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This multi-talented and sometimes controversial martial arts star was born in 1965 in the Chinese province of Canton, and moved with his parents to Hong Kong when he was two years old. Early on, his parent’s skills and influence would come to shape the young child. His father’s love of classical music inspired Yen to study piano, and his mother’s martial arts skills also translated to her son, as Yen began studying various forms almost as soon as he could walk, concentrating on Wu Shu and Tai Chi.

When he was eleven, the family moved to Boston, and it was here that Yen began heavily watching kung fu movies, even going as far to skip school to watch them during the day. The different styles displayed in the movies inspired Yen to go to other martial arts schools, and after a while, he became so proficient at picking up styles that he could copy a star’s moves almost perfectly after seeing one of their movies.

As a teenager, the rebellious Yen began running with the wrong crowd (some reports have him actually joining a Chinese gang), so his mother sent him to China to study with the prestigious Bejing Wushu Team, where Jet Li also trained. Yen — the first non-PRC Chinese to be accepted into the program — spent two years with the team and was planning on doing even more training when he was introduced to Yuen Woo-Ping during a trip to Hong Kong. Yuen had recently shot Jackie Chan to stardom with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, and was looking for a new fighter to mold. But first Yen need to prove himself to Yuen, and so he did stuntwork on The Miracle Fighters (1983), where he doubled for several members of the famed Yuen clan. The next year, at the age of nineteen, Yen made his starring debut with Drunken Tai-Chi.

Yen and Yuen formed a partnership that produced several outstanding movies, including Tiger Cage (1989) and the wire-fu classic Iron Monkey (1993). His body of work became so impressive that Jet Li personally asked Yen to play the villain in the high-profile Tsui Hark movie Once Upon a Time in China 2 (1992). Li and Yen’s duels in the film have become regarded as classics of the genre, and Yen was nominated for a Hong Kong Film Award for his performance.

During this period, Yen was also taking more charge in coordinating his fight sequences, which tended to anger Hong Kong directors, who like to keep a tight rein of on-set actions, since often both time and money are extremely limited. There were also rumors that Yen had developed a cocaine habit and was generally becoming hard to work with on the set. It didn’t help matters much that Yen came off as arrogant in various interviews. On the set of Wing Chun (1994), there were reportedly heated arguments between Yen and director Yuen Woo-Ping, and it seemed as if their relationship was dissolved.

Wanting to move more into directing, Yen changed his focus to television. He starred and directed in Kung Fu Master, and then scored a huge success with Fist of Fury, a 30-episode mini-series based on the classic Bruce Lee movie. The profits allowed Yen to move back to movies, making his movie directing debut with Legend of the Wolf (1997) and following it up with Ballistic Kiss (1998). Response to Yen’s directorial efforts from various critics has been varied, being called everything from “a reinvention of Hong Kong action cinema” to “Ballistic Shit.” But there is no denying that Yen does have talent both in front and behind the camera; it is probably just a matter of reeling his energies in and making more concentrated efforts than anything else.

Despite any problems, Yen continues to find more work and is steadily building up a fan base all over the world. In 1999, he moved to Germany to work on the TV show Codename: Puma, which became a huge hit, and in 2000, he made his American debut with Highlander: Endgame (for which he also did the fight coordination). Though the movie was a flop at the box office, the US studio Dimension is keeping their contract with Yen (having been impressed with his moves in the film) and he will have two more American movies coming out shortly. Yen also continues to work on Codename: Puma, and may be doing another Hong Kong TV mini-series in the near future. Long recognized as one of the Hong Kong stars with the most potential, it now seems as if Donnie Yen’s fate is in his own hands as he enters into the new millennium.

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