Hong Kong Cinema

The Last Martials Arts Hero... A Jet Li Biography

Many mainland Chinese actors have made their fortunes in Hong Kong, but few have scaled the dizzy heights of Jet Li. There has been an understated theme running through Jet’s career, regularly playing the underdog in the face of oppression and injustice. He himself came from a world of hardship to become a leading figure on the international movie scene. Outside films, Jet has avoided the direct glare of the media spotlight and remained relatively reclusive compared to other aspiring Asian stars.

This can be traced back to his years of studying Wushu which he learnt from a young age. Rather than searching externally for celebrity, Jet looked for balance and fulfilment inside himself. It is no surprise that through this inner peace he has managed to flourish in such a demanding environment. When he has used his celebrity status it has been to support good causes, such as major restoration work at Buddhist temples.

His performances over the past three decades have left an impact on the genre that is beyond question. Even though his career has stalled on several occasions Jet has successfully reinvented himself in a number of guises. Whilst shunning the media spotlight when others have embraced it, he has still developed a legacy as the last great martial arts movie star!

Jet Li was born on 26th April 1963 and was one of five children. He was born on the outskirts of Beijing in a small town called Heibei. His Mandarin name at birth was Li Lian Jie (in Cantonese it is Li Nin Kit). From a young age he excelled as a Wushu student and studied under the tutelage of Master Wu Bin. After three years of demanding training he won the Wushu Gold at the Chinese National Championships for five consecutive years (1974 to 1979). It was this attainment that led him to perform on the White House lawn in front of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissenger. After showcasing his skills across the globe it was only a matter of time before Jet got his first break in the movies.

Shaolin Temple series:

The Shaolin Temple films had already proved a great success for Shaw Brothers in the early to mid-seventies. The likes of Alexander Fu Sheng, Ti Lung, David Chiang and Chen Kwan Tai were box office gold depicting Shaolin heroes. When nineteen year-old Jet Li starred in The Shaolin Temple (1982) the course of action cinema was changed forever. Although a familiar plot (kid avenges his fathers death by learning martial arts from monks), it was the first such production for mainland China. The film was arduously shot over all four seasons capturing the magnificent Yellow River landscape, which was a far cry from the cramped conditions at the Shaw Brothers. It was an overnight success taking HK $16m and was no.4 at the Hong Kong box office that year. Aces Go Places was the clear winner taking HK $26m, but Shaolin Temple was only $1m behind Jackie Chan’s Dragon Lord and Dean Shek’s It Takes Two.

As is the case with most successful ventures in cinema, there was every chance of a sequel. The Shaolin Temple became a trilogy as Jet starred in Shaolin Temple 2 (1983) and Shaolin Temple 3 (1986). In all three he faced the formidable adversary Yu Cheng-Hui. Shaolin Temple 2 (aka. Kids from Shaolin) was a largely forgettable romp, but it again proved to be hugely popular with the audiences taking HK $22m and being the third most successful movie of the year. The final instalment was directed by Shaw Brothers legend, Lau Kar Leung. It was the least successful of the three, coming in at sixth in the 1986 box office, but still taking a very respectable HK $18m. Many regard Shaolin Temple 3 (The Martial Arts of Shaolin) as the strongest in terms of action and production values and it remains a fan favourite to this day.  Jet’s memories are not so favourable on the final production. He vividly remembers the divisions between the Hong Kong and mainland cast & crew and the tension it produced on set. Following this production he launched himself into a series of works that challenged the injustice and inequality he saw in the world around him.

Time in the Wilderness:

The next few years were surprisingly lean for a movie star in such a prolific industry. He did get married to Qiuyan Huang in 1987. The marriage lasted three years and gave Li two daughters. During this period Jet broadened his skills by directing and starring in Born to Defense (1986). As a twenty-three year old director, his work was largely overlooked by fans and critics alike. It remained important to Jet as it began to explore the issues of preferential treatment for foreigners on Chinese soil several years before Once Upon a Time in China. However, his next movie, Dragon Fight, was even more anonymous. He filmed it with Tsui Hark in America whilst on a two-year work visa and it was shelved for several years without a distributor. Many people look back at this movie and wonder why it fared so poorly. Jet Li was a proven box office star and his support cast included the likes of Stephen Chow, Dick Wei and Nina Li. In Jet’s defence, many lesser mortals have struggled when trying to ‘crack America’ early in their careers.

