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Jet Li

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

With the release of his latest film, Fearless, word leaked out that Jet Li, international martial arts superstar and arguably the most skilled practitioner of his generation, was quitting the genre for good. Following an outcry by his legions of fans, he has since retracted somewhat, stating that he will continue to star in action and kung-fu films in general, though will no longer make those involved with "wushu", as he feels that he has taken such roles as far as he can. What this means in practice is unclear, since "wushu" translates literally from Mandarin as "martial arts", though it also refers to a modern practice which uses traditional forms, promoting movement rather than force, in which Li himself has trained and competed. However, more than anything it surely represents his wish to move beyond the confines of the "philosophical fighter" stereotype which has plagued Asian actors since Bruce Lee's short but phenomenally successful career.


Now aged 42 and well established as an "A-list" talent in Asia and Hollywood, Li has certainly proved himself beyond a doubt in the genre, and has become one of the biggest action stars in the world, though not without many years of hard work. His popularity is not hard to understand, with both his real life athletic achievements, and his frequent playing of famous Chinese folk heroes having raised him to iconic status. Li's decision to portray such characters can be seen to reflect his determination to use film for promoting martial arts in a positive manner, as a means of communicating culture and maintaining peace, rather than exploiting them for violent thrills. Even in his work in Hollywood to date, the same is true to an extent. Li has achieved success in the West without resorting to the same kind of low brow fare for which Jackie Chan has unfortunately become known, such as the dismal Around the World in Eighty Days or The Medallion. Whilst having worked solely within the action genre, he has certainly offered an infinitely more convincing, exciting and indeed human hero than the wisecracking poseurs who commonly populate such films.


Li's recent choice of films, which reveals a shift towards actual characters, rather than simple brawlers, has hinted at a growing appetite to stretch his dramatic wings, and so his announcement should perhaps not come as too much of a surprise. Indeed, this desire to overcome the limitations of his assigned cinematic pigeonhole has been simmering throughout a career which, over the last two decades has seen him playing what essentially amounts to the same character in films which are often remakes or retellings of old stories.


A devout Buddhist, Li was born Li Lian Jie in April 1963 in Beijing. His father died when he was very young and at age eight his mother sent him to train at the Wushu Academy in the capital, where he quickly progressed. His coach, Wu Bin, recognized his potential and pushed him incredibly hard, so much so that Li often considered quitting, until in 1974 he won the National Wushu Championship for his skill with spear and sword. Although his young age led to many hailing him as a child prodigy, Li recognized that further success would require hard work and dedication rather than simple natural ability, and he redoubled his efforts. This devotion led to similar accolades in 1975, 1977 and 1978, before his crowning achievement, becoming the Gold Champion at the Chinese National Martial Arts Competition in 1979.


With the influence of Bruce Lee still strong, a move into the world of film was inevitable, and Li made his debut in 1981 with Shaolin Temple. The film was the first from China in some time to be released worldwide and was unique for having been shot on location in Henan Province, using the real Shaolin Temple. It was a massive success, breaking box office records in several countries, and elevated Li to the status of celebrity and movie star. This new-found fame made him uncomfortable, especially since he had originally planned to use film only for furthering public interest in wushu, though he still went on to star in the semi-sequels Kids From Shaolin and Martial Arts of Shaolin. Though both were extremely popular, they met with a mixed critical reaction, and frustrated Li by leaving him typecast at an early age. Following the financial failure of his directorial effort Born to Defence in 1986, he found his options increasingly limited, and he decided to move to America to seek new opportunities.


In 1989 he starred in Dragon Fight, for Hong Kong exploitation director Billy Tang, which was filmed in San Francisco and also featured a young Stephen Chow as his obnoxious best friend. The film was fairly forgettable, though it did serve to bring Li to the attention of Tsui Hark, and the two remained in America, teaming up for The Master that same year. Sadly, despite the talent involved, the film turned out to be awful, shoddily directed, with very little use of Li's martial arts skills. Still, the partnership seemed to have potential, and the two returned together to Hong Kong.


In 1991, Tsui gave Li one of his most famous roles, in the historic epic Once Upon a Time in China, a retelling of the story of Wong Fei Hong, a national folk hero who embodied the idealized spirit of martial arts, being a noble scholar, skilled fighter and champion of the oppressed. Made at the peak of the Hong Kong resurgence, the film proved to be Li's biggest hit yet, filled with outstanding action sequences which allowed him to showcase his talents to the full, nicely tempered with a light-hearted comic touch. The film's 1992 and 1993 sequels were equally popular. Along with the successful Swordsman 2, produced by Tsui Hark and co-directed by Ching Siu Tung and Stanley Tong, these films re-established him as one of the top stars in Asia, and helped usher in a new age of martial arts cinema.


