From Shaolin Temple, to the series of Once Upon a Time in China, to the recent Danny the Dog and Fearless, Jet Li is a name closely connected with action movie, kung fu, and wushu (or martial arts).
Jet Li has achieved splendid success, whether as a wushu practitioner or as an action star. His handsome appearance, fortitude, and resoluteness, as well as brilliant martial arts movements, have attracted a large audience for him. Known as the "Gene Kelly of the action film," Jet Li is part of the wave of new Asian stars taking Hollywood by storm. Jet Li has kicked and punched his way out of the cult-film underground and into global mainstream superstardom, making the world crazy for him.
The Legend of a Wushu Genius
Jet Li was born in Beijing , China on April 26, 1963. As a child, he was a quiet and meek boy who was not allowed to do any risky activities such as swimming, skating, or even riding a bicycle. It was quite a haphazard that Jet Li took up wushu training when he was eight years old. At that time he had no idea what wushu was. Yet Jet was selected out from more than 1,000 children by coach Wu Bin, who believed Jet was born with limitless talents in wushu. At the beginning, the training was like extracurricular activity; soon it became more and more rigorous. Half a year later, Jet had to attend the full time training, and wushu became everything and the only thing in his life. He even performed for VIPs including Premier Zhou Enlai at the Great Hall of the People.
Wushu training was always painstaking. In order to have a thorough mastery of basic skills, Jet Li and his fellow students had to practice the same movements day after day. When wintertime came, they had no choice but to practice outside, for there were no indoor facilities. Beijing's winters were extremely cold, and the children's hands hurt constantly. Doing hand-slaps was a no-win proposition: if one didn't slap hard enough to make a sound, he'd get scolded. If he did make a sound, it stung like mad! The tough training also taught Jet Li not to complain about injuries, which also formed a tenacious personality in him.
What Jet received was not only the traditional martial arts training; moreover, he was trained as a modern wushu athlete, so he also had to go through the strict physical training. Besides, his coach Wu Bin also encouraged him to study dancing to make his movements more exquisite.
The year 1974 saw Jet Li's perfect debut in the national wushu competition, on which he was the all-round youth champion. After winning the national championship, Jet Li was selected as a member of China Wushu Team. As part of a world tour the same year, he also had the honor of performing a two-man fight for President Nixon on the White House lawn. In all, in the following years, Jet Li would travel to more than 40 countries with the team doing demonstrations of wushu.
In the following year China staged its Third National Games. The National Games were like a domestic version of the Olympics; they included all competitive sports: swimming, gymnastics, track and field, and so on. The 1975 National Games were only the third since Liberation (the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949), and the first since the early part of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). For the government as well as the entire nation, it was an extremely important and greatly symbolic event.
Jet started to notice a shift in his training. The pressure began to increase. People had higher expectations of him because he'd just won the youth championship. Personally, he didn't think too much of it. He knew that there were plenty of other athletes who trained a lot harder than he did, especially the adults. But winning the youth championships had allowed him to "skip a grade," making him eligible to compete in the 18-and-over category. There he was, a 12-year old competing against people in their 20s and 30s.
Once again, his perfect performance caused a sensation in martial arts field in China, as afterward, Jet Li won a total of five gold medals in the national championships for five consecutive years, from 1974 to 1979. In 1979, Jet received his highest achievement in martial arts when he was crowned Gold Champion at the Chinese National Martial Arts Competition. No person has ever broken this record to this day.
The King of Kung-Fu Stars
Traveling abroad at a very young age opened up Jet Li's minds. He learned to think independently from an early age. After winning five all-round championships in China, Jet Li decided that he would rather do something else now that he had already achieved a considerable height. His consummate skills in martial arts also won him a lot of opportunities.
Shaolin Temple: where the legend started
Shortly after retiring from the sport at the age of 17, Jet Li was offered many starring roles and subsequently began his film career with director Zhang Xinyan for Shaolin Temple. Based on the Shaolin folklore and the true story of how Shaolin monks saved the Tang emperor, this film marked the debut of the national wushu champion as an inexperienced film star.