Once Upon a Patriot…

Five years after his last significant effort, Jet once again tasted success with Once Upon a Time China (1991) to kick off a period of ‘patriot’ movies starring Jet. Teaming up with Tsui Hark they delivered a stunning account of the martial arts legend Wong Fei Hung facing up to the challenge of colonial oppression. The film is regularly applauded as launching the new wave of wire-fu of the nineties. There were other wire-fu films that preceded Once Upon a Time in China (OUATIC), such as Swordsman in 1990, but no other film could match its critical or international impact. At the Hong Kong film awards in 1991 it won Best director, choreographer, editing and music! Once Upon a Time in China and its sequels never topped the box office in Hong Kong but they always performed strongly and more importantly, drew international attention towards the genre.

Wire-fu’s progress continued unabated for half a decade with Jet starring in a number of sequels to OUATIC and also the Fong Sai-Yuk series (another real-life hero). Many regard his finest work of the early nineties to be OUATIC 2 (1992) which co-starred Donnie Yen. This was a visual feast of lightening martial arts and it set in motion further collaborations with the film’s action choreographer Yuen Woo Ping. Jet Li’s most commercially successful outing in 1992 was Swordsman 2. This tale blended the magical martial arts world of wuxia with jaw-dropping wire-fu. His performance alongside Brigitte Lin ensured it was a landmark film for Hong Kong cinema. Jet also did The Master (1992), which by all accounts was another forgettable action movie to be filed alongside Dragon Fight.

1993 was a significant year for Jet. He starred in six movies that embraced the entire spectrum of contemporary martial arts cinema. He worked again with Tsui Hark on OUATIC 3 before quitting the series shrouded in mystery and rumour. It was another decent effort but it is possible he was concerned about getting typecast. He did two films with Corey Yuen (Fong Sai Yuk 1 & 2) to herald the beginning of a long-lasting and prosperous relationship. These films were light-hearted irreverent productions which proved popular with Hong Kong audiences and were a far cry from Jet’s stoic Wong Fei Hung. Corey Yuen and Yuen Tak’s choreography won awards at both the HK and Golden Horse film awards.

Jet also did two films with Wong Jing; Kung Fu Cult Master and Last Hero in China. Wong Jing had a reputation for lowest common denominator comedy and these were no exception, including Jet performing a self-parody of his Wong Fei-Hung persona in a chicken suit. Upon reflection, this career direction for Jet does raise an eyebrow and the films were only a moderate success (although I am very much a fan of Gordon Liu’s fight with Jet in Last Hero in China). Jet’s other film in 1993 was Tai Chi Master (aka Twin Warriors). Directed and choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping, this film contains some of the most ambitious and spectacular wire-fu ever committed to film. Jet Li stars alongside Michelle Yeoh, who was fresh from filming Police Story 3 after her five year sabbatical. It is strange to note that this performed very poorly at the box-office at the time, but has since gone on to become a fan favourite.

A Bow to Bruce:

After his most prolific year in 1993, the next year was less productive but equally significant in terms of his career direction. Jet delivered his ‘magnum opus’ in Fist of Legend and embraced a new direction towards modern action. Fist of Legend was a deferential nod to Bruce Lee’s Fist of Legend. Director Gordon Chan teamed Jet once again with choreographer Yuen Woo Ping to produce a memorable and emotional portrayal of Chen Zhen. Whilst most contemporaries were forging increasingly ambitious wire-fu encounters, Fist of Legend reverted to a classic representation of martial arts alongside Japanese expert Yasuaki Kurata. However, the martial arts boom of the early nineties was already on the wane and Fist of Legend failed to chart well in the box office or gain any domestic recognition at film awards. Like a good wine, its reception has matured with age and Fist of Legend is now regarded as one of the stand out martial arts movies of the genre. Jet decided that another Wong Jing collaboration was required and did New Legend of Shaolin (adding further fuel to the fire that these collaborations were due to triad pressure). It was The Bodyguard of Beijing that set in motion Jet’s move towards modern action and ultimately his move to the West. This forgettable take on Kevin Costner’s The Bodyguard saw Jet fall in love with the lady he was trying to protect, Christy Cheung. It hardly set the world on fire but it was the first of several modern action movies that Corey Yuen and Jet Li worked on prior to his Hollywood years.