The next few years proved incredibly busy for Li, and saw him firmly placed as the new cinematic king of martial arts, working with a variety of directors, though quite often in similar roles. Significantly, in 1993 he starred in Fong Sai Yuk, as the titular folk hero, which marked his first teaming with prolific action director Corey Yuen. The film was a box office smash, and the two continued to work together on a long list of productions, including an immediate and equally successful sequel. Other key films during this productive period were The Tai-Chi Master, directed by master choreographer Yuen Woo Ping. In 1994 Li starred in a remake of the Bruce Lee classic Fist of Fury directed by Gordon Chan, titled Fist of Legend, which many still consider to be Li's best work.


The period also saw Li's puzzling collaborations with infamous Hong Kong schlockmeister Wong Jing. This resulted in a number of rather tacky and unremarkable films such as Last Hero in China, a cheap martial arts parody which saw Li don a rooster suit for a wacky fight scene. The Bodyguard from Beijing was a remake of the Kevin Costner hit, The Bodyguard, and High Risk was loosely based on Die Hard. In 1996, he reunited with Tsui Hark on Black Mask, a mixture of action and science fiction, before returning to the role of Wong Fei Hong for Once Upon a Time in China and America, the last in the series, directed by genre legend Sammo Hung. Although popular enough, these films, along with 1998's Hitman, saw Li stuck in the same situation as he had been some ten years previously, playing depressingly similar characters in formulaic productions which required him to do little more than go through the motions.


A new beginning presented itself in 1998, when Li won a major role in the Hollywood film Lethal Weapon 4, for the first time playing a villain, a fact which disappointed many of his older fans. Although the film and part did not offer anything particularly interesting, it gave Li the opportunity to work with the likes of Mel Gibson, and acted as his calling card in the West, announcing his arrival as an international star proper. Afterwards, Lethal Weapon producer Joel Silver gave Li his first Western starring role in Romeo Must Die, in which he rather predictably played a Hong Kong ex-policeman who travels to America to avenge his brother's death. Though pedestrian, the film was a hit, as were the following Kiss of the Dragon (written and produced by French director Luc Besson) and The One, all of which gave him a firm foothold in the Hollywood market.


Perhaps as a result of his having turned down the lead role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Li returned to China in 2002 to star in Zhang Yimou's Hero. This proved to be a prudent move, as the film was a huge success both commercially and critically, winning a number of awards including an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. Although essentially a visually seductive spectacle, lacking any real dramatic weight, it gave Li his first taste of acting in what was accepted by mainstream Western critics as a "proper" role, in a film which was viewed as being art-house, though this was probably due to the simple fact that it was subtitled. Still, the film introduced Li to a new audience, and when he returned to Hollywood, his desire to be taken seriously as an actor rather than a martial artist was growing.


Although his next film, Cradle 2 the Grave was not significantly different than his usual fare, it had a sense of finality about it, taking the conventions of the genre to an extreme, almost to the point of satire. Its respectable earnings gave Li a greater influence over the direction of his next film, Danny the Dog (a.k.a. Unleashed), shot in Glasgow, Scotland, and widely promoted as his first project based around character rather than action. The film saw Li again working with Luc Besson and Yuen Woo Ping, and acting alongside Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman, in a story about a man, raised as a dog to fight for his gangland master, who escapes and slowly learns to live a normal life. Although not entirely successful, the film is noticeably grittier and more realistic than Li's previous Western efforts, and his acting received some minor praise from critics for bringing out the vulnerability of his tormented character.


With Fearless, Li headed East once more, this time to work with Ronny Yu, who had directed the classic The Bride With White Hair films in Hong Kong before becoming a Hollywood director for hire and churning out horror sequels such as Freddy Vs. Jason and Bride of Chucky. Set in the early 1900s, the film saw Li again portraying a real life hero, in this case Chinese martial arts legend Huo Yuanjia, who founded the Jin Wu Sports Federation and defended the honour of his country during a fierce international tournament. In addition to the usual genre motifs and bone crunching action, the film shows a marked attempt to bring depth to the story, with an uncommon sense of drama and tragedy that allows Li to give a believable and moving performance.


Whether or not it does indeed prove to be his martial arts swansong is yet to be seen, as rumours abound linking him to various projects, including a remake of Shaolin Temple amongst others. Whatever direction Li's career takes, his statement has surely had its desired effect, announcing to the world his ambitions beyond the genre. Fans can expect to see films which are more challenging, though in all probability, still action-packed from their hero in the future.


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Published March 10, 2006


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