcase role for Donnie as the film’s apparently invincible villain.
Donnie was reunited with director Yuen Woo-ping for ‘Iron Monkey’, a film which brought Yen’s acting and action skills both into focus. In ‘Iron Monkey’, Yen played the father of Wong Fei-hung, and its success prefigured that which he would later enjoy as another pugilistic patriarch in ‘Ip Man’. Donnie collaborated with Yuen on the action for the film, designing a new on-screen interpretation of Wong Fei-hung’s classic ‘Shadowless Kick’.
‘Iron Monkey’ was all the more remarkable in that, years after its Asian release, it was acquired by the American studio Miramax, re-cut, re-scored and given a wide release in US theatres. After premieres in New York and Los Angeles, the film enjoyed great acclaim from the American critics, and won a prize at that year’s Taurus Awards, an event held to celebrate action in cinema.
After working on a number of independent features, Yen went on to enjoy huge success on the small screen when he accepted a lucrative offer from Hong Kong’s ATV to film a series based on the Bruce Lee classic ‘Fist of Fury’. The show was the top-rated action drama show around the region, and was subsequently re-edited for international distribution on video.
Donnie went on to make his directorial debut with ‘Legend of the Wolf’, a stylish period actioner that even attracted the attention of legendary American film-maker Francis Coppola. The film, about an amnesiac warrior returning to his home village, has become a bona fide cult classic.
As director, Donnie followed ‘Legend of the Wolf’ with a very different venture, ‘Ballistic Kiss’, an urban thriller about a conflicted assassin. The film played at the prestigious Udine Festival in Italy, and took home awards at several other events, including the Japanese Yubari International Action Film Festival.
Donnie’s body of work had by then attracted the attention of Hollywood, and Yen was approached to choreograph the action for the mainstream franchise films ‘Highlander: Endgame’ and ‘Blade 2’. After a period where he was based in Los Angeles, Donnie returned East by way of the West when Jackie Chan requested that Yen play his nemesis in the hit ‘Shanghai Knights’, a shoot that took the star from Prague to London.
Yen returned to China to co-star in director Zhang Yimou’s epic wu xia master work ‘Hero’. Yen’s duel with Jet Li brought his skills to the emerging Mainland Chinese theatrical audience, and paved the way for Donnie to become the country’s biggest action star. The film received a wide US theatrical release from Miramax, and remains one of the most successful foreign language titles ever distributed in the America market.
Donnie returned to Hong Kong to choreograph the smash hit fantasy-horror-comedy ‘The Twins Effect’, and went on to enjoy his most productive partnership with a director. Beginning with the cop actioner ‘SPL’, Donnie teamed with helmer Wilson Yip for a series of very different films that Yen would star in and action choreograph and Yip would direct. Star and director subsequently teamed to create the comic book inspired fantasy actioner ‘Dragon Tiger Gate’ and the gritty police thriller ‘Flashpoint’, in which Donnie created what fans feel is the definitive on-screen MMA action scene. Yen was to return to this hard-hitting, urban action style for the later ‘Special ID’.
Donnie now found himself in demand as a leading man in a series of prestigious period actioners produced for the Chinese market. ‘Seven Swords’ premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and proved a hit with worldwide audiences. The film was released in North America by The Weinstein Company’s Dragon Dynasty label, and remains its biggest hit.
Yen also attracted rave reviews when he played an honorable general in ‘An Empress and her Warriors’ and an offbeat ghost-buster in Gordon Chan’s ‘Painted Skin’.
Yen took his career to a new level when he accepted producer Raymond Wong’s suggestion that he play Bruce Lee’s teacher, ‘Ip Man’, in an eponymous film relating the life of the great master. The film was a huge success in Hong Kong and China, and ‘Ip Man’ went on to find favor with audiences worldwide. Donnie also received a Best Actor nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
‘Ip Man’ confirmed Donnie’s position as China’s greatest action hero, and he was immediately signed to lead a strong ensemble cast for Teddy Chen’s ‘Bodyguards and Assassins’, produced by Peter Chan. Besides his on-screen performance, Donnie was also called on to choreograph the dynamic duel between himself and MMA champion Cung Le. The movie went on to sweep the board at the Hong Kong Film Awards winning Best Film, among many other prizes. Yen himself was nominated for Best Actor at the Chinese Hundred Flower awards.
Yen followed this with ‘Ip Man 2’, a rare example of a sequel that proved a match for its predecessor. The film followed Ip’s life journey to Hong Kong, where he faces both rival kung fu masters, led by the film’s choreographer, Sammo Hung, and a brutal foreign boxer, portrayed by the late Darren Shahlavi. ‘Ip Man 2’ was the biggest local hit of the year in China, and enjoyed a limited theatrical release in the US.
The film’s success led to Donnie being cast as a number of legendary Chinese heroes: He played General Qin-long in Daniel Lee’s ’14 Blades’, Guan Yu in ‘The Lost Bladesman’ and reprised Bruce Lee’s Chen Zhen role in Andrew Lau’s ‘Legend of the Fist’. Yen also used the lighter side of his screen persona to good effect in two installments of the hit Hong Kong comedy movie series ‘Alls Well Ends Well’.
Yen was cast opposite Tang Wei and Takeshi Kaneshiro in director Peter Chan’s ‘Wu Xia’ (aka ‘Dragon’), a dark, elegant period martial arts murder mystery. The film premiered to great acclaim at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and subsequently received a North American theatrical release from The Weinstein Company.