A Fizz rather than a Bang:

It is fair to say that Jet’s star began to fade in the mid to late nineties as he struggled in a market dominated by gunplay and wacky comedy - see High Risk / My Father is a Hero. On paper, Jet collaborating with the masterful choreography of Ching Siu-Tung is a mouth watering prospect, but Dr Wai (1996) proved to be everything but in an underwhelming effort. Tsui Hark reunited Jet with Yuen Woo Ping in the futuristic Black Mask (1996), which boasted bucket loads of innovative action, but both films failed to chart well at the box office and Jet failed to match his own high standards of the early nineties.  Black Mask spawned a sequel (without Jet) and was released in the States in 1999 in a butchered state (cut, dubbed and new score). This was the beginning of the long lasting mistreatment of Jet’s back catalogue in the US by the likes of Buena Vista.

As with many who are struggling to find success, Jet went back to his roots with Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997). This was the sixth instalment in the series and it brought Jet alongside director Sammo Hung. It succeeded commercially, placed third at the 1997 box office in with HK $30m, predictably trailing behind Mr Nice Guy (Jackie Chan) and All’s Well that Ends Well 97 (Stephen Chow). This was the first time for several years that Jet had achieved a top ten hit. However, the plot of the movie irked Jackie Chan who believed that Sammo had ‘borrowed’ his idea of a ‘martial arts Western’ (which Jackie later fulfilled with Shanghai Noon). His final Hong Kong movie, Hitman (1998) was a competent production and a first time collaboration with director Stephen Tung, but by then action cinema was being saturated by modern canto-pop stars like Ekin Cheng and Aaron Kwok.

Heading West:

In 1997 Jet decided to retire from movies to live a life of studying Buddhism. However, Lho Kunsang Rinpoche, a spiritual master of Tibetan Buddhism, advised him to continue for a period to realise his true mission in life. It was soon after that Jet began his American journey. After several years of following this path he started to realise his calling; "to help introduce Buddhism to the West: in non-traditional ways and through non-traditional media". Rather than focus on box-office returns or how much he was being paid, Jet looked for vehicles which would support his message and make the world a safer, saner place. When looking at his most recent works, such as Hero and Fearless, there is a clear message underpinning the high-flying action. It remains to be seen how long before Jet does decide to retire, but as with the rest of his career it will happen on his terms and when he is ready.

Jet’s first Hollywood outing was in Lethal Weapon 4 as a one-dimensional Chinese bad guy. To Jet’s credit he managed to perform with a good deal of scene-stealing charisma whilst still being unable to speak much English. His performance caught the eye of Joel Silver who signed him up for Romeo Must Die (1999). This loose adaptation of Shakespeare was a modern hip-hop action movie with Jet along with some Corey Yuen inspired action. It performed well at the box-office, but proved a let down for many fans of his earlier martial arts adventures.

Jet Li took a year off work in 2000 to dedicate time to his pregnant second wife, Nina Li Chi. This meant he passed on the opportunity to lead the blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (with the role instead going to Chow Yun-Fat). With hindsight, this seems like an unfortunate career choice, but Jet remained true to the pledge he made to his wife. He returned in 2001 with visionary French producer Luc Besson and delivered the excellent Kiss of the Dragon. He also followed the recent Matrix-inspired CGI craze with The One, which squared Jet Li up against himself! He also turned down the opportunity to feature in the Matrix sequels, deciding that he had no need to involve himself in an already established franchise. Cradle 2 the Grave (2002) was the least palatable and most unnecessary of his martial arts / hip-hop fusions to date. Not even the end fight with Mark Dacascos could save this one.

