Jet Li Movies

Classics of Martial Arts Cinema: Hero, Starring Jet Li and Donnie Yen

Zhang Yi-mou directed three well-received motion pictures — Red Sorghum (1987), Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991) — and even though the latter two were Cannes Film Festival award nominees, the Chinese film auteur didn’t attract mainstream attention in the West until he tried his hand at the martial arts. Specifically, it wasn’t until 2002 when he made Hero, which stars Jet Li and Donnie Yen.

The irony about Zhang’s ascendancy into the worldwide wu xia film craze is that he never saw a Bruce Lee movie until 1979. And as of 2004, he’d watched only 15 martial arts films, one of them being his second wu xia film House of Flying Daggers (2004).

“It’s not that I don’t like the films,” Zhang said when I interviewed him in 2004. “But growing up during the Cultural Revolution, we never saw these films, and it wasn’t until film school that I learned about Bruce Lee movies and watched wu xia films.”

Rather than making a film adaptation of a work from Chinese literature, Zhang spent three years developing an original story for Hero. However, just as he was about to start shooting, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was released. That caused Zhang to shelve the project.

“I was concerned that people would always think that I was trying to emulate Lee and have Hero be China’s answer to Taiwan’s Crouching Tiger,” Zhang said.

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Fortunately, Jet Li persuaded Zhang to resurrect the Hero project and finish the film. In the movie, which boasted a $17-million budget, Donnie Yen plays Lone Sky Iron Shield, part of a trio of assassins trying to kill Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di, the infamous dynastic figure who fought to unify China during the third century B.C. (He’s the historical figure whose burial site is guarded by 8,000 life-size terracotta warriors near the Chinese city of Xian.) Jet Li plays Qin’s bodyguard.

“I loved the script so much that when I finished reading it, I cried twice because my character Nameless has strong feelings about what’s going on,” Jet Li told me before heading to China to film. “In my career, it’s the first script that made me cry. It’s an incredible story where drama is first and action is there to help the story.”

Donnie Yen joined the cast at Li’s insistence. “I thought I wasn’t ready to go back to China to shoot a film yet,” Yen confessed after Shanghai Knights (2003) premiered. “I was kind of spoiled working outside of Hong Kong [with] all the catering and pampering. But when Ching Siu-tung (Hero’s fight director and the father of ‘wire-fu’) said that I’d be fighting Jet, I said OK.

“I was also thinking that after 10 years, Jet just wanted to beat me up again.” Yen was referring, of course, to the battles the two of them had in Once Upon a Time in China II (1992).

The unique aspect of the Jet Li–Donnie Yen rematch in Hero is certainly the way they fight without fighting. According to kung fu folklore, martial artists with powerful chi could sit in front of each other, send their spirits out of their bodies and have the spirits fight. A fighter died if his spirit died during the fight. This is the first time most Americans had seen this on-screen.

Zhang wrote Flying Daggers while shooting Hero and thought that if the film’s tone wasn’t in direct contrast to Hero, he’d quit the project.

“I originally intended Flying Daggers to be a sequel to Hero but realized that would interfere with making it different,” Zhang said. “They’re both differing stories of sacrifice. Hero is sacrificing for righteousness, and that’s more in line with the traditional Chinese culture and philosophy. In Flying Daggers, the characters are willing to sacrifice their traditional values in order to achieve their own individual ends … and this moves it away from traditional wu xia films.”

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In some ways, the success of these two different approaches was measured at the box office. Hero became the first foreign-language film to open at No. 1 in the United States (August 27, 2004). It went on to gross $53 million.

In contrast, Flying Daggers grossed only $11 million in the States.

(Photos Courtesy of Miramax, a subsidiary of Filmyard Holdings)

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Jet Li’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate — the Best 3-D Film Ever Made!

I was up late editing my next book when I decided to catch up on some DVR’d shows that I hadn’t found time to watch. For some insane reason, before I could press play, I tuned in to a TV show that promised to reveal the top 50 3-D films of all time. The people behind the program wound up choosing James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) as No. 1.