Donnie Yen played ‘The Monkey King’ in a hit reimagining of the Chinese classic. Donnie starred opposite screen legend Chow Yun-fat in the film, which smashed box office records in Mainland China.
Showing his versatility, Yen went on to play a kung fu master facing challenges in the modern era in director Teddy Chen’s ‘Kung Fu Jungle’. The movie, which premiered at the London Film Festival, paid tribute to the great history of Hong Kong martial arts cinema.
During the shooting of his ambitious, time travel themed action fantasy ‘Iceman 3D’, Yen was approached to revitalize the greatest brand in the history of Chinese martial arts cinema. ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny’ was shot primarily on location in New Zealand, with Yen in the lead role. The world class creative team gathered by producer Harvey Weinstein included legendary kung fu film director Yuen Woo-ping, acclaimed directors Peter Berg and Morten Tyldum (as producers), ‘X-Men’ series DP Tom Sigel as well as the Oscar-winning production, costume and FX designers from the ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Hobbit’ film series.
The film debuted in most international territories as a Netflix Original movie, making it the most widely seen wu xia of all time. ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Sword of Destiny’ also played at selected Imax theatres in North America, and enjoyed a wide theatrical release in China, where it was screened in its 3D version.
Yen reteamed with his former mentor Yuen Woo-ping for the hugely popular ‘Ip Man 3’. The film, with Wilson Ip as director and Yuen as choreographer, pitted the title character against legendary boxing champion Mike Tyson. The film out-performed all the previous movies featuring the character of Ip Man, smashing box office records throughout Asia. Following a high profile Los Angeles premiere, ‘Ip Man 3’ enjoyed a Los Angeles premiere and a US theatrical release, earning rave reviews in the mainstream American media.
Having conquered every territory beneath the Asian skies, Donnie accepted an invitation to join the cast of an entry in the world’s biggest film franchise. In ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’, Yen plays one of the Rebel warriors responsible for the theft of the Death Star plans, the adventure that, within the ‘Star Wars’ universe, leads to the events of the very first film in the series. The film was shot primarily at the famed Elstree Studios in England.
Donnie had a role opposite Vin Diesel and his fellow Asian action star, Tony Jaa, in xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017), which filmed in Toronto, Canada.
Now firmly established as a leading player across the globe, Donnie Yen continues to present a unique blend of Eastern experience and Western innovation, of musical grace with martial impact, from Hong Kong to a galaxy far, far away….
Donnie is one of the leading martial arts choreographers in the world of action cinema. His skills behind the camera began developing from his early days in the industry, and he was very much involved with the action choreography of his films for D&B Films. He received his first full action directing credit on the Michelle Yeoh, kung fu drama ‘Wing Chun’, in which he also starred.
Yen further developed his style of choreography in the high pressure world of Hong Kong television, where he created the action for his hit series ‘Kung Fu Master’ and ‘Fist of Fury’, and as a low-budget film-maker, when he directed, starred in and choreographed the movies ‘Legend of the Wolf’ and ‘Ballistic Kiss’.
It was after Yen had helmed his first two Chinese features that Hollywood made its first serious bid for his services. He was signed to co-star in and action direct ‘Highlander: Endgame’, the latest in a series of fantasy actioners. The film, which starred Adrian Paul and Christopher Lambert, was produced by the US studio Dimension, and enjoyed a successful worldwide theatrical release.
Having relocated to Los Angeles, Yen paid his dues by directing action scenes for the Dimension action thriller ‘Stormbreaker’ and providing the fight sequences for the German TV series ‘The Puma’.
Donnie agreed to both action direct and cameo in the major New Line action franchise entry ‘Blade 2’, starring Wesley Snipes. The film, directed by Guillermo del Toro, was a huge hit, earning almost twice the box office of the original ‘Blade’.
Returning to Hong Kong, Yen found he now had a major contribution to make behind the camera, co-directing the SFX action adventure ‘The Twins Effect’. The film, which starred two of China’s top pop idols, told the tale of young vampire hunters with well-honed martial arts skills. A huge hit for Emperor, the film earned Yen his first Best Action Director prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
‘The Twins Effect’ saw Donnie start to introduce elements of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) in his film fight scenes. He took the on-screen depiction of the style to new heights with the film ‘SPL’, released in the US as ‘Kill Zone’. Yen’s final reel duel with Sammo Hung is now regarded as a classic of the genre. The film won Donnie his second Best Action Choreography prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
He took his on-screen depiction of MMA to new heights in ‘Flashpoint’, which featured an even longer and more intense final showdown, this time between Yen and ‘Matrix Reloaded’ actor Collin Chou. The film won Donnie his third Best Action Choreography prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards, as well as a prize for Best Action in a Foreign Language Film at the Taurus Awards.
Yen explored different styles of screen combat when he choreographed the stunning kung fu fights for the period actioners ‘Legend of the Fist’ and ‘The Lost Bladesman’, the fantasy combat for ‘The Monkey King’ and the time travel adventure ‘Iceman Cometh 3D’.
Many fans feel that Yen delivered his best choreographic work to date in Peter Chan’s masterful ‘Wu Xia’, released in the US as ‘Dragon’. The film saw Donnie bring his own unique flair to classical Shaw Bros style kung fu action.
Donnie brought traditional Chinese martial arts into the modern era with ‘Kung Fu Jungle’, for which his work won yet another Best Choreography prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards.
Away from the cameras, Yen entered into the most rewarding partnership of his life when he married former beauty queen, Cissy Wang. The couple now has two children, a girl and boy, Jasmine and James.
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