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Not Just the Shiny Life

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Trailer for "Fearless"

Contrary to what you may have read (and will probably continue to read as its release approaches), Fearless is not Jet Li’s last action movie. Nor is it his last martial arts film, at least not in the way that American audiences use the term.

As the Asian superstar tells it in the New Yorker room of Manhattan’s posh Loew’s Regency hotel, blithely out of place in a comfortably worn black jacket, jeans and sneakers, this will be his last wushu movie. “Wushu” translates roughly into English as “martial arts,” Li explains, but there are subtleties lost along the way. In written Chinese, the term is depicted with a pictogram combining the two characters meaning “stop” and “war” or “fighting.”

“Action films usually focus on war, fighting, physical contact,” Li says. “No one talks about stopping fighting. But martial arts has both an external, physical aspect and an internal, philosophical part. This story, about a real martial arts master who lived a hundred years ago, is a good way for me to demonstrate that. I’ve been studying martial arts since I was eight years old, and I can put both parts in this movie. After this, there’s nothing to talk about!“

Famed in Asia for playing real-life Chinese folk heroes, Li, who was five times the All-Around National Wushu Champion of China prior to retiring from competition at the age of 17, stars as Huo Yuanjia, who became the most famous martial artist in all of China at the turn of the 20th century. Son of a teacher who did not want his son to be nothing more than a fighter, Huo in his youth sought to build his family’s name by participating in public matches at which he was always the winner. But pride led to personal tragedy, and after rethinking the proper use for his skills Huo formed an organization of martial arts instruction in order to raise Chinese pride in an era when it was suffering under foreign domination.

Directed by Hong Kong veteran Ronny Yu (The Bride With White Hair), Fearless is a handsomely produced martial arts epic in the style of Li’s best films—the Once Upon a Time in China series, Fist of Legend, Last Hero in China, even the lighter Fong Sai Yuk movies. For Li, it’s greatest success is in mixing entertainment with enlightment.

A successful wushu film mirrors life, in Li’s reckoning, because “everyone’s biggest enemy is themselves. Inside you struggle because you want to prove something, because you’re selfish, you don’t care about others, you just beat the shit out of them, to prove you’re the best. In this movie, for the first 30 minutes, Huo Yuan Jia wants to be the top, beat up everybody.

“I started studying martial arts when I was eight, I started making movies, was champion for five years, started making movies and became a well known actor in Asia. Then lots of people are loving me, telling me I’m the one, I’m the best in the world, I can do anything! And you will make a mistake at that point.”

That’s why he insists on playing characters “not as a superhero, someone perfect, who never makes a mistake, but as a real person, whose life is up, down, up, down.”

To the extent that Fearless is designed as an inspirational film, Li was spurred by some disturbing news from his homeland. “In 2003 a quarter million Chinese committed suicide, mostly teenagers. And I wanted to know, what makes them give up on life? I think because there is only a single child per family, they’re spoiled by the parents and they don’t know how to face life. In the beginning they’re the king of the family. But when they go to school and the universities and get in trouble they don’t know how to handle it. And television only shows the successful people, so young people think, ‘I’m unlucky, I don’t have a car and a big house and a beautiful girl.’

“So I wanted to make a movie to tell them, ‘Be strong.’ I want them to look at the other side of life. An action actor like me, I’ve broken so many bones, I’m shaped at different angles. In this movie, a 90-day shoot, 60 days we fight. Some days at the end I couldn’t walk, I was hoping no reporter would take a picture of me and put it on the internet!

“So don’t just see the shiny life. Even the president has a lot of hard times. I’ve spent some time going to universities, talking to students. I always believe the Buddhist philosophy is the best: Not everyone can be number one; the important thing is that you do your best. That’s good enough.”

An avid student of Buddhism, Li’s interest in reaching out to others (in 2004, he set up a foundation with the Red Cross) was bolstered by a nearly fatal encounter with the tsunami that devastated the South Pacific two years ago. On vacation in the Maldive Islands, he was at the beach with his family when the wave hit, suddenly plunging him into water up to his chin. He managed to save himself and his two daughters, but “that night I couldn’t sleep, I spent the whole night meditating, thinking about life. If god says, ‘Jet, you’re finished’—the water only needed to be a little higher and I was done. I thought, ‘You’ve got too much, got to return something to all the people around the world.’ I didn’t want to give a message only through action films, all beat up, kick ass.

“Each film cannot involve revenge again and again. Look at the Middle East—both parties believe they do the right thing, beat up each other for hundreds of years. Everybody needs to think about the other angle to see life. What every human being really needs is peace, a happy life. But a lot of teenagers want to see violence, on television and movies. They want to see it but they don’t need it.”

None of which means that Li is turning his back on his fans. He has already finished his next American film, Rogue, due for release next year, which he describes with a grin as “FBI and mafia beat up each other.” After that, the 42-year-old Li hopes to explore new directions, but recognizes that it’s an uphill climb for a performer like him.

“After doing the same thing many times over and over you want to do something fresh, but the movies are a business. No one wants to spend the money to do something that’s not guaranteed. So it’s very difficult. If you ask audiences why do they want to watch Jet Li, it’s because of the fighting. If they want to see funny, they’ll watch other actors. Until one day you can prove that without the action you can still make a funny movie that people want to watch.”

Perhaps that movie will be a projected comedy teaming him with Jackie Chan, which both actors have been trying to get off the ground for years. It’s tentatively set to start shooting in the spring.

His fans already know that Li, like all great acrobats, is a natural clown. But the film business isn’t yet persuaded. Li has spent seven years trying to develop a comedy, Monk in New York, that would downplay the action in favor of comedy. “But every time I take the script to the studio, they say, ‘We want to see the monk fighting!’”