The Bizarro Horror Movies of Donnie Yen

He's currently starring in Star Wars: Rogue One, but there are some fascinating horrors to be found in Donnie Yen's back catalog...

After his recent show-stealing turn in Rogue One, it felt like the right time to write a little about Donnie Yen, one of my favourite actors. From his incendiary breakthrough performance in Tiger Cage (1988) to the hugely acclaimed Ip Man¬†trilogy (2009 – 2016), Yen’s body of work has earned him a reputation as one of the all-time greatest martial arts stars and action choreographers. His high-energy blend of fighting styles has been hugely influential on the genre both in the east and west, and his charismatic performances have kept him popular with fans for decades.

However, while his kung fu films have been written about extensively, there’s not quite as much about his brief forays into my other favorite genre: horror. He’s arguably been on the fringes of it when he worked as choreographer on Blade 2 in 2002 and directed the very entertaining Vampire Effect a year later (a similar kind of movie, just replacing Wesley Snipes with adorable Canto-pop duo The Twins) but there are just two ‘proper’ horror films buried in Yen’s filmography where he’s played the leading role and both are very, very strange indeed…

First up is Holy Virgin Vs The Evil Dead (1991), an insane film made at the height of the Category III horror craze for films that blended gore and nudity in order to achieve the highest rating certificate possible (think NC-17 but used as a selling point). Donnie Yen plays a schoolteacher called Shiang and the opening scene finds him and five nubile students having a sexy picnic at night before the moon turns red and some kind of flying monster with glowing green eyes (Ken Lo) tears the girls’ clothes off and kills them all. Shiang, as the lone survivor, wakes up the next morning to find the police have some questions for him. Curiously, none of these are about what on Earth he was doing having a moonlit sexy picnic with his students but all of them are about how they all died.

Since HK police in most films of this nature are incompetent, Shiang is released on bail and starts his own investigation into the murders, leading him to the cult of an ancient moustache-wearing Cambodian Moon Goddess… It’s a little convoluted but, long story short, the Moon Monster (Lo) must rape and murder a particular chosen girl in order to revive the Goddess to full power but is having trouble finding said girl, so is just on a spree, raping and murdering everyone in sight.

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To stop him, Shiang and his buddies travel to Cambodia where the film’s urban violence turns to fantasy adventure. They team up with the White Princess – a magical flying kung fu fighter whose villagers have been tormented by the Moon Monster for years – and absolute mayhem ensues. There are bloody gun battles, throat rippings, laser beams shot out of eyes, a ton of people zooming around on wires and an eyeball-searing climax so insane and gratuitous (taking the ‘imagine everyone is naked’ rule of public speaking to illogical extremes) it’s worth watching for that alone.

The film is mid-budget but director Tony Liu has a decent pedigree and makes it look pretty slick (fans of the Shaw Brothers ‘laser-fu’ wuxia may recognise him as the mind behind Bastard Swordsman and Holy Flame Of The Martial World back in 1983). The cast is strong, with Yen taking the material far more seriously than it deserves and Ken Lo being uncharacteristically grotesque as the Monster. Much-loved legend Sibelle Hu cameos as the cop investigating the murders but is there, sadly, more as an in-joke than anything else. She rocks up as ‘Sergeant Hu’, camping it up and yelling at everyone before getting fired for bad police work, at which point she turns to the camera and announces she’s going to become a movie star instead!

So yes, this is one of those movies that could only come from 80s/90s Hong Kong. It’s tonally all over the place, very extreme by western standards, and throws everything it can think of into the mix. You can accuse of it being difficult to follow and thoroughly lacking in good taste but you can’t say Holy Virgin Vs The Evil Dead doesn’t try to please. Yen gets only a few chances to show off his martial arts skills but fans will enjoy just watching him try to keep his cool when everything is going so crazy around him.

Perhaps scarred by his experience, Yen didn’t return to horror until 1996 when he appeared in the equally strange and only slightly less over-the-top 666: Satan Returns. Although directed by Ah Lun, it’s written and produced by the prolific Wong Jing and has his fingerprints all over it. He’s Hong Kong’s answer to Roger Corman, Larry Cohen, or Ed Wood – depending on what mood he’s in – and was arguably the most prolific and successful maker of far east B-Movies throughout the ’90s. He wrote five films the same year as Satan Returns, which may explain some of the, uh, interesting turns in the plot…

In an attempt to ape the neo-noir stylings of David Fincher’s smash hit Se7en, but also make them more palatable to an eastern audience, Wong Jing put that film’s visual style in a blender with gory occult horror and slapstick comedy to produce one gorgeously-shot hot mess. Chingmy Yau (most famous for being the titular Naked Killer (1992)) stars as Inspector Chan, an internal affairs cop investigating the unorthodox behaviour of her colleague Detective Mo (Donnie Yen). He is known as ‘The Alchemist’, doesn’t say a lot, dresses like a Mormon and has a reputation as a violent hothead who routinely tortures and murders criminals.

Meanwhile, a serial killer calling himself Judas (Francis Ng) is crucifying and cutting out the hearts of any woman born on June 6th 1969, convinced that if one of them lives through the procedure, this will prove them to be the Daughter of Satan and grant them infinite power (feels almost like this guy could be related to the Moon Monster in Holy Virgin Vs The Evil Dead, eh?). Turns out Inspector Chan herself shares this birth date and is Judas’ next target so – in an improbable turn of events – she must team up with Detective Mo and track down the killer before it’s too late. There’s an unusual and impressive amount of blasphemic imagery involved. While a lot of Eastern occult films focus on Buddhism or folk magic rather than Christianity, Jing really lets rip here with lashings of symbolism (inverted crosses, tempting red apples and the numbers 666 can be seen throughout) as well as more salacious images of topless women with crowns of thorns, being merrily eviscerated on crosses.

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All sounds like it could make for a fairly compelling thriller, but its refusal to stay sensible is responsible for both its undoing and its ultimate redemption. The most insufferable part of the film is stand-up comic and radio personality Dayo Wong as the comedy sidekick cop. He probably has more screen time than both of the actual stars and it’s all bad. Slapstick, toilet humor, and sex jokes are standard in many Hong Kong films of the era but the fact that he interrupts almost every scene with one or more of the above becomes grating very quickly. Luckily, the mayhem gets ramped up to a such a degree for the gore-soaked final reel that even Wong’s wisecracks are drowned out by the sound of relentless nailguns, flaming bodies, zombie cops, and Donnie Yen chainsawing people’s legs off.

Yes. Donnie Yen chainsaws a dude’s legs clean off. That’s why you need to see this movie.

It may not be the greatest film ever but the lush visual style (incessant rain and Dutch tilts that would border on parody if it didn’t look so good!) and epic finale make the bumpy bits worthwhile. Donnie Yen’s performance involves little of his usual fighting but is actually one of his most underrated in terms of acting. The simmering rage beneath the quiet bespectacled surface of Detective Mo is probably the scariest element of the film. Chingmy Yau is always great too and, while this is a subdued role for her, the final scene shows she’s a good sport and very willing to carry out even the most heightened material with a straight face.

While neither of these tawdry horror movies are in the same league as martial arts classics like Hero or Iron Monkey, they do represent a pair of admirably bizarre moments in Donnie Yen’s career that fans of psychotronic cinema would do well to check out. They show his willingness to get his hands dirty once in a while and – with the greatest respect in the world to all of the masters – you probably won’t find anything this weird, sleazy or gory lurking in the back catalogues of Jet Li or Jackie Chan!