- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 21, 2016

Donnie Yen has portrayed the legendary kung fu master Ip Man in three films over the past decade, with “Ip Man 3,” opening Thursday in the District, supposedly his swan song as the Chinese legend, a master of the martial arts form of Wing Chun, and whose students included none other than Bruce Lee.

“Ip Man 3” finds Mr. Yen’s Ip Man at a crucial turning point. Now living in Hong Kong, the master must take on a brutal gang commanded by a shifty property developer.

“I know that once you grab the audience [with] the credibility of the character, action will be driven by the character’s emotion,” Mr. Yen, 52, told The Washington Times of the new film. “So if the audience buys into your character, they will buy into the action. That’s the key to me every single time.”

Mr. Yen’s own training entails such martial arts styles as Wushi, Tai Chi, Taekwondo, kickboxing, boxing and karate. The extensive fights in “Ip Man 3” required him to mix his own training with those of characters he is pitted against, including a key battle with co-star Jin Zhang as Cheung Tin-chi. For that particular combat, Mr. Yen and Mr. Zhang battled with swords that, even though they were movie props, were still capable of causing grave injury if handled incorrectly.

“There’s one point that we were going so fast that the blade literally was scraping my face,” Mr. Yen recalled. “So even though we had prop swords, they were still made out of metal [and] were pretty dangerous. That was an intense scene.”

“Ip Man 3” benefited from the participation of legendary action choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, whose ballet-like battle scenes are most familiar to Western audiences thanks to such films as “The Matrix” and “Kill Bill.” Together with Mr. Yuen and director Wilson Yip, Mr. Yen worked to make each of the new film’s fight scenes unique.

Perhaps the film’s most thrilling one-on-one tussle has Mr. Yen going mano-a-mano with boxing legend Mike Tyson, who portrays the gangster Frank. Mr. Yen said he watched every one of Mr. Tyson’s pro fights to prepare for working with the former champ.

“I was helping them mix the two cultures” of East and West, Mr. Yen said. “I would convey Woo-Ping’s requirements to Mike, and Mike, being totally professional about it, he would embrace the choreography. And it turned out to be a great fit. I knew it was gonna work.”

Like fellow daredevil Jackie Chan, Mr. Yen has been injured dozens of times over the years on film sets. However, he says rather than the acute pain of fresh wounds, it is the chronic punishment on his body that — quite literally — keeps him up at night.

“I don’t sleep good,” Mr. Yen said of his chronic joint pains and pinched nerves. “The kind of physical performance you have to put out to specialize in these films, it’s just something that comes with the package.”

In addition to his Asian films, Mr. Yen has been seen this side of the Pacific as well, including in “Blade II” and the forthcoming “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” set to bow this December.

Mr. Yen said the enduring popularity of the “Ip Man” series has to do with the character’s relatability as not only a martial arts master, but a family man and honorable warrior fighting for good.

“A lot of [women] say, ‘I would love to have a boyfriend or husband like this person,’” Mr. Yen said with a laugh, adding that men too come up to him and say they wish Ip Man was their friend.

Like his hero Bruce Lee, Mr. Yen believes it is imperative for a martial artist to not singly embrace one style but to study all forms of martial science to become a better athlete, fighter and honorable person.

“I never expected to be in a film career,” said the veteran of nearly 70 movies. “And then [years later] I watched every single one of Mike Tyson’s fights, and then, one day later, I’m fighting Mike Tyson on screen, playing Bruce Lee’s teacher, with action directed by Woo-Ping. Everything is just beautiful,” he said with a laugh.

While “Ip Man 3” is supposedly the character’s swan song, Mr. Yen said that the economic dictums of supply and demand will determine if the Wing Chun master returns yet again.

“It’s really about the angle, the storyline of the next film,” Mr. Yen hedges. “So who knows, maybe I’m going to come back in Part 4.”

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