Shot with the magnificent background of the Yellow River, reed marsh, and pagodas in the Shaolin Temple, the film featured the Eighteen-Arms in the traditional Chinese martial arts, including Shaolin boxing, Drunk boxing, Eagle claws boxing, and swords. Upon its release, the movie broke all kinds of box-office records in Hong Kong, China, and Korea.
The success of Shaolin Temple propelled Jet Li from a mere martial arts master to a full-fledged Chinese movie star and celebrity, almost overnight. His star shone so bright that almost any picture with his name attached became an instant success. Kids From Shaolin and Martial Arts of Shaolin, Jet's second and third films respectively, also enjoyed box-office success.
However, like all movie stars, Jet Li then fell into the bust part of the boom-and-bust trajectory of big screen success. He directed and starred in Born to Defense, a World War II epic that fared miserably, both critically and financially. Even worse, Jet's health condition declined during that period. The doctor even declared that he should not work on wushu ever again.
Golden Age in Hong Kong
Frustrated and dejected, Jet Li decided to go to the United States, where he met Tsui Hark, who had already established himself as one of Hong Kong's leading new wave directors. Tsui Hark then cast Jet in the historical martial arts film Once Upon a Time in China in 1991. Jet got the opportunity to show off his blistering martial-arts skills once again as he played the legendary Wong Fei-Hung, who fought for China's rights against the Western colonial powers moving into China in the late 19th century. The film was a massive global success with critics and fans, so much so that it spawned two successful sequels, both starring Li. In the following years, Li starred in another film series about a Chinese folk hero, Fong Sai Yuk. The series was again a huge hit.
In the first half of the 1990s, Hong Kong saw Jet Li's golden age, with his consecutive hits of Wong Fei-Hung series and Fong Sai-Yuk series, as well as other films including The Master, Swordsman, The Last Hero in China, and The Tai Chi Master. Meanwhile, Jet Li was also one of the creators for the golden age in Hong Kong film history. Jet Li, together with other superstars such as Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat, brought the tide of action movie to the Hong Kong film industry, as well as the force of Chinese kung fu to the entire world
The Transition Period
The period from 1994 to 1997 could be seen as Jet Li's transition period, during which he tried to break away from the traditional costume piece and take up the modern action film that combined wushu with gunfight. Jet's modern roles in The Bodyguard from Beijing and My Father is a Hero were just as attractive as those in the costumed Wong Fei-Hung and Fong Sai-Yuk series.
During this period, there was a film worth special attention -- Fist of Legend. In 1994, Jet Li, Yuen Woo-Ping, and rising director Gordon Chan worked on a remake of Bruce Lee's classic Fist of Fury. Jet was a bit hesitant to work on the film. He was hounded by billings of him being the "next Bruce Lee" his whole cinematic life, and Jet knew, and himself felt, that Lee was somewhat of a "cinematic God" all around the world.
Jet, Chan, and Yuen worked closely together to create a movie that would both satisfy fans of Bruce Lee and Jet Li and also, like the original film, bring in new fans. They decided to forgo much of the "wire-fu" (a style which makes people seem as if they are flying, shooting fireballs, or doing other exaggerated movements by using hidden wires and other camera tricks) Jet had used in most of his previous work and stick with a harder, more realistic style that was closer to Bruce Lee's own work. The result was Jet Li's biggest success in years and what many people consider to be his best movie ever, Fist of Legend.
Establishing a Reputation in Hollywood
After his huge success in Hong Kong, Jet Li decided to try himself at Hollywood. In 1998 he made his Hollywood debut alongside Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon IV, in which he had to play the villain. The film turned out to be successful and paved the way for future projects, including Romeo Must Die, Kiss of the Dragon, The One, and so on, making Jet Li become quite popular among American audiences along the way.
