Only a handful of actors have ever reached the sort of legendary status during their lifetime that Jet Li has achieved. Mainstream American audiences first “discovered” Li in 1998 when cast as the villain in Lethal Weapon 4, he managed to steal the show. But die-hard fans of Wushu (martial arts) films were already aware of Li, who had been making some of the best genre films to come out of Hong Kong since the heyday of Shaw Brothers studios in the 1970s. Li was a child prodigy in the world of martial arts, winning his first championship at the age of 11. By the time he left the sport at 17, he was an international superstar, having spent five years as the All-Around National Wushu Champion of China. His first starring role came in the 1982’s Shaolin Temple, a huge hit that catapulted Li even further into the role of international star. Other martial artists like Gordon Liu, Jackie Chan, Lo Lieh, and Jimmy Wang Yu had blazed the trail on the big screen, appealing to hardcore American fans that caught films at rundown theatres in Chinatown, or on television. And of course, the biggest, and most recognizable Wushu star was Bruce Lee, who did more to change the world view of Chinese and Asians than any actor before or after. But with a relatively short time, Li joined the ranks of the great kung fu flick masters. In the world of Wushu films, where thousands of movies have been produced over the decades, some of the all-time best – Fist of Legend, Once Upon a Time in China, Tai Chi Master, The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk, to name a few – have all starred Li. But it his most recent film, the epic period piece Fearless – a brilliant addition to the martial arts genre directed by Ronny Yu – that stands to be remembered as his greatest work.
Like many of the greatest kung fu films, Fearless draws its inspiration from real life. Set in China during the early part of the 20th century, the film charts the life of folk hero Huo Yuanjia. The son of a great Wushu master, Yuanjia dreams of someday being a great fighter himself, despite the wishes of his father that the boy grow up to be a scholar. Going against the will of his father, Yuanjia trains in secret, and by the time he has reached adulthood, he has become a legendary champion fighter. With each victory comes more fame, and Yuanjia’s ego soon grows out of control. When one of his students is attacked by another martial arts master, Yuanjia reacts by challenging the man to a match to the death. Yuanjia’s victory is an empty one, and with the blood of his opponent on his hands, a terrible tragedy befalls him. His spirit broken, he ventures with the hopes that he will simply die. Instead, he comes to find refuge in a remote village, where he has a spiritual awakening, and after many years in a self-imposed exile, he returns to his home to atone for his sins. But in the years he has been gone, foreigners have flocked to China and Western exploitation is running rampant. As a means to break the spirit of the Chinese people, American, European and Japanese businessmen stage fight tournaments where Chinese martial artists are routinely defeated. But when Yuanjia decides to defend the honor of his countrymen, easily defeating an American fighter, he quickly becomes the people’s hero.
On the surface, Fearless resembles many of the countless martial arts films that have come before it, including some of Jet Li’s most famous movies. But at the same time, the film, based more on Li’s personal journey than Huo Yuanjia’s life, is a deeply spiritual and emotional film that transcends many of cliches and conventions of other Wushu films. Where so many other films are driven by a basic plot that revolves around vengeance – the foremost staple of Hong Kong cinema – Fearless trades revenge for redemption.
Li, director Ronny Yu and writer Chris Chow go one step further in removing Fearless for its genre brethren by removing the other staple of martial arts films, the villain. Other martial arts films always have a clearly defined villain – either a rival from another Wushu school or an unscrupulous foreigner – but there is no villain in the film. Instead, it is Yuanjia himself, through is arrogance and self importance, who emerges as the film’s antagonist, doing more damage to himself than any enemy ever could.
Fearless is to the chop sockey film what Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven was to the western. The film redefines the genre, as opposed to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which was a reinterpretation of the genre. Crouching Tiger was an epic tale of a doomed romance, punctuated by martial arts action. But Fearless is a traditional martial arts film, that takes the traditions in a new direction. For Jet Li, who has carried on what was started by the greatest Wushu actors of all time; Fearless is a culmination of a lifetime spent in martial arts and film.
DAVID WALKER: How did you come to make Fearless?