Now, I’ve written film reviews for the past 24 years — covering horror, sci-fi, fantasy, animation, action and martial arts — so I’ve seen a lot of 3-D movies. In fact, my experience with them dates all the way back to Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954). That motivated me to start an Internet search for “top 3-D movies.”

Sadly, none of the lists I found named what I consider the best 3-D film ever made. To me, this indicates that when it comes to martial arts motion pictures, many critics still surround themselves with a bubble of cinematic illiteracy.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate

So which 3-D movie should those Internet lists have put in that No. 1 spot? Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, the 2012 film that Tsui Hark directed and Jet Li starred in. You have to see it in 3-D to believe it.

In case you came in late: When Western-trained, new-wave filmmaker Tsui Hark directed Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain in 1983, he rang in the “fant-Asia” film era. What Tsui did in Zu with a red sheet, some string and camera speed adjustments was eerie and mind-numbing. It came as no surprise that Tsui would be able to handle 3-D technology with equal adeptness.

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My wife and I attended a one-time screening of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate in San Diego in 2012. It wasn’t in a tiered theater that offered unobstructed views; it was in an ordinary cinema where a person with unruly hair happened to be seated in front of my wife, partially blocking her view of the screen and, we feared, totally blocking the subtitles. Nevertheless, both of us thoroughly enjoyed the 3-D showing.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate

Like the rest of the audience, our minds were blown within seconds. The opening was a bird’s-eye view that followed a trajectory that wound between the masts of a ship. Ordinarily, you’d expect to have masts 3-D’ing into your face, but in this movie, we actually flew through the masts. That illusion caused many viewers to jump back in their seats.

Even the subtitles leapt off the screen. They seemed as though they were right in front of our eyes. My wife could read them without having to strain to see around the hairdo — and for that, we were grateful.

A common issue with American-made 3-D films is that after the opening credits and the studio logo almost poke your eyes out, within 15 minutes most people get used to the effects to the point that they don’t realize the movie is in 3-D. Tsui was wise to make sure the audience never became complacent with the extra dimension in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate.

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One of the many engaging scenes in Flying Swords involved crows that flittered through a mountain pass. It, of course, had everything you’d expect, including birds that were flying toward you, birds that were angrily pecking each other and birds that were bearing beady eyes while seemingly soaring though your lap. Then, out of nowhere, a murder of crows flew into the screen from behind our heads. Like the rest of the audience, my wife and I immediately turned around to see if any other avians were sneaking up on us.

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any wackier, the final fight between two swordsmen began — inside a giant 3-D tornado! It was OMG times three.

Many of the top 3-D films on those aforementioned Internet lists were either animated affairs — which are easier to convert to 3-D for theatrical release — or big-budget efforts — like Avatar, which cost $237 million to make. However, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is live action and cost a paltry $35 million, which amounts to an extremely low budget for such a high-end production. This is why, in my view, it’s the best 3-D film ever made.

(Photos Courtesy of Cinedigm Entertainment Group)

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Vintage Jet Li Films: Fearless

Now that Hollywood has almost ruined the conceptual approach of Hong Kong’s evolution of stylized martial arts fight choreography, there’s one film left this year that’s a welcome sight for fight-film fans. After a four-year absence from the kind of movies that made Jet Li famous, he’s come out of retirement for one more curtain call that’s sure to bring the proverbial house down. In Fearless (Chinese title: Huo Yuan Jia), he’ll portray real-life martial arts hero and founder of the Chin Woo Physical Training School, Huo Yuan Jia. It’s not the first time he’s played a true-to-life Chinese martial arts legend, but apparently it’ll be his last.

In February 2006, Jet Li said: “I stepped into the martial arts movie market when I was only 16. I think I have proved my ability in this field, and it won’t make sense for me to continue for another five or 10 years. Huo Yuan Jia is a conclusion to my life as a martial arts star.”


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However, it was soon learned that Jet Li had started working on Rogue, an action flick co-starring Jason Statham. Jet Li then recanted his statement: “I am no longer making wushu films because what I wanted to say about them has been said. I will continue to do action and kung fu films. Action, kung fu and wushu films are three different concepts.”