In 2002, the film Hero starring Jet Li was released in the US market. This film was both a critical and commercial success. Later, Jet took a big risk with the 2005 action drama, Danny the Dog, in which he portrays an adult with the mentality of a child who has been raised like an animal. It was a somber film with more depth than had been previously seen in Jet's films.
By then, Jet Li had already established himself in Hollywood, and was accepted as the king of Kung-Fu stars after Bruce Lee.
Fearless: The Closing of Martial Arts Films
Jet Li brought Fearless with him back to China during the spring festival of 2006. Fearless is a story about Chinese martial arts guru Huo Yuanjia (1869-1910), who founded the Jing Wu Men (Chin Woo) martial arts school in Shanghai. Huo practiced and taught "mi zong quan," also known as "my jhong," a Shaolin style kung fu. To the Chinese, Huo is a national hero because he competed and won many judo and kung fu competitions. His victories were particularly important because they occurred at a time when China was under the heavy influence of foreign powers. As Jet Li told the media, Fearless expressed his ultimate interpretation for the philosophy of wushu or martial arts. Therefore this would be his last martial arts film.
Preparations for the movie started in 2003. It was also incidentally the time that Jet discovered that 280,000 people in China commit suicide every year. He hoped the movie could encourage those who have lost faith in life to be strong again. By elaborating on Huo Yuan Jia's unremitting spirit, Jet wanted to encourage the younger generation to bravely face all the adversity and setbacks, and cherish life.
Jet Li touched all the audiences with his penetrating performance in the movie Fearless. Although nearly poisoned to his last gasp, Huo Yuan Jia resolutely decided to complete the Kong Fu contest with a Japanese martial arts master. When poisoned-tortured Huo could put the Japanese Kong Fu master into a deathtrap, Huo made a fake movement to spare his life. Moved by Huo's noble mind, the Japanese Kong Fu master bowed down and admitted his defeat. But Huo passed away.
Anti-violence: the essence of wushu
Undoubtedly, Jet Li's quitting of martial arts films is a great pity for his fans. People feel curious about such a decision. Jet Li explained the reason with his understanding of wushu. He believes that wushu is not practiced for revenge, but rather is a sheer way to avoid dangers. Actually in his previous films Danny the Dog and Hero, Jet has already tried to convey such a belief.
"Violence is not the way for solving problems, and we need a peaceful world," said Jet. "The breakdown of the character 'Wu'(武), which carries the meaning of martial arts, means the stoppage of violence, which best reflects the broad and tolerant anti-war sentiments of Eastern people."
Profile of Jet Li:
Birth: April 26, 1963 in Beijing, China
Spouse: Nina Chi Li
Children: 2 daughters from a previous marriage, 2 daughters from his current marriage
Name: Li Lian Jie (Mandarin), Li Lin Kit (Cantonese)
Height: 170 cm / 5'7"
Weight: 66 kg / 145.5 lbs
2005: Danny the Dog (2005)
2005: Unleashed (2005)
2003: Cradle 2 The Grave (2003)
2002: Hero (2002)
2001: The One (2001)
2001: Kiss Of The Dragon (2001)
2000: Romeo Must Die (2000)
1998: Hitman (1998)
1998: Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)
1997: Once Upon A Time In China And America (1997)
1996: Black Mask (1996)
1996: Dr. Wai in "Scripture With No Words"
1995: The Bodyguard from Beijing/The Enforcer
1995: High Risk (1995)
1994: The New Legend Of Shaolin (1994)
1994: Fist of Legend (1994
1994: Bodyguard from Beijing
1993: The Tai Chi Master
1993: The Last Hero in China
1993: The Kung Fu Cult Master
1993: The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk II
1993: The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk
1992: Once Upon a Time in China 3
1992: Swordsman II
1989: The Master
1991: Once Upon a Time in China 2
1990: Once Upon a Time in China
1989: Dragons of the Orient
1988: Dragon Fight
1986: Shaolin Temple 3: North and South Shaolin
1986: Born to Defence
1984: Shaolin Temple 2: Kids from Shaolin
1982: Shaolin Temple
(chinaculture March 3, 2006)