Donnie Yen is among the exceedingly few actors of his generation to have worked at the highest levels of both Hollywood and the Chinese film industry. These days, though, he says he’s putting all his focus in the singular project of elevating Chinese commercial cinema’s reputation on the world stage.
Yen made his breakthrough way back in 1992 in Tsui Hark’s Wuxia classic Once Upon a Time in China II thanks to a memorable fight scene against the film’s hero, played by Jet Li. Scores of roles in Hong Kong, Chinese and Hollywood cinema have followed, including parts in Zhang Yimou’s Hero, Wilson Yip’s brutal crime flicks SPL: Sha Po Lang and Flash Point, Chinese tentpoles like The Monkey King 3D and Raging Fire, and most memorably as the star of the semi-biographical Ip Man movie series, which tells the story of Bruce Lee’s legendary teacher of Wing Chun. While his Chinese film career continued at a blistering pace, Yen went on to co-star in The Weinstein Company’s martial arts sequel, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016) and Disney tentpoles including Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) and Mulan (2020).
Presently, Yen is producing, directing and starring in the Chinese tentpole Śakra, an adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, a classic wuxia novel from 1963 that is considered one of the most influential works of martial arts fiction ever. The film began production this summer, with Yen starring as martial arts master Qiao Feng, one of the central figures of the Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils story universe. The actor envisions Śakra — which he alternately describes as both China’s Shakespeare and Marvel — as a potential franchise starter, with the book’s many sub-plots and compelling characters ripe for further big-screen adaptation. The film is produced by Chinese studio Wishart, with Yen’s longtime collaborator Wong Jing (From Vegas to Macau) also attached as a producer. International sales on Śakra are being handled by Plus Entertainment Limited, with the title already generating interest at both the Tokyo International Film Festival’s TIFFCOM market this week, and the upcoming American Film Market in Los Angeles.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Yen about why Śakra is a personal passion project and how it fits into his vision for the future of the Chinese film industry.
How did your involvement in Śakra come about?
Well, as you know, I’ve been in the industry for many, many years, right? I think for any artist or actor who’s done so many films, whether they were successful or not, it’s really important to keep finding motivation and inspiration. That motivation comes from a feeling — it’s about what kind of film you want to make, and the energy and creativity follows that feeling.
So, when I consider a project, there are three action genres in my book. One is the contemporarily action movie, like my films Raging Fire, Kill Zone or Flash Point. The second type is the kung fu movie, like my Ip Man franchise, where the era is closer to the modern day, but people don’t fly as much (laughs). It requires a more traditional martial arts form — like Ip Man or The Grandmaster, where you see traditional martial arts abilities in a character who is grounded in realism. Like the old Shaw Brothers movies, and so many that Jackie Chan and Jet Li did. And the third type is the Wuxia movie, which is a whole other rich tradition of stylistic heritage. It’s been a long time since I did a Wuxia movie. I did Crouching Tiger 2 and Mulan, but I wouldn’t really consider either of those a true Wuxia movie. Mulan really wasn’t my cup of tea, but I did it for my kids, who grew up watching the original animation. The last film I did, which I would consider truly in the genre, was probably Hero (2002). So it’s been a long time. And I think after I finished the Ip Man series, I didn’t feel that I would be able to continue to find fresh inspiration to make kung fu movies. So that’s why I returned to make more contemporary action movies, and that’s what I did with my late friend Benny Chan on Raging Fire (2021). So then I got this opportunity to make a Wuxia film and I hadn’t done one in a while and I felt it had the chance to really be something special. The older I get, the more I feel that if I commit to a project, it has to at least have the chance of being a really special film — something that can leave a mark and have a legacy. I feel like we achieved that with Ip Man; I’m really proud of those films. And I felt that maybe we could do something big and special in the Wuxia genre with this one.
And how did you decide to adapt a Louis Cha story in particular?
