Donnie Yen is quite possibly the premier martial artist in film today. At 53 years young and with over 70 films under his belt, the Hong Kong superstar is a fixture in Asian cinema. However, Yen’s stardom will quite likely reach new levels with his appearance as Chirrut Imwe in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story this December. As a huge fan of Donnie Yen, it’s been great to see the excited reactions from the Star Wars community to Yen’s brief clips in the Rogue One teasers and trailers. As Jason mentioned in the last episode of “Now, This is Podcasting!”, it seems that Yen’s Chirrut and Jiang Wen’s Baze Malbus are poised to become substantial fan favorites upon the film’s release.
Leading up to Rogue One, many fellow fans have reached out to me asking for recommendations on Donnie Yen’s films.
@CPThrio Ip Man was excellent. Thanks for the rec. Definitely looking forward to Yen in Star Wars.
— Dylan Jacobs (@brewerfan_mke) July 2, 2016
— Andy (@CanadianFanboy) August 12, 2016
These great conversations led me to want to prepare a list of recommendations for Star Wars fans interested in getting better acquainted with Yen before Rogue One. In order to provide varied perspectives, I enlisted the aid of two other members of the MakingStarWars family, Mark (@Griddlemarks) and Dru (@LAKingsDru). Mark is my Jedi Master when it comes to Asian Cinema. It is a genuine passion of his, and Mark carries a wealth of knowledge that goes beyond Donnie Yen or martial arts films. Dru has been a big fan of Donnie Yen for several years, as well as other Asian martial arts films that have carried over to the U.S., like Hero and House of Flying Daggers.
The three of us each listed our favorite Donnie Yen film as well as an “honorable mentions.” The only guidelines were that we did not overlap our choices and at least one of our recommendations must be available for streaming. The great thing about Yen’s films is that they are plentiful and varied. For the most part, there’s something for everyone. I hope you enjoy our recommendations below. If you watch them, please let us know what you think, and let us know what your favorite Yen films are as well!
Recommendation: Wu Xia a.k.a. Dragon
Donnie Yen has had a long and storied career, and Wu Xia (or Dragon as it is known in the United States), feels like the perfect primer to understand his versatility. First, a little explanation–Dragon is a “Wire Fu” film. What that means is that wires and pulleys are used to augment the Kung Fu action giving the fights an almost superhero quality. Its beautiful and dynamic when done right and Donnie Yen, who choreographed all the action, knows how to use it effectively.
Dragon is a mystery story. A crime story. A martial arts film. It encapsulates many different genres, yet tells the story of a man trying to escape his past and the detective who refuses to believe a man can change. This movie will give you an understanding of why people are so excited that Donnie Yen is in a Star Wars film. Dragon shows the range of his emotions, the skill of his martial arts and the unmistakable charisma that has made him an international star. It is currently available to watch on Netflix and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Honorable Mention: The Lost Bladesman
I’ve been a huge fan of Asian cinema for quite some time, and I’m constantly searching out new movies to watch. Sadly, some of these movies never make it to the United States, and one of these movies is a Donnie Yen film called The Lost Bladesman. Yen plays Guan Yu, a historical figure from China’s Three Kingdoms period and tells the story of his relationship with his “enemy” Cao Cao, played by Jiang Wen, who will also star alongside Yen in Rogue One. I recommend searching this film out because you get to see the two actors working together before their turn in Star Wars. It’s not my favorite Yen film, but is worth an honorable mention because of Yen and Wen working together.
Recommnedation: Iron Monkey
I have seen quite a few of Yen’s films, however his performance in this film is what drew me to his movies. This movie takes place during the end of the Qing Dynasty. It is about Dr. Yang, played by the talented Yu Rongguang, a village physician and medicine man. He is also the village “Robin Hood” if we compare him to modern myths. Donnie Yen’s character, Wong Kei-ying, is also a physician who comes into the village and the story goes from there. The fighting involves lots of wire work, pulleys and other crazy stunts. However, the hand-to-hand combat and martial arts techniques are some of the best on film. Yen shows his speed and power with his leg kicks, and wait until you see his “Shadow Kick.” Iron Monkey is a fun movie to watch, but also a great way to see some of Donnie Yen’s amazing talents.