Jet Li’s other renditions of real-life heroes began with his first movie, when he played one of the heroic Shaolin monks that rescued emperor-to-be Li Shimin from his father’s enemies in The Shaolin Temple (1982). In 1991 Tsui Hark cast Jet Li as one of China’s all-time favorite cinematic and true-life heroes, Huang Fei-hong (Cantonese: Wong Fei-hung), in Once Upon a Time in China. Although the franchise enjoyed a run of five sequels, Jet Li starred in part two (1992), part three (1993) and the final installment, Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997). In Kung Fu Cult Master (1993), Jet Li was the top student of the founder of tai chi and the wudang school of martial arts, former Shaolin monk Zhang San-feng.

Jet Li magnificently portrayed Zhang San-feng again in The Tai Chi Master (1993), directed by Yuen Woo-ping. He continued his portrayal of true-life heroic characters with two of China’s most fabled Shaolin heroes, member of the 10 Tigers of Shaolin, Fang Shi-yu (Fong Sai Yuk I and II, both in 1993), and Hong Xi-guan (The New Legend of Shaolin, 1994), all of which were directed by Corey Yuen.

“Because of their stories, these men are real and famous in our history,” Jet Li said. “Yet nobody knows their real life and in many cases what they look like. Like Huang Fei-hong—there are over 100 movies about him, and each film tells [that] he’s a master, [that he] has a good heart and he’s not just about beating or killing people. But I have my own vision about making films about some of the 10 Tigers of Shaolin.

“So we try to create them and end up putting our philosophy into them the way that we think. This way, we can get to know them so we can make the character seem real and work. My films about the old heroes of China represent that younger generation of Chinese. I don’t think my characters actually did that in real life. We create them, and by doing that we can learn something through them.”

Which brings us back to the real Huo Yuan Jia. Born in 1868 in Tianjin, China, he was forbidden to learn kung fu from his father because he had jaundice. His father feared that the boy’s illness would make him a weak fighter and bring dishonor to the family’s school. However, refusing to heed his father’s wishes, Huo dug a hole into the training area and for 10 years watched how his dad trained his students.

In 1890, when a stranger defeated his kung fu brother, Huo showed his abilities by subsequently beating the stranger. It was Huo that brought mi zong chuen (“lost trail” fist, a Shaolin style of kung fu based on deception) into prominence. This part of Huo’s history was brought to life in Yuen’s Legend of a Fighter (1982), which starred Liang Chia-ren, a non-martial artist who gave an outstanding performance. The movie also reflected Huo’s true martial spirit.

Back to history: While Huo was working as a bodyguard with his father and escorting a group of religious men, a bandit with an army of 1,600 threatened to attack them. Huo took on the gang leader and broke his arms, causing the outlaws to disperse. …

Tai-Chi Master Review | Vintage Jet Li Films

There are few types of action films that I enjoy more than the historical epic. Drunken Master II, Gladiator and 300—all are sweeping, emotional roller coasters packed with flawed heroes, grandiose visuals and beautiful violence. Sadly, many critics love to complain about historical movies, saying they’re wildly inaccurate and only distort the past.

What the naysayers fail to remember is that films “loosely based on a true story” aim to be fun distractions, not documentaries. If you want a history lesson, pick up a textbook or buy a time machine.

That said, Tai-Chi Master has little concern for maintaining any sort of historical integrity regarding its title character, Zhang San Feng, founder of tai chi chuan. But like I said, it’s all about the entertainment value. And Jet Li provides plenty of that as the star of the movie, which has been given a pristine North American DVD re-release thanks to Dragon Dynasty.


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Jet Li plays the eponymous character who learns chuan fa at the storied Shaolin Temple. There, he befriends a fellow child monk, Tian Bao, whose aggression, arrogance and disobedience get them both booted before they reach adulthood.

Soon, their paths split, with the conniving Tian joining the corrupt imperial army and the pious Zhang teaming up with a secret society of rebels, including Siu Lin (played by Michelle Yeoh). Eventually, Zhang and Tian reunite—but as enemies on the battlefield.

