Action star Donnie Yen says Ip Man 3 is likely to be his last gongfu movie

Hong Kong actor and marital artist Donnie Yen.
Hong Kong actor and marital artist Donnie Yen.PHOTO: ST FILE

Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen, famous for playing legendary wing chun grandmaster Ip Man in the blockbuster franchise, says that Ip Man 3 may well be his last gongfu movie.

The actor admits that he is uncertain if he can deliver another character as iconic as Ip Man, a role which catapulted him to A-list status seven years ago. 

He tells Life: "I don't know if I can find another character in a gongfu movie which can satisfy the artistic desire as well as the audience's expectations." 

According to online reports, the actor had previously announced his intent to step down from the franchise last March (2015) at a press conference in Shanghai. He was in town last week (Aug 15 2015) for the opening of Swiss watchmaker Hublot's largest pop-up store in the world, at Ngee Ann City Civic Plaza.

He says: "Ip Man is so rooted in the fans' hearts and I believe I've played that role quite successfully. I'm not sure if it will be a wise decision for me to search for another (gongfu) role."

But he is not the first martial arts star to say he is giving up the genre.

Hollywood action maestros Jet Li and Jackie Chan have made similar sentiments in interviews over the years, only to return to what they do best. 

In 2006, Li was quoted as saying wuxia epic Fearless would be his last martial arts film. He later went on to star in martial arts film The Forbidden Kingdom alongside Chan in 2008, followed by another wuxia epic Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate in 2011. 

Chan, on the other hand, announced his decision to retire from action movies in 2012, while promoting fight flick CZ12. The martial arts expert clarified his comments later on, saying he would be retiring from specifically "big" action movies and would perform less-demanding stunts. He is set to begin filming on action-adventure movie, Kung Fu Yoga, next month (September). 

Dressed casually in a T-shirt and jeans, Yen seems right at home during the interview at the Grand Hyatt Singapore. Speaking in English with an American accent, he exudes the same imperturbable calm as the placid and good-tempered Ip Man he plays on the big screen.

While other Hong Kong actors such as Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Anthony Wong and Dennis To have taken on the same role in the last few years, it is clear that none have come close to being as memorable as Yen.

After all, the gongfu-trained former stuntman, who was voted the best Ip Man by Straits Times readers in a 2013 poll, is the first to play the titular character in the hugely popular action flick Ip Man (2008). The film grossed more than US$21 million worldwide and the sequel Ip Man 2, was released in 2010. 

Even at the age of 52, Yen is not running out of steam. He is slated to appear in two more blockbuster franchises - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II, the anticipated sequel to Lee Ang's 2000 Oscar-winning film, and the recently announced Rogue One: A Star Wars Story from Lucasfilm. 

When asked how he feels towards criticism that gongfu stars cannot act, he says: "That kind of myth was a long time ago. Obviously I don't believe it and I have proven otherwise."

In fact, he believes that "everyone" can act "to some degree", unless one is "not a human". 

"When you play a character, you are sharing your own personal past experiences in life. Unless you are totally unsentimental or not a human, you would know how to express the emotion needed for a good acting performance."

Having said that, he still has a desire to stretch his limits as an actor. He was initially uninterested in reprising his role in Ip Man 3 as he felt the need to explore "other possibilities". 

He says: "I am very fortunate to have played a character majority of the audience has embraced. But I wanted to continue to grow as an artist and did not want to be stuck only playing Ip Man." 

After the commercially-successful Ip Man 2 in 2010, he followed up with varied roles in comedy All’s Well, Ends Well (2011), cop action movie Special ID (2013) and fantasy flick The Monkey King last year. 

On why he changed his mind about Ip Man 3, he says: "Ultimately, I thought a lot of fans would love to see me play Ip Man again. If Wilson Yip could come up with an angle for me to be challenged, then I would play the role."

He hopes audiences will experience "the same type of excitement" for the third instalment as they did for the first two, not from watching the thrilling action scenes, but from the additional emotional dimension he will be bringing to the character this time.

"For the audience to be attracted to a character, that character has to have something they can relate to and that was the challenge always at the back of my mind. How do I make this character more sophisticated and interesting?"

While he may be leaving gongfu movies for good after Ip Man 3, he is quick to add that it is not because they pack less of a punch in the entertainment industry. 

"No matter what culture, all the movies in the world have martial arts elements in them. Look at all the Hollywood blockbuster films, like the Avengers, when they are in combat" he says. "Martial arts is no longer an Asian thing and it is becoming a necessity for all action movies."

Fans can perhaps look forward to catching glimpses of his fighting skills when he heads off to the galactic landscape in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

He is said to be playing a Chinese Jedi in the first of a spin-off movie series from the Star Wars saga, alongside actors such as Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker and fellow Chinese actor Jiang Wen. The first cast photo was released last week (Aug 15).

The actor is understandably excited about his newest role.

He says: "It's a good learning experience for me to be in such a big franchise. The very first sci-fi movie I saw when I was a teenager was Star Wars and I never thought that I would be co-starring in one many years later."

As many of his previous films contain relatively violent fight scenes, he says: "It's about time I can take my kids to watch my movie. Star Wars is a family movie and I think kids will love it."

He is married to former beauty queen Cecilia Wang and they have an 11-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son. He also has a 20-year-old son from his first marriage. 

With Rogue One: A Star Wars Story set for release only at the end of next year (Dec 2016), audiences can catch him for now as the wing chun master he is best known for.

Ip Man 3 opens here on Christmas Eve (Dec 24).

One of the highlights of the movie will be the explosive duels between Yen and heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, who is in the cast. This is especially so after news of Yen accidentally breaking Tyson's finger on set emerged in May.

The star, who was reportedly trying to give the camera a good shot when his elbow struck Tyson's finger, is quick to play down the incident.

He says: "Accidents do happen and it was purely an accident. It's movie-making, it wasn't a boxing match or a combat match. I think Mike and I will provide a very exciting fight."