Well, if I was going to do a Wuxia movie, it had to be Louis Cha, because he’s the most influential Wuxia writer and Wuxia scholar of modern times. I spent a few months thinking about whether I should take up this challenge, because it’s a really big challenge, since his legacy is so huge in Chinese culture. And I really wanted to break ground if I was going to do it. I knew I would be the producer of the film as well as the director, so I knew I would end up spending a lot of my life creating this world. So it wasn’t an easy or quick decision, but I decided to do it. It’s extremely difficult to adapt Louis Cha’s novels as a feature film, because all of his novels are extremely long, with dozens of characters and backstories and mythic details. All of these things are part of what made his novels into classics. In the last few decades, the few relatively successful examples of adaptations of his work were all TV series, because you have many episodes and hours to develop his characters and stories. To do it in a movie is really difficult, because if you do one of his classic works, which small part of the story are you going to break out and focus on? And how are you going to make it an authentic adaptation while also allowing newcomers into his world — and for them to have any clue what’s going on? It’s really difficult. This project was presented to me by my good friend Wong Jing; he got the financing together. But I told him, let me re-read the novels and think about it. And as I was reading through, after a while I started to get ideas about how I would want to present the story, and then I spent a few months working with a couple of younger writers reframing the whole story so that it could work as a film that could be accessible to everyone.
And how did you think about how you would capture his world visually?
That was the other big piece. Because, you know, Tsui Hark has made a number of classic Wuxia films and he’s created a lot of imagery that we now associate with the genre. Even Wong Kar Wai did some Wuxia films in a very artistic and stylish way. So where do I come along? I have to kind of identify certain things that can feel modern but still keep the history and tradition of the genre. I really wanted the history and the tradition of Chinese literature to be there — not just people flying around spectacularly with no substance — because that’s what’s so cool about Louis Cha’s novels. There’s a tremendous amount of real history and philosophy built into his work. It’s like Chinese Shakespeare, with all of this real culture and history woven into it. That was another really challenging thing, because you need to make sure you get all of these period details right. We all had to do a lot of research. Over the last 20 years, a lot of Wuxia characters on screen have become more and more fantasy and cartoon-ish. I wanted to stay away from that — I wanted to go back to the history and the roots. From the wardrobe to the hair and set design all the way to the action and stunts, I wanted to go back to the roots with some realism. And when it comes to the action, I wanted it to be classic Donnie Yen style, where there’s real martial arts going on — where you can feel the pain, power and substance of the fighting in that universe. The most challenging thing was how I would portray Qiao Feng, the character we are focusing on — because there have been multiple actors who have taken on this character and role over the years, so I needed to find a new and unique point of view on him. At the same time, I had to be very level-headed and really understand what the audience has always loved about Qiao Feng in the text. He’s probably one of Louis Cha’s most beloved characters, so I really had to understand the charm of this character and think deeply about how to capture that and blend my own persona with it. I really think this has been one of the biggest challenges of my career. Like I said, picking up Louis Cha isn’t like just doing another movie for me. It’s like you’re remaking Shakespeare. But I’m quite happy I’ve taken on the challenge, so far.
You’re on a very short list of actors who have had top-level success in the old Hong Kong film business, the new mainland Chinese industry and Hollywood. China and Hollywood have very different production systems and both have their virtues. But since you mentioned how you’re aiming to adapt this Louis Cha story for a universal audience who might not already be familiar with his work, I wondered whether there was anything you gleaned from your time in Hollywood that you’re attempted to utilize on this project.
Well, obviously, I have learned some things from working on big U.S. projects, with corporate Hollywood and various talents. The Hollywood industry is very professionalized, because they’ve been doing it for so long, and the global business has been dominated by Hollywood for a long time, right? So, of course, I’ve learned a lot from working on projects like Rogue One. But at the same time, I really feel that China will be next to dominate the world. In fact, the economy of China is already dominating the world. And as a Chinese filmmaker, I’m a very proud Chinese man. Everybody knows that by now. And I have every right to be proud because our culture is so rich. So I just feel like I have a responsibility to continue. Because I’m quite fortunate to have spent 40 years in this business. It takes a lot of luck, and a lot of support from investors who give me this opportunity to create. So what I want to do is use my experience and dedicate myself to continue making films with Chinese elements, Chinese history and Chinese actors — to do my part to help elevate the whole Chinese film world. Because when I look at Marvel’s commercial success, I feel there’s so much I could do with my own culture that’s equally as good, if not better. You know, Wuxia is Chinese Marvel, except it has a lot more rich history and culture behind it. I mean, it goes back thousands of years. So, anyway, that is my single goal. Besides being creative as an artist, I really feel like I want to use my influence to make really good Chinese movies. That’s all I want to do before I retire.