Donnie Yen out to prove he's not bad at acting in Chasing The Dragon

Andy Lau (left) and Donnie Yen at the premiere of Chasing The Dragon in Hong Kong last month.
Andy Lau (left) and Donnie Yen at the premiere of Chasing The Dragon in Hong Kong last month.PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

For crime biopic Chasing The Dragon, Donnie Yen learns to speak like the Teochew drug lord he plays and wears prosthetics to look more authentic in the role

He burnished his cult reputation as an action man with slugfests such as SPL: Sha Po Lang (2005), ascended to superstardom as gongfu legend Ip Man and leapt into the global pop-culture stratosphere with last year's Star Wars film Rogue One.

Yet, Donnie Yen was hungry for more - for a "chance to show the audience I'm really not bad at acting", says the action movie star.

To this end, he has taken the plunge and transformed himself into the limping, Teochew-spewing drug lord, Crippled Ho, in the rollicking Hong Kong crime biopic Chasing The Dragon.

The movie, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, is director Wong Jing's two-in-one reboot of the 1991 gangland dramas To Be Number One and Lee Rock.

Drawn from the true stories of drug trafficker Ng Sik Ho, alias Limpy Ho, and police officer Lui Lok, alias the "500 Million Dollar Sergeant", Chasing The Dragon is a trip through Hong Kong's colonial past, when vice was allowed to flourish so long as corrupt cops could feed off the profits.

In particular, the film tracks the rise and fall of Crippled Ho (Yen), an illegal immigrant from Swatow, China, as he joins the drug trade under pressure and joins forces with Lui Lok (Andy Lau, returning in the same role he played in Lee Rock, but with a differently spelled name), a fellow enterprising Teochew who is rising through the ranks in the Hong Kong police force.

In an interview, Yen recalls he had reservations about playing an anti-hero in Chasing The Dragon. Although he had played villains, it was "many years ago", before his career-defining role as Bruce Lee's teacher in the Ip Man movies (2008 to 2015) elevated him to role-model status.

"I'm a family man," says Yen, 54, who has three children from two marriages. "I don't want my kids' classmates to be like, 'Why's Uncle Donnie playing such a role?'"

But the prospect of proving himself to be a good actor was too tempting to pass up and he decided to go for it. "We action actors have to make double the effort for the audience to feel you can act," he says. "Actually, it's not fair to me. Actually, I think I'm not bad at acting."

To Be Number One, starring Ray Lui as a crime boss called Crippled Ho, won Best Film and Best Screenplay at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1992, months after Ng, who inspired the movie but did not authorise it, died of liver cancer. (Lee Rock, produced by Wong and starring Lau in the title role as a corrupt policeman, won a prize on the same night, Best Supporting Actor for Kwan Hoi San.)

Yen says he did his own research to create a Crippled Ho different from the one played by his "good friend" Lui. "I found that Ray Lui had copied Godfather, you know, gained weight. If I play it like Ray Lui, I'll be copying him, which I feel is meaningless."

Lui's Crippled Ho also spoke perfect Cantonese, unlike the actual Limpy Ho, so Yen chose to go in the direction of biological truth.

"I had to speak Teochew," says Yen, a native of Guangzhou, China, who has lived in the United States and is also fluent in English. "But more difficult than Teochew was Teochew-accented Cantonese. This was so hard, so hard."

Teochew training for Chasing The Dragon began when he was still on the set of Rogue One in England.

Yen recalls he flew a language professor out there to "whisper in my ear every day". They also had to - Yen pauses and demonstrates - "gan yeun gong yeh", or speak like this, in Cantonese with a nasal Teochew accent and sound like tycoon Li Ka Shing. (Unfortunately, Yen's accent work has been dubbed over, into Mandarin, for theatrical release in Singapore.)

Besides talking the talk, Yen walked the walk. He practised a limp and had his nose widened and lips thickened with prosthetic make-up to look Teochew.

Also, he came on board as a producer to take creative control of the film.

Coming clean about his doubts about Wong, who has had an erratic career, Yen says: "I was a bit afraid to make a movie with him. Maybe, you know, he's not serious enough. How is the movie gonna turn out?"

Lau, 56, who signed up at the outset to produce Chasing The Dragon, pronounces: "This is a quality production."

He goes back a long way with Wong, who has directed him in movies from the 1989 hit God Of Gamblers to the 2016 dud Mission Milano.

The superstar says of Wong: "He's a neglected director and then because of this neglect, he's even given up on himself. So I always say to him, 'You can't, you really can't.'"

Chasing The Dragon was a twinkle in Wong's eye when Mission Milano was still in production and Lau recalls: "I said, 'Do a good job with this movie, don't think so much about other things', but he didn't do a good job (with Mission Milano)."

This time, Lau was worried in the beginning, when it was not clear who would star as Crippled Ho in Chasing The Dragon. "Maybe everyone's confidence in Wong Jing wasn't strong for this genre and many important actors weren't confirmed."

The project is quite a departure for Wong, who wrote the screenplay and directed it with cinematographer Jason Kwan.

The period extravaganza that follows Crippled Ho and Lui Lok, two men on different sides of the law, would appear to be up the alley of Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs, 2002), for instance, rather than Wong.

So Lau began planning postproduction work, including setting aside enough time for the addition and refinement of visual effects. He also reminded Wong that, as part of pre-production, a replica of the Kowloon Walled City, the fabled lawless fortress that is a centrepiece of the film, would have to be built properly.

Eventually, Kwan - "a director I very much believe in", Lau says - oversaw the construction of the replica and Yen also agreed to star in and produce the movie.

"I was surprised he acted so well," Lau says of Yen, before quipping: "But he was under pressure because I was there and I was formidable too."

Yen strikes a more modest note when he speaks of his performance. "I'll let the audience judge. It's hard for me to say, 'I acted well, didn't you see?'"

But he hopes Crippled Ho will be another character associated with him, after Ip Man. "Then I'll feel I've succeeded."

Meanwhile, in a sure sign that Wong has won Yen over, they are next teaming up for an action comedy, Enter The Fat Dragon.

•Chasing The Dragon opens in Singapore tomorrow .

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2017, with the headline 'Talking the talk and walking the walk'. Print Edition | Subscribe