Donnie Yen is one of the premiere Hong Kong stars working today. From Kill Zone to Ip Man, Yen has amassed a worldwide audience but has just barely gotten into Hollywood. He almost starred in The Expendables 2 before talks broke down.
Perhaps Yen was just waiting for the right role, and he may have gotten just that. Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily (via ComicBook) has let loose that Yen will star as a Jedi and ally of Han Solo in Star Wars: Episode VIII. Some are also pointing out that Gareth Edwards, director of the stand-alone Rogue One prequel, was seeking Chinese actors for a key role in the film.
Whatever Star Wars movie Yen ends up in doesn’t matter, because just him being in this universe is several things: financially smart, bold, and awesome.
There’s a reason why Donnie Yen has garnered such a massive fanbase: He’s great. He’s a legit martial arts expert with a Clint Eastwood swagger. You watch him, and you want to be him. His portrayal of Ip Man is a pretty great indicator for what kind of Jedi he could be.
Second, Star Wars has a small race problem. The predominant image of humans have almost singularly been white. Very few people of color have populated George Lucas’ wacky galaxy; people were inexplicably mad when John Boyega’s sweaty mug was the first image in the trailer for The Force Awakens.
It is now legend that famed Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune almost played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original 1977 Star Wars. Had Mifune donned those robes, Obi-Wan could have better informed the stereotyping of Asians in Hollywood pictures. Donnie Yen as a badass Jedi could finally live up to that missed potential.
Star Wars: Episove VIII wouldn’t be the first Hollywood movie for Donnie Yen — he’s previously been in Shanghai Knights and Blade II — but it would be the first major Hollywood movie where he plays a very crucial protagonist.
Lastly, Yen’s casting is just the latest indicator that Hollywood is serious about courting the rapidly influential Chinese market. Movies like Pacific Rim are becoming franchises only because it flourished there. But Disney should tread carefully: The last time they tried, they filmed exclusive scenes for a “Chinese Cut” of Iron Man 3 and those moviegoers kind of hated it.