Donnie Yen has faced off against the likes of Jackie Chan and Jet Li over nearly three decades in action films. With Jimmy Wang now added to the list, Yen feels his dream of fighting Chinese cinema's leading kung fu stars is complete.
The veteran actors duel in a heated battle between gang leader and estranged son in the Peter Chan thriller "Wu Xia," which was released in China on Monday. While Wang may not be well-known in the West, the largely retired actor is considered a pioneering action star. He shot to fame with the hit 1967 film "One-armed Swordsman," which spawned three sequels, then directed the 1970 release "The Chinese Boxer," another hit credited with popularizing unarmed combat.
"He is the elder of elders. I was a fan of 'One-armed Swordsman' when I was a child," Yen told The Associated Press in an interview on Thursday. "Working with Jimmy Wang fulfills my wish of working with everyone."
He said Wang was still in good shape for his age. Wang said in a behind-the-scenes documentary about "Wu Xia" that he still works out daily.
"He is a strong opponent for someone in his 70s," Yen said.
In "Wu Xia," Yen plays a former assassin who tries to escape by settling in a rural village and marrying a local woman (Tang Wei). His past catches up with him when he is forced to use his kung fu background to kill two robbers and a martial arts-savvy detective (Takeshi Kaneshiro) investigates.
But Yen, who choreographed the action in the movie, said his face-off with Wang isn't his favorite — he favors an elaborate chase-and-fight sequence with Hong Kong actress Wai Ying-hung, who plays one of Wang's wives.
He said he loves the emotional arch — his character stubbornly hides his kung fu prowess until Wai breaks him down with repeated attacks, and a segment that sees the two dash across tiled roofs before engaging in a small barn filled with cows.
"We did not use a single safety wire ... It is not Donnie Yen style. I like action that is real. When you see two people actually running on a roof, you are impressed with how much more difficult it is," he said.
Yen also praised director Chan, who made his name with subtle love stories, for innovating the kung fu film genre by mixing in elements of detective suspense and medical mystery. Chan illustrates the physical impact of a fighter's blows with computer animation that shows the inner workings of human organs and blood vessels in the style of U.S. medical shows.
"This is the only way to achieve a breakthrough," he said, decrying the repetition in recent kung fu films.
Yen is looking for another hit after the success of his recent biopics of Bruce Lee's martial arts teacher, "Ip Man" and "Ip Man 2," but "Wu Xia" has come up against a formidable opponent — a star-studded Chinese propaganda film that marks the 90th anniversary of Chinese Communist Party. Mainland multiplexes have been flooded with screenings of "Beginning of the Great Revival" and just this week allegations surfaced of at least one multiplex chain trying to inflate its box office numbers with substituted movie tickets.
Yen was careful to sidestep the controversy.
"I don't believe it. I don't want to take a position before all the evidence is laid out," he said.
Asked about the timing of "Wu Xia," Yen responded, "That doesn't concern me. I was focused on making a good movie. I think this is a very good movie."