Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Jet Li is fearless in his own right

2006-02-03 / Taiwan News, Contributing Writer / By Andrew C.C. Huang

Anxiety and doubt cast shadows during the pre-production promotion for "Fearless." Jet Li, the kungfu superstar who has moved on to a Hollywood career, has finally returned to Asia to make a film he claims will be his "last kungfu movie." Will it turn out to be a publicity stunt of biblical proportions or a real kungfu classic?
Li has claimed that there are few martial arts movies these days that truly convey the spirit of the real kungfu or "wushu." Hence the motive to make this movie as the epitome and "the pinnacle of Jet Li's kungfu movie career." Can any movie live up to this great expectation? Well, the verdict is out -"Fearless" surpasses expectations.

"I started the idea of wanting to make this movie two years ago. I discussed it with Bill Kong (the producer of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") and was fortunate enough to receive his unconditional support," Li says in a press conference in Taipei. "Bill suggested director Ronny Yu."

Yu, who directed classics such as "The Bride with White Hair" with superstar Brigitte Lin and "The Phantom Lover" with the late Leslie Cheung, also moved on to Hollywood, only to find himself making embarrassing horror flicks such as "Bride of Chucky" and "Freddy Vs. Jason."

"I jumped at the chance to direct this movie for Jet," says Yu. "First, I knew it was Jet's dream movie and so I wanted to join this very meaningful project. Second, I wanted a chance to prove to Hollywood that I'm not simply a horror flick director. I wanted to show I can direct a very meaningful movie."

Li is interested in the real-life kungfu master named Huo Yuan Jia. He had ideas for both the beginning and the ending of the movie. However, the middle part was missing. In order to come up with the story, Yu shut himself up in a hotel for a total of seven days to develop the chunk of the story.

In the end, Li reveals the script was a team effort. "During this two-year production period, I went through about 10 screenwriters in order to fix the plotline in order to get what I really want. It was a painful process - I really squeezed their brains," says Li. "I apologize to the screenwriters who have participated in the process but were not credited. We could only list so many names as the screenwriters."

The finished screenplay took a long and winding road. Halfway through filming, Li decided the story needed tweaking, and he requested Bill Kong to give him 10 days of production shutdown. Kong agreed, but it was costly. "It was mad! The cost of having the whole crew waiting and not shooting is HK$350,000 per day. 10 days of shutdown adds up to HK$3.5 million!" explains Li.

For the action director, Li wanted the famous Yuen Ho-ping for his dream project, but getting Yuen on board was not easy. Yuen, like Li and Yu, had made the transition from Hong Kong to Hollywood, on to a highly successful career which included work in high-profile classic movies such as "The Matrix" trilogy, "Charlie's Angels" series and "Kill Bill" series. "I knew that Yuen's schedule for the next 10 years was probably already fully booked," Li explains. "However, for my final kungfu movie, I really wanted the best action director. I had to pull out the friendship card (Li and Yuen have been friends for over a decade) so he would make time and fit this movie into his schedule.

With both Li and Yuen together again in a kungfu dream project, the efforts to create the best action sequences possible went through the roof.

"In a typical kungfu movie, that scene in the middle where Huo Yuan Jia and Jio duke it out and tear the whole building apart would have already been the climax," explains Li. "However, I wanted more for this movie. I want more action and wanted all the action scenes to be perfectly orchestrated. I also wanted the action scenes to convey the characters' inner emotions at the same time."

"It's very difficult to design action scenes that are physical and emotional at the same time - you want some fighting. Then you don't want to convey the message that fighting is right. Then you don't want bloodshed in the movie. Most importantly, you also want the action sequences to be visually exciting and new for the audience," Li explains with a chuckle. "There were occasions when even Yuen's ideas ran dry. Luckily, I know how to deal with Yuen because we've been friends for so long. When his brain gets tired, I would pull him aside to play mahjong. A few sessions later, he'd be brimming with new ideas again."

Li and Yu's relentless pursuit of perfection lead to yet another breakthrough in the kungfu movie genre. With China master Chen Kaige's kungfu fantasy epic "The Promise" just recently written into movie history as the latest kungfu masterpiece, Jet Li's "Fearless" pushed the envelop yet again by boasting Li's most accomplished performance in his career, a seamless plotline with deeply inspiring and touching messages, and finally a piece of kungfu masterpiece in which all the action scenes are splendidly powerful and emotionally riveting.

Born in Beijing as Li Lian Jie in 1963, Li entered the Beijing Wushu Academy at the age of eight and went through vigorous martial arts training. During his youth, he entered China's national martial arts champion and won the top honor for four straight years.

