In the final scene of Iron Monkey, the elements are in place for a memorable, fiery martial-arts showdown.
Two heroes are battling a corrupt government official so well-trained in martial arts he seems invincible. One hero is perched on the head of his comrade, who is balancing on one foot - in a sea of spilled gasoline - when the enemy sends a blazing pole straight toward them. Actor Donnie Yen's character, Wong Kei Ying, saves them by catching the flaming pole with his bare hands.
"Fortunately, besides burning up a couple of eyebrows here and there, no one got hurt," said Yen, as he recalled shooting the scene for the 1993 movie, which Miramax purchased the rights to and released in the United States last weekend. "I put a little bit of that fireproof gel on my hands, but still, you can only hold it for a certain amount of seconds before it really burns your skin. Not to mention that pole is coming at you with power, so you've got to really block it and hit it, grab that thing with intensity and, at the same time, worry about not burning up your hands."
Now, that is the kind of martial-arts action Yen believes American audiences are more than ready for in the wake of last year's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
With the success of such martial-arts TV fare as Martial Law and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and the increasing popularity of kung fu scenes in movies like Charlie's Angels and Mission: Impossible II, it's clear American viewers have developed a taste for stories where disagreements are settled with fists, not just high-powered weapons. And, Lisa Odham Stokes, co-author of City On Fire: Hong Kong Cinema, noted that Yen is making his U.S. debut at a perfect time.
"With Hollywood action movies synonymous with Willis, Stallone and Schwarzenegger, there's lots of boom-boom," Stokes said. "In light of recent events, there's an audience that will want action, but not action that reminds them of the great tragedy in New York and D.C. ... Hong Kong action movie style and Donnie Yen, in particular, will fill the gap."
Yen said he's ready, too. "So many people have expressed to me that they see that Crouching Tiger's elements originated from Iron Monkey," said Yen, 38, over a pasta lunch during a recent promotional visit to Baltimore. "So, with the release of this movie, that will definitely set a standard not only to American audiences, but the rest of the world. From then on, you won't see anything less than that, or at least audiences will not see something less than that as acceptable.
"What distinguishes a great martial-arts film from an average martial-arts film is how much real martial arts you put into that film and how skillful is that martial-arts actor," Yen added. "Otherwise, anybody can do it."
And Yen isn't just "anybody."
Discovered at age 18 by one of Asia's best martial-arts directors, Yuen Wo Ping - who choreographed fight scenes in The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - Yen has starred in numerous Hong Kong action flicks over the last 15 years. He was nominated for best supporting actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards for 1992's Once Upon A Time In China II.
Born in Canton, China, Yen moved to Boston as a child and began learning martial arts at age 9 from his mother, who runs two schools in New England. Yen dreamed of becoming a concert pianist, but teen-age rebellion kicked in, and his life veered off on a different route.
"Like many teen-agers, I had my wild side," Yen said, chuckling. "It wasn't so much in a gang, because I didn't kill anybody. Being young and living in this society is quite hard. With the freedom it provides you, sometimes you tend to lose direction, and I've always been a rebel."
When Yen was 16, his mother decided to send him away to China to train with an elite, national martial-arts group, the Beijing Wushu Team, whose other famous alum is actor Jet Li.
There, he trained with China's top martial-arts teachers for two years. But he still harbored no film aspirations until a chance encounter on his way back to Boston, when he stopped in Hong Kong to visit an old friend of his mother's who happened to be Yuen's sister. The director had been seeking a new star, and cast Yen in 1984's Drunken Tai Chi. Yen stayed in Hong Kong and quickly was accepted into the "Yuen Clan" - which came with a price.
Yen said that in his early years of filmmaking he often thought of quitting because of physical strain of shooting fight scenes with Yuen.
"His standard is so high that not only do you have to be in top shape, but he always wants more of you, to a point where it's almost humanly impossible," Yen said. "For example, you would stand on top of the table, do a flip off the table and then end up sitting on the chair afterward. Even after you can perform it with perfection, he would come up with something like, `OK, well, can you stand on the table with one leg and flip off it?'