JET LI: This character, Huo Yuanjia, is well known in China. People have made a lot of films about him after he died, about his students coming back to figure out who killed their master, to get revenge. Bruce Lee made one. I made Fist of Legend. This story had been in my head many years already, but the motivation to make this movie came in 2003 when I heard terrible news in China. In that year, a quarter million people committed suicide. I was suffering. A lot of teenagers, they don’t know life yet, they just give up. What could I do? I wanted to make a movie telling a story of life. Even this master who was very strong – everybody knows he’s mentally and physically very strong – but he also made mistakes. He also had a hard time in his life. But don’t give up. That’s the big motivation for making this film.
Is it true that Fearless is your last martial arts film?
I’ve made a lot of action films, and when I’m walking down the street a lot of teenagers say, “Jet Li kicks ass!” They are more focused on the physical part. They are more focused on the violence – using violence against violence. Nobody talks about what we in Chinese call Wushu. It’s taken for two words. The first word is stop. The second is war. Stop fighting. But right now all action films talk about is fighting. Nobody talks about stopping. Martial arts are a physical part of these films, but the mental part is more important. That’s why I put my personal belief, philosophy and experiences into the whole story. That’s why I say this is my last Wushu movie, because everything I want to say is already in this film. I will continue to do movies. I just did a movie where a cop fights with mafia gangsters. They have a fight, but for me, that is not martial arts. That’s action – beating each other up. I never know a Chinese punch from a Japanese kick from an American elbow. What’s the difference? It’s just humans fighting, to help the story. It’s not about martial arts. This story is perfect to see – through the life journey – what changes you. Why you learn martial arts. How to use them. Who the enemy is. I believe it is yourself. The enemy is yourself.
Exactly. 100% right. Physically, Huo Yuanjia never lost. But he lost by being aggressive, and self-centered. He lost because of his ego. When you become successful, even today, you have a lot of people around you, making you think you’ve become the king of the world. Then you have a big, evil head, and do everything crazy.
Huo Yuanjia was a real man, but much of the movie seems to deal with things like fame and celebrity. How much of Fearless is based on Huo Yuanjia’s real life, and how much is based on Jet Li’s life and beliefs?
I kept three original truths of Huo Yuanjia. His name. He started the Ching Wu school. He was the first master in Chinese history to show people that martial arts should be a sport – training your physical body, training your heart. Never use martial arts to beat up foreigners, to prove you’re the best. We kept this philosophy. And the third is the age that he died – 42. These three things are true. Everything else is made up through my life journey. When I made the movie, I was 42. I went through a similar journey. I was young when I became the Wushu champion in China. A lot of people started to know me and hang around me, until one day I became I big movie star. Then there are more people around you. Then you become self-centered, and say, “I’m the special one. I’m number one in China.” The feeling, the human feeling is what I made this movie about.
Bruce Lee’s career had a tremendous impact on how Chinese people have been portrayed in the rest of the world, and I know he influenced you quite a bit. But how have things changed since the time of Bruce Lee?
I think now, not just Asian people, but other people of color, have more freedom, their lives are much better than in the 1950s and 60s. This movie shows my personal life experience. Even in China, when I first watched Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury, I heard the Japanese say, “All the Chinese are like a sickness.” Bruce Lee is the hero who fought back. The Chinese people stood up and yelled, “Beat them up.” That made all Chinese people very proud, and very happy. But in my heart, I believe if somebody says bad things about you, if you fight with them right away, you are on the same level. Somebody making me unhappy and me beating them up, that is not a culture. That is not martial arts. If somebody says, “Jet Li is shit,” I need to look at myself. Am I shit? It doesn’t matter, they are just making noise. If I have made some mistakes, then I need to change. I always need to look back myself. I need to stand back. That is the strongest, true martial artist. Even today, in China, especially young people, when they hear American people or Japanese or somebody say negative things about Chinese, they stand up, they try to fight, they start yelling. I think that’s not right. But that’s the basic human reaction.
The difference between Fearless and many other films like it is that foreigners – Japanese and Americans – are not the villains.