Honorable Mention: Flashpoint
If wires and pulleys aren’t your thing, then this movie is for you. Yen plays a Hong Kong cop who goes after some pretty nasty drug dealers. The fighting in this film is a giant mixture of techniques. From kickboxing, to kung fu, all the way to some MMA ground-and-pound, Donnie Yen brings it in this movie. It’s as real as you would think and backed by a solid story. This needs to be on your must watch list and is currently available on Netflix.
Recommendation: Ip Man
In my opinion, any introduction to Donnie Yen must start with Ip Man. The film, based on the iconic martial arts master famous for teaching Bruce Lee, firmly established Yen as the biggest star of current martial arts films. Further, Ip Man was arguably Yen’s biggest crossover hit, grossing over $21 million worldwide despite not releasing in the U.S. or most of Europe. Despite a limited release, Ip Man‘s influence, much like its title character, reached beyond its borders. Ip Man is best described as a martial arts epic that spans a decade of Ip Man’s life and Chinese history. The film begins depicting a prosperous and privileged Ip Man, who is a local hero, followed by a dramatic shift in Ip Man’s life, Chinese history and the film’s tone after Japanese invasion in 1937. The latter half of the film tells a story that Star Wars fans can appreciate–a group of people oppressed by an empire, led by an inspiring hero to overcome a seemingly unbeatable opponent. Ip Man is more than just martial arts–although Yen’s considerable physical talents are on full display throughout–it allowed Yen’s humble charisma and likability to shine through. Ip Man is where you can see what a true superstar talent Donnie Yen is. Don’t me wrong though, the martial arts in Ip Man is spectacular. You really get a feel for Yen’s incredible speed and varied talents. The fight choreography was helmed by martial arts legend Sammo Hung (who makes an appearance in the sequel) and Yen shines.
The one caveat to this movie is that I’m not sure how it would feel to a Japanese viewer. Ip Man, like many Chinese films, emphasizes a good amount of Chinese nationalism. Further, the Japanese play the villains here and aren’t really given any redeeming qualities. Any viewer has to be able to overlook that in order to enjoy the movie. Ip Man spawned two sequels, including a third that features Mike Tyson (which is actually executed far better than it sounds), and all three are available on Netflix.
Honorable Mention: Sha po lang a.k.a. SPL: Killzone
Sha po lang a.k.a. SPL: Killzone is consistently one of Donnie Yen’s most popular films. Understandably, given that it has a lot going for it. First, it involves a more in-depth story than most martial arts films, complete with a morally challenging theme. Second, the villain is played by martial arts legend Sammo Hung, which elevates the quality of the film’s climactic fight between Hung and Yen. Third, it has a unique and unexpected ending even by today’s standards (and there’s an elusive alternate ending). All those factors would be enough to make this a must watch film. However, SPL also features perhaps the most incredible martial arts fight scene of Yen’s career, if not all modern martial arts films. Incredibly, I’m not talking about the aforementioned final battle between Hung and Yen. Instead, the alley fight between Yen and Wu Jing, who is also an accomplished martial arts actor, is breathtaking, innovative and critically acclaimed. You’ve likely never seen anything like it in live action. SPL is worth watching for that scene alone, but the rest of the film is genuinely good.
I will say that personally I slightly prefer Dru’s recommendation, Flashpoint, which is actually a spiritual sequel to this film where Yen plays the same character – Inspector Ma. Flashpoint is a film that’s more action focused whereas SPL is more of a balance between story and action. The first third of SPL doesn’t feature much action at all and instead focuses on plot development, while Flashpoint delivers substantial butt-kicking throughout. Another distinction between the two films is that SPL features more traditional martial arts fighting while Yen, who is reportedly a big fan of mixed martial arts, incorporated some stylized MMA fighting into Flashpoint. Depending on your mood, you can’t go wrong…but watch both!
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article erroneously noted that in Iron Monkey, Wong Fei-hung was played by Yu Rongguang. That section has been corrected and updated.