Li's real-life martial arts mastery and his movie star good look immediately attracted the attention of China's filmmakers. In the 70's in the era when the kungfu genre movie was still not allowed in China, Li was chosen to star in "The Shaolin Temple" (1979) in the name of promoting Chinese culture. The success of "The Shaolin Temple" made Li an instant national star in China. In 1983, Li directed the sequel "The Shaolin Temple 2: Kids from Shaolin." Famed action director Liu Chia Liang took the helm and directed "Shaolin Temple 3: Martial Arts of Shaolin" in 1986.

In the 90's, Jet Li became the first ever China star to be imported to Hong Kong. Hand picked by Hong Kong kungfu master Tsui Hark, Li moved to Hong Kong as Tsui's contract actor.

In 1991, Jet Li made his grand entrance by appearing in two kungfu masterpieces "Once Upon a Time in China" with Rosaline Kwan and "Swordsman 2: East the Invincible" with superstar Brigitte Lin. These two blockbusters made Li an instant superstar in Asia.

Li went on to make three more sequels under Tsui's direction: "Once Upon a Time in China II" (1992), "Once Upon a Time in China III" (1993) and "Once Upon a Time in China VI" (1997). Li became a cultural icon and the embodiment of the character Wong Fei Hung, who sought to resurrect Chinese pride with martial arts and the spirit of chivalry.

While Jackie Chan has claimed the title as the biggest action star in Asia for nearly three decades, Chan's typical character blends humor with action in his movies. In contrast, Li's trademark character as a stern and patriotic hero attempting to save China from foreign annexation made Li the modern day Bruce Lee in Chinese people's minds.

Li's most pronounced character is the real-life patriotic kungfu master Wong Fei Hung from early Republic of China in Tsui Hark's "Once Upon a Time in China" series. Li's other movie roles such as the real-life character Fong Sai Yuk in "The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk" (1993), his lead role as the insouciant swordsman Ling Wu Chung in "Swordsman II," the other lead role as the swordsman Chang Mo Kei who avenges his parents' unjust death in "Yi Tian Tu Long Ji" a.k.a. "Lord of the Wu Tang" (1993) also served to cement Li's persona as the new patriotic Bruce Lee. With Li's strong hold on Chinese people's collective imagination as a national hero, the media and the audience has dubbed him as "the king of kungfu."

While "Fearless" seems an appropriate description for a Jet Li kungfu film, the actor explains that the movie is more about facing fear, and learning to live with it and in spite of it.

"Everyone assumes that I am a kungfu master and I fear nothing, but that's not true. Like everyone else in this world, I face and deal with fear and doubt everyday in my life," Li explains.

"When I was young, I entered the martial arts academy. Everyday I challenged myself, faced new fears, and tried to overcome them," Li recounts. "During my youth, I entered China's martial arts competition and won the championship title. After you win, other people want to beat you and replace you. So you face your new fears again and try to prove to yourself that you can defend your title.

"After I won the top title several times, I realized that the title had become meaningless to me so I left the champions' circle."

For "Fearless," Li also invites Asia's current reigning pop superstar Jay Chow to write and sing the theme song entitled "Huo Yuan Jia."

A fan of Jet Li since his youth, Chow has paid homage to Li in his various songs and music videos such as "Shang Je Guen" a.k.a "Double Clubs" and "Shang Dao" a.k.a. "Double Sword."

In addition, Hong Kong superstar Michelle Yeoh ("Memoirs of a Geisha" and the James Bond movie "Tomorrow Never Dies") was invited to participate in "Fearless" with a supporting role as "Miss Yang." However, due to the time constraints, Yeoh's part was cut from the theatrical version of the movie.

"I feel really apologetic towards Michelle about it. When I asked Michelle if she would be willing to help this movie by taking a supporting role, she acted like a chivalrous swordswoman and simply said 'yes,'" Li explains. "I promised her that her scenes will be restored in the longer complete DVD version."

Asked what he considers to be the best moments in the movie, director Yu replies: "Honestly, this is that very rare movie in which I think all the scenes are fantastically done because both Jet and I are perfectionists. The only regret we have is that the movie is too long."

"When we finished editing "Fearless," the movie stood at about two and half hours," Yu explains.

"We negotiated with the theater distribution chains and they told us the movie was too long and most audiences are wary of long movies."

Li says "in the longer complete version of the movie (which will be released in DVD), the character of Huo Yuan Jia is more rich and complex because his fear of heights and his illness (asthma) are explained."

"The distribution side told us that they could put the movie into more theaters if we cut 30 minutes out of the movie. We decided to go with that choice," Yu elaborates.

"Since this movie is the last kungfu movie for Jet Li and his dream project is infused with very meaningful messages, we wanted more viewers to be able to see this movie, Yu said."

"We want the whole world to watch "Fearless" and learn that the essence of kungfu is not fighting. It is peace."


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