Natasha Harmer wonders if subtitle-phobes refuse to discover the likes of the Hong Kong martial arts star.
Ask that question to just about anyone you know and they’ll probably look at you with that blank expression that makes you wonder if they’ve fallen asleep with their eyes open. Well, I’ve got news for you: Donnie Yen’s only the biggest martial arts star in the whole of Asia right now, and Asia’s pretty fucking huge. With the recent and rather unfortunate announcement that Yen and his Ip Man director Wilson Yip have withdrawn from the rumoured third Ip Man film to work on another project, I can’t help but wonder why Yen hasn’t yet become a star here in the West.
Donnie Yen’s only the biggest martial arts star in the whole of Asia right now, and Asia’s pretty fucking huge
Donnie Yen’s career kicked off good and proper after he landed the title role in the 2008 martial arts biopic Ip Man, and since then he’s been karate chopping his way to the top of his game. So why hasn’t he made it big in the West like his contemporaries Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and the great Jet Li (who blagged a role in what’s probably the biggest action movie of the last five years – The Expendables – as the ridiculously named Yin Yang)? Because we’re lazy filmgoers, that’s why. Subtitles? What is this witchcraft you speak of?
Martial arts is probably the most popular genre of Asian cinema in the West, but it still has a very niche audience – basically a handful of people that can actually be bothered to read subtitles. Jackie Chan had to star in English-speaking Hollywood films before gaining worldwide recognition, but his previous, more serious martial arts work is very much an under-the-radar deal. Donnie Yen didn’t do too well when he attempted to break Hollywood and, because he’s yet to take a starring role in anything in the English language, very few people in the West know who he is. Even Ip Man, which has had its share of success overseas, isn’t particularly well known by the average Western audience.
All too often, foreign films go unnoticed until unimaginative Hollywood filmmakers with no ideas of their own remake them. A lot of people didn’t even know that the 2011 reboot of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a reboot and are probably still blissfully unaware that somewhere out there is an original Swedish version of the same name a mere two years older than the remake.
Essentially audiences are too lazy to read subtitles, so foreign films don’t get the time of day
When I tried to rent Rec 3: Genesis, I was told by the owner of the rental shop that they’d lose money if they bought in new foreign films because their customers don’t like subtitles, so they hadn’t bothered getting it in. Damn good job really, since the film is an atrocity, but that’s beside the point. Essentially British (and no doubt American also) audiences are too lazy to read subtitles, so foreign films don’t even get given the time of day over here.
We’re too idle to look for films that aren’t mainstream, too lazy to read subtitles and too narrow-minded to even accept that other countries make films too – they’re the reasons that Donnie Yen isn’t a big name in the West. He says he doesn’t need to star in big Hollywood films to be successful, which is true if he only wants to be successful in Asia. But if he wants worldwide acclaim, Yen will need to make a tit of himself, like Jackie Chan had to do by starring in The Tuxedo and the Rush Hour franchise, before he becomes an icon in the West. And then, and only then will Western audiences be willing to sacrifice a few brain cells and actually watch him.
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Featured image: Mandarin Films