Although many people have indulged in ‘Jet-bashing’ for his US adventures you cannot argue with the commercial success of his travels. Jet managed to command US $5m and $7.5m for his appearances in Kiss of the Dragon and The One respectively. His films have seen a US $10m+ opening for each of his eight major releases in the US and all have exceeded their production budgets several times over. Only Lethal Weapon 4 managed to reach more than US $100m, but Hero and Romeo Must Die both managed to pass US $50m. His Stateside box office average of US $46m is better than Jackie Chan, Nicholas Cage and Colin Farrell!

Return of the King:

After successfully establishing himself to Western audiences Jet was tempted back to mainland China as the film industry began to flex its creative muscles following the success of Crouching Tiger. Zhang Yimou’s Hero featured a majestic cast including; Jet Li, Tony Leung, Zhang Ziyi and Maggie Chung. For Hero it was just as important who was behind the camera as who was in front. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle once again weaved his magic and the action was choreographed by Ching Siu-Tung and Stephen Tung Wai. Its Rashomon-esque story-telling delivered a powerful and visual tale that elevated Hero beyond traditional martial arts fare. Hero was an unprecedented success becoming the third most successful foreign language feature in the history of US cinema, receiving a belated Oscar nomination and plenty of acclaim on the international circuit. This was matched domestically with second place at the HK box office in 2002 and numerous HK film awards.

Seven years after Jet’s first Hollywood outing Jet had enough confidence in his acting to take on a more substantial project with Unleashed (aka Danny the Dog). Playing a mute was a new type of challenge for Jet, and he showed a dimension hitherto unknown in his acting repertoire. Teaming up again with Luc Besson and his cohorts he returned to the grittier, urban style of action that has proved successful in Kiss of the Dragon. Ultimately, Unleashed was another movie that went some way to continuing his good run of form without really exceeding expectations. Even with Bob Hoskins and Morgan Friedman there was little to elevate this above a decent beat ‘em up flick. Considering that Unleashed was released in the same year as Ong-Bak, it also seemed that there was a new breed of martial arts star in the ascendancy.

It comes as no surprise that Jet was considering closing some chapters in his career after two and a half decades in such a demanding industry. Fearless (2006) was heralded as his last martial arts movie and it featured Jet portraying the hero Huo Yuan Jia. Lacking the narrative power or visual splendour of Hero it stills remains one of Jet’s most engaging modern works. Jet wanted to show hope and spirit to the nation of China through his depiction of the martial arts hero. Fearless is in many ways a biographical movie. Jet kept three truths from the life of Huo Yuanjia; his name, his philosophy and the age at which he died (42). The rest of the movie is as much a reflection of Jet's own journey through life. He started as the Wushu champion / movie star being continually told he was the best. After learning some hard lessons in life he began to focus on making himself a better person for the sake of himself and those he loved. Huo Yuanjia became a hero because of what was inside him, not because of his skills as a fighter, he always had those.

This last hurrah gained top spot in at Hong Kong box-office in 2006, with Jet scoring the rare feat of out-grossing Jackie Chan (Fearless reaching HK $30m vs. $23m for Rob-B-Hood). It did well internationally and became the 5th highest grossing martial arts movie ever at the US box-office.

Looking Ahead:

With Jet’s ‘retirement’ from martial arts movies it seems that age is starting to catch up with the actor. Ever since breaking his leg whilst filming Shaolin Temple he has been dogged with injuries, which has meant using wires, doubles and CGI to maintain his required visual standards. With War (2007) just having been released in the West it remains to be seen where Jet will take his career or even retire altogether from movies. His most recent effort (The Warlords) seems to indicate an ongoing hunger, all be it with more emphasis on epic dramas rather than kickabouts. He has proven his credentials as serious dramatic actor and a light-hearted tearaway but it is hard to imagine a Jet Li movie without a climactic end-fight against his nemesis. Whatever he decides to do, it will not change his standing as one of martial arts cinema’s leading lights. He has been chiefly involved in the original breakthrough for mainland Chinese movies, the ascent of nineties wire-fu, the growth of modern action cinema and several of the top foreign language films in US cinema history. As a legend there is no doubt, the only question is how much further he wishes to go.