I think about history just like a mirror. You think about a lot of foreigners today going to China, and what are they doing? They are trying to make money. In the past, one hundred years ago, they were also coming just to make money. But because they made money, and because we’re not living in that time, we think “all foreigners are bad, they come to China and that’s bad, because they try to grab everything from China, they hurt Chinese people.” Even today, we welcome a lot of people in China, so it really depends on how do you feel comfortable. Now, because China has become stronger and stronger, people feel comfortable to do business with foreigners. But 100 years ago, maybe the business was not fair. I try to tell the world, my belief is that I’m a human being, the most important thing is to find a way to fight for yourself – don’t complain that life is not fair. You hear everybody say, “Life is not fair for me.” For me, the philosophy is that if I did my best, then it’s good enough. Like the Olympics – the gold, the champion. There can be only one. But there are thousands and thousands of people who tried. For me, there are no heroes. Everybody who does their best is the top guy – is the man – because they tried. You can not compete and say, “If I am the champion I am a hero, and if I don’t I am a loser.” Don’t give up. You must compete with yourself. Today is better than yesterday, and continue, continue, continue. That’s what I try to say.
You have had the opportunity to work on films in Asia, Europe and the United States. What are the biggest lessons you have learned in making movies outside of China?
I’ve learned a lot, because the American movie industry is very strong, it’s very professional. But the system is different in Asia or Europe. In America there are large numbers of people involved in each movie – needs to be approved. In asia or in Europe, it’s like making an independent film. You do something you really believe in and make the movie first, and then sell the movie. But ten years ago, fifteen years ago, Hong Kong movies and Chinese movies, the quality was not as good as today. The color, the production value, the music – we didn’t care about too much because we had only a little money and everything should be in the film. But right now we have a bigger market, so we have more money in China for high quality films. Everything we put in, and everything we learned, we learned from the States. Also, in telling the stories before, the way the stories were told maybe only Asian people or Chinese could understand what we were talking about. But now, like with Ronny Yu, we don’t talk about history first, we talk about human beings. We want to make movies about humans, not superheroes. A superhero never makes a mistake. A human makes mistakes. We wanted to make this character have ups and downs and ups, so people will connect with this character. Even if the customs are very different, you need love, a woman, a family, warmth to give you the power to find yourself, to recover, to comeback and fight and work. That kind of human feeling is a natural feeling. And that kind of storytelling, that way is learned from American film. That’s why even though we speak Chinese in Fearless and it has subtitles, I hope audiences understand what we are talking about.
As a fan of Asian films, I noticed that there was a much more universal feel to Fearless. It did not seem as steeped in Asian culture as a lot of other films.
Because I think falling in love, every human being has that feeling. Different clothes 100 years ago, and 200 hundred years later, but it’s still the same feeling. The clothes change, cars change, everything changes, but the feeling is the same. We learn that, we keep that energy, and a lot of people understand the feeling.
Fearless is your last martial arts film, but many years from now, after you have completely retired from film, what do you want people to say about you and your career?
First of all, I will continue making movies. The movies may have action in them, but it’s not about martial arts. It may be a cop story, maybe a love story, maybe a family story, it may be a sci fi movie, I never know. That is the movie business.
For myself, because I learned through a Buddhist philosophy and martial arts philosophy, I can not control people’s thinking. Some people like Jet Li, and use a lot of positive words to write about Jet Li. If some people hate Jet Li they can write negative words about Jet Li. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you use your heart, your honor and do your best each and every day, for each movie. I try to fulfill my audience all over the world – different culture different, different ages, different education. Some people will understand me and some people will not. It doesn’t matter. If they like me, I’m happy. If they hate me, I’m still happy. It’s okay. Because I just tell myself that the enemy is me myself. I did my best, that’s all I can do. I can’t be Tom Cruise. I can’t be somebody else, only Jet Li. At this age, this is what I believe. Maybe ten years later I will have another belief. People always change. When you are a teenager, you want a sports car, but when you’re in your 40s you want a family car. You will change. People always change their mind. But every human being, I believe, they really need peace – a happy life. But what is it they want? A lot of people want to see violence – violent movies, violent fights, violence, violence, violence. That’s what they want to see and hear. But they don’t need it. We’ve got a problem we need to resolve. What do we need, and what do we want? I have no opinion about how people describe me. I am very open, have a happy life, and I do my best everyday.