Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Jet Li

Teacher Jet

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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One of the world's biggest movie stars for over 15 years, Jet Li is currently at the top of his game, having enjoyed some of his best reviews and biggest worldwide box office with his latest films Hero (2004), Unleashed (2005) and Fearless; the latter opens Friday in the U.S.

Yet rumors have flown that Li is retiring. Not true; he has only stated that Fearless will be his last martial arts epic in which his own fighting style, wu-shu, is the subject.

"I think it's time to finish my dream," he says, speaking English during a recent San Francisco interview. "I'm learning martial arts for 30 years. I'm asking myself why I'm learning martial arts. A lot of reporters ask me, is Chinese martial arts better than Japanese? Is American better than Chinese? If they compete, who would win? They always have a lot of these kinds of questions. I give the answer in this movie. It really depends on the person. It's not about sports."

Li says he will continue making action films, but only films in which martial arts may be used to tell some other story. "Martial arts are just like the car chase in the cop movie. You need the car chase; you need to fire the gun. That's just the material to talk about the real story. You can use martial arts to tell a love story, or a sci-fi story."

Meanwhile, Fearless should please any breathless Li fans looking for some incredible moves. He plays Huo Yuan-jia, a real-life, turn-of-the-century figure who overcame his own arrogance to become the nation's hero, fighting representatives from four different countries to defend China's honor.

Li first came across Huo's story at the movies, in the Bruce Lee film Fist of Fury (1972), released here as The Chinese Connection. In that film, Lee played Huo Yuan-jia's student who must avenge the death of his master. Years later, Li played the same character in the excellent Fist of Legend (1994).

Now at 43, Li is about the same age as Huo when he died. Li says he has been rolling the story over in his mind for ten years, but the real impetus for making the film came when he heard a 2003 news report: that more than a quarter million people in China committed suicide in one year.

"I am Buddhist; I feel great suffering," he says. "Today's economy is very good in China, much better than 20 years ago. So why do people commit suicide? Some young people don't understand life yet. They just give up." He hopes that Fearless will inspire more people to turn within as Huo Yuan-jia did, and discover that their greatest enemy is really themselves.

Though many will still thrill to Li's incredible artistry, this message still comes through clearly. Even the word "wu-shu" holds the key. "Wu-shu is from two words: stop war. Stop fighting. That's the main idea. But more people are focused on the fighting. They forget the stop."

September 11, 2006

The Shaolin Temple (1982, Yen Chang-hsin & Zhang Xinyan)
Swordsman II (1991, Ching Siu-tung, Stanley Tong)
Once Upon a Time in China (1991, Tsui Hark)
Once Upon a Time in China II (1992, Tsui Hark)
Fong Sai-Yuk (1993, Corey Yuen)
Twin Warriors (1993, Yuen Wo-ping)
Bodyguard from Beijing (1994, Corey Yuen)
Fist of Legend (1994, Gordon Chan)
The Enforcer/My Father the Hero (1995, Corey Yuen)
Black Mask (1996, Daniel Lee)
Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997, Sammo Hung)
Lethal Weapon 4 (1998, Richard Donner)
Romeo Must Die (2000, Andrzej Bartkowiak)
Kiss of the Dragon (2001, Chris Nahon)
The One (2002, James Wong)
Cradle 2 the Grave (2003, Andrzej Bartkowiak)
Hero (2004, Zhang Yimou)
Unleashed (2005, Louis Leterrier)
Fearless (2006, Ronny Yu)
War (2007, Philip G. Atwell)
The Forbidden Kingdom (2008, Rob Minkoff)
The Warlords (2008, Peter Chan)

Movies Unlimtied