Master of wing chun and taiji

Donnie Yen skilfully palms off questions and denies feeling any pressure filming third Ip Man movie

The martial arts form known as wing chun takes centre stage in the series of Ip Man movies by director Wilson Yip starring Donnie Yen as the titular master. As depicted in the films, it is a graceful form of gongfu that is less about brute strength and more about strategic, fluid moves, particularly in close-range combat.

But it turns out that both the director and star are equally adept at the art of taiji.

Speaking in Hong Kong to the Singapore media just before the gala premiere of Ip Man 3 at The Metroplex, both of them skilfully palmed off questions directed squarely at them - they denied feeling any pressure to produce a new instalment that would be as successful as its predecessors and added that someone other than them would be feeling the heat.

Yen, 52, says breezily in Mandarin: "I had no pressure whatsoever. I faced pressure only with the first film because I didn't know how it would turn out.

"The pressure this time is with action choreographer Yuen Woo Ping, as he took over from Sammo Hung, while the director is under the most pressure as he has to deliver something new and at least maintain the same high standards."

Ip Man (2008) earned more than US$21 million worldwide and won Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Film and Best Action Choreography. The movie also made an impact on wing chun classes. A Straits Times article in January 2009 said that instructors here experienced as much as a tenfold surge in inquiries after the movie hit town. A New Paper report in May 2010 found that there was up to a fivefold increase in enrolment in the previous two years for the martial art.

Ip Man 2 (2010) took in more than US$15 million and nabbed a Golden Horse Award for Best Action Choreography. Ip Man 3 opens in Singapore tomorrow.

Yip, 52, says placidly in Cantonese: "Well, it was what it was. If audiences have expectations, let them expect. I just hope to make a good movie."

Unfortunately, there was no opportunity to speak to Yuen - the famed martial arts choreographer behind the stunning moves in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) - to find out if he, too, is skilled at verbal taiji.

He certainly lined up a few exciting encounters for Ip Man this time around, including a three-minute exchange of blows with former boxing heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and a fight with a Thai martial arts expert inside a lift.

Dressed in a graphic tracksuit with pristine, white high-top sneakers, Yen looks like he is ready to bust out a few wing chun moves at the drop of a hat, even though it was reported that the star was not keen to don Ip Man's robes after the second film.

Following Ip Man 2, he appeared in gongfu flicks such as Wu Xia (2011), contemporary actioner Special ID (2013) and fantasy film The Monkey King (2014), as well as the All's Well, Ends Well comedies (2011, 2012).

He now says of the decision to reprise the role of Ip Man: "In the last five years, I've had the chance to try my hand at different types of roles, but I always knew that one day, when the time came, I would definitely play this role again."

Director Yip had in fact planned to make the second and third films together, and while that did not work out, he says: "I've never thought that he didn't want to make movie No. 3."

After all, Yen is so strongly associated with the character that wherever he goes in the nonMandarin-speaking world, from New York to Paris to Dubai, he is greeted with chants of "I.P. Man". (The other screen Ip Mans - the unknown Dennis To in The Legend Is Born - Ip Man (2010), Palme d'Or-winning Tony Leung Chiu Wai in The Grandmaster (2013) and Golden Horse-winner Anthony Wong in Ip Man: The Final Fight (2013) - did not have the same impact as Yen.)

He proudly points out that when he posted two preview clips for Ip Man 3 on his Facebook page, it became the No. 1 trending topic on the social media platform.

"It's not easy for a film to top the trending list and it's even harder for a Chinese movie. You can see the popularity and influence of the title."

But he insists he will not be making any more period-action movies.

By his count, he has made 70 films in 33 years and taken on every kind of martial arts role.

He notes: "The Ip Man films were very successful. And as an actor, to get to do a role which is deeply rooted in people's hearts is a rare thing indeed. And lightning might not strike a second time, so maybe it's good to stop while I'm ahead and leave audiences with a beautiful memory."

As if aware that others have made that claim to renounce action movies to hollow effect (notably Jet Li), he adds: "Of course, I can't very well block my own road. If it's another period-action flick, then maybe if it's Ip Man 4. But I don't have the fervour to pursue another gongfu role."

There is in fact an obvious subject for film No. 4 - the relationship between Ip Man and his most famous disciple, the late action superstar Bruce Lee. Ip Man 2 had teased fans with that possibility at its end, but due to copyright issues over the depiction of a computergenerated Lee, that storyline did not materialise in the third movie.

Director Yip says: "It's something I would be interested in making and that audiences would want to see."

Meanwhile, there are plenty of upcoming films by Yen that many people are eagerly awaiting. Shooting has wrapped on the martial arts sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword Of Destiny, slated for a February release, and there is also Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a standalone story set in the space fantasy universe of Star Wars.

Asked whether his children are more excited about his new Ip Man flick or his Star Wars movie and Yen laughs as he answers with no hesitation: "Star Wars."

He has an 11-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son with his second wife, all of whom attended the Hong Kong gala premiere.

The answer comes as no surprise as Yen has posted on Facebook a picture of his son's epic Star Warsthemed birthday cake and also photographs of him dressed as Darth Vader for a school Halloween party.

He adds, though: "But they might change their minds after tonight because kids are so fickle."

• Ip Man 3 opens here tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2015, with the headline 'Master of wing chun and taiji'. Print Edition | Subscribe