All a boy needs to know about martial arts, Donnie Yen learned from his mother.
It helps that his mother, Bow Sim Mark, is one of the leading martial artists in America. She began training Yen as soon as he could totter on two feet. Lessons didn’t ease up after the family moved from Hong Kong to Boston in 1974, where Mark founded the world-renowned Chinese Wushu Research Institute.
“She forced me to practice kung-fu, like, at least an hour before (elementary) school,” the 38-year-old actor recalls. “She yanked me out of bed: ‘Training! Practice!’ Now you’re talking about early, 6 o’clock in the morning.”
Not that Yen doesn’t value his mother’s persistence. After all, it was mom who offered Yen the chance to study with the Beijing Wushu Team (martial arts star Jet Li trained with them), and it was mom who told him to take a Hong Kong detour to visit her former student. That turned out to be the older sister of Yuen Wo-Ping, who discovered Jackie Chan and decades later made his American reputation as fight choreographer for “The Matrix.”
By age 19, Yen was getting leading roles. By age 30, as co-star of the 1993 release “Iron Monkey,” Yen says, “I was probably considered the top action actor from Hong Kong within the industry and even among the audience.” That audience included die-hard American fans such as director Quentin Tarantino, actor Wesley Snipes and Miramax powerhouses Harvey and Bob Weinstein.
Now, as part of its overseas recruiting program, Hollywood has come calling to make Yen the next crossover star. While he’s played the love interest of Michelle Yeoh and was nominated for Hong Kong’s best supporting actor in a face-off with Jet Li, Yen’s not nearly as well-known in America as his former co-stars.
Taking on Tinseltown
Dressed in a tight black leather jacket and striped dark pants, Yen looks impossibly slender to be the charismatic, larger-than-life, fight-to-the-death imperial heroes and villains he plays on screen. Yet he can coolly command the screen, and his good looks and fluent English may make him an even easier sell.
Last year, Miramax bought about half-a-dozen of his films, and “Iron Monkey” – directed by “Matrix’s” Yuen – is first on the mainstream theatrical circuit. A small role as a conflicted immortal in last year’s “Highlander: Endgame” has already fulfilled one-third of a three-picture deal. While he waits for his next script, Yen has worked as an on-screen vampire and off-screen fight choreographer for the Wesley Snipes’ sequel “Blade 2: Bloodhunt,” served as action director for a Japanese film due out this Christmas, and has been talking to networks about a TV series that would be produced by famed director John Woo.
“Hollywood,” says the highly productive Yen, “is very slow.”
It’s a strange situation to debut now as a leading man in an 8-year-old film and, conversely, to play bit parts as immortals and vampires. But he’s paying his “dues.”
Of his work, “Iron Monkey” is a cult classic, or what Yen himself calls “one of the most influential martial arts films of the decade.” Some may quibble with his characterization of the Robin Hood-style film, but few will argue that his elegant, powerful form translates even to the layman how an action sequence can transcend into a physically lyrical performance. “It’s not about just doing a bunch of choreography for two hours and ‘Wow, he was great,'” and then the audience forgets about you, Yen says. Screen presence comes from translating body and soul: “I don’t want to sound too philosophical, but that’s how I see martial arts as an art form.”
The discipline Yen demonstrates on-screen and in his globe-trotting work schedule stems just as much from his rebellious nature as it did from his parents’ strict upbringing. Every day his parents worked long hours (his father is an editor at a Chinese newspaper and a professional violinist), and every evening they practiced music. Yen himself learned classical piano, which introduced a sense of rhythm.
Eventually he chafed under the strictures of “being in a proper, well-mannered family.” By his teens, he was running around in Boston’s then-notorious Combat Zone, living with his grandmother in Chinatown to avoid speaking to his father and cutting classes to sneak off to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies.
“I was always a martial arts fanatic,” admits Yen, who constantly questioned his mother and went to as many schools to learn as he could. His skill was evident by age 15, when the visiting Beijing Wushu team enthused to his mother, “‘Your son has this tremendous potential. We could make him a champion in six months.'” Yen was doubtful. “I said, ‘Right – (when there’s) a billion people in China -‘” When his mother offered to let him go two years later, he took it.
To this day, his parents still keep to their regular schedule, and his mother at “sixtysomething” teaches and practices 365 days a year. “That’s why she’s a bad cook,” Yen says. “My sister and I went out to eat all the time.”
Despite having to forage for decent food, he appreciates the hard training and the subtle, learned appreciation for martial arts’ emotional and physical demands she taught him.
“She can still beat me up,” he says. Perhaps that’s the best tribute a son can give his mother.
Vera H-C Chan is the Times event editor. She can be reached at 925-977-8428 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.