YI NING WONG WRITES – It wasn’t until Ip Man (2008), a Hong Kong martial arts film, that Hong Kong actor Donnie Yen gained international attention. This led to his Hollywood debut, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016).
He has since arguably been America’s favorite Chinese action star, featuring in recent blockbusters such as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), where he plays a blind monk warrior, and xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017), where he was a skilled sidekick to Vin Diesel. Both character inceptions are rooted in martial arts.
Yen’s current trek is similar to that of celebrated Hong Kong actor, Jackie Chan, whose martial arts skills earned him his Hollywood breakthrough back in the 90s.
Rush Hour (1998) greatly increased the visibility of the Chinese film market, and certainly created many more film opportunities for him. However, Chan’s success was also met with criticism. Rush Hour and his subsequent works have been evaluated by some throughout the years as exploiting humor derived from Chinese qualities, and typecasting Asians as martial arts characters.
As Chan is retiring from the martial arts industry, Yen’s action-focused film career raises the question of whether his own portrayals will set him apart from this uninspiring typecast, or if he is beginning a familiar path toward becoming Hollywood’s new martial arts master and stereotype.
While Yen has almost exclusively acted as martial arts based characters even in Hong Kong directed movies, it is important to note that his film career in Hollywood is still relatively new. When examining the characterizations in his most recent Hollywood film, XXX: Xander Cage, however, there are already distinctions from Chan’s early characters portrayals.
XXX: Xander Cage features an altogether international action-packed cast, diverting attention away from Yen’s otherwise martial arts focused performances. Moreover, his skills are depicted in a way that adds sex appeal to his character, Xiang. This is contrary to many past portrayals of unattractive Asian men. Lastly, Yen’s English fluency in both movies further eliminates the language barrier as a criterion for humor, which was prominent in Chan’s past films.
Moreover, Yen’s characters may serve a different purpose than Chan’s. After all, while Chan’s form of typecasting served mainly to mark one of the starting points of greater visibility in Chinese film, China has since experienced rapid economic growth, including its film industry. This year, Chinese companies will be providing about 1 billion to finance at least 25% of Paramount’s films, with significant influence over casting choices, location, and messages conveyed about China.
Thus, Hollywood may start treading its content carefully due to its Chinese investors. Nonetheless, it is too early to determine whether Yen’s characters will continue to follow Jackie Chan’s career progression, or if his career is moving along an altogether different path. I very much hope for the latter, of course.