The betrayal of his Shaolin brother sends Zhang into a drunken downward spiral that’s topped with a bit of psychosis. Combining his Shaolin upbringing with Taoist principles, Zhang breaks out of his mental funk when he starts tossing a ball, slapping some water and twirling some leaves. Reaching a sort of martial arts nirvana, Zhang takes on his archrival with renewed vigor and a revolutionary fighting style he dubs tai chi.

So is this the true account of how Zhang invented tai chi chuan? Hardly.

But screenwriter Ip Kwong Kim and director Yuen Woo-ping take some creative license because—as is the case with many Chinese folk heroes—it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Zhang. Who he was and when he lived aren’t clear and probably won’t ever be, although I’m willing to bet that he didn’t create tai chi by playing with toys or foliage.

As silly as its script sounds, Tai-Chi Master—called Twin Warriors in the West—is a fun if lightweight wuxia movie. It’s a small step above the 1990s glut of “ponytail” actioners that Hong Kong churned out. Much of the credit for that goes to Yuen Woo-ping, who, along with his brother Yuen Cheung Yan and Ku Huen Chiu, did the fight choreography.

Together with Jet Li, the four of them craft what’s become known as Yuen Woo-ping’s trademark “wire fu” screen-fighting style: hyper-athletic wushu combined with nimble gymnastics and a whole lot of wire work.

In one of the movie’s best set pieces, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh and some rebels square off against 100 soldiers in a smorgasbord of action. The freedom fighters wield poles, broadswords, a three-sectional staff and even a cudgel to beat back the troops’ spears in a whirling display of chaotic violence.

Yuen Woo-ping gives each fighter a distinctive style depending on his or her weapon, and he adds plenty of wire flash for good measure. Unfortunately, his penchant for over-the-top action undoes some of the brilliance of his combat choreography.

Witness exhibit A: In one sequence, Jet Li uses only head butts to take out a squad of imperial troops. Pretty innovative, right? Yep, until the scene devolves into Family Guy territory when Jet Li leaps 10 feet into the air, drops headfirst like a bomb onto the belly of a fallen soldier—only to rebound up and onto another prone soldier like a human pogo stick.

Cartoony combat aside, Yuen Woo-ping is a genius at filming fight scenes tailored to the star. In Tai-Chi Master, he uses wide angles to capture Jet Li’s speed and agility while opting for the occasional slow-motion angle to show off Yeoh’s gracefulness and flexibility.

It’s no wonder Rush Hour director Brett Ratner calls Yuen Woo-ping “the greatest martial arts director of all time” in Meditations on the Master, a bonus featurette in which Brett Ratner and critic Elvis Mitchell explain why Yuen Woo-ping is a filmmaking demigod.

The DVD has other noteworthy extras, including an informative 20-minute interview with co-star Chin Siu Ho, who reveals his own kung fu training as a youngster and tells how he broke into the industry. And The Birthplace of Tai Chi is a 15-minute documentary about the Chen family village, where the …

Vintage Jet Lee Movies: The One

Situated atop a 40-foot-high, rickety-looking catwalk, Jet Li looks like a puppet on a string as he prepares for one of Corey Yuen’s action-directed stunts. Wires protrude from Jet Li’s body in four directions, and as Corey Yuen bellows, “Action,” a menagerie of Chinese stunt guys yank on them by leaping off 10-foot ladders or running back and forth in a controlled- chaos tug-of-war. Jet Li and his opponent fly upward and then 60 feet backward in opposite directions. Then, as if being struck by invisible tennis rackets, the two fly back toward each other for their final clash of pugilistic mayhem. Who is Jet Li’s opponent in this ultimate battle? None other than Jet Li.

Moments later I’m sitting with Jet Li in his trailer. The most striking image there is a photo of the Dalai Lama. It’s ironic when you consider the religious persecution that takes place in China and the fact that the Dalai Lama is considered a political criminal there. In a way, the photo portends the direction of our talk. I broach the thought that for a man who follows Buddhism, a life of film, fame and fortune might not exactly mesh. “It’s not about having to lead a simple life—although that is one [path],” Jet Li says with a smile.


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“Regardless of those things, you are still just a normal person. You really are, in the cycle of life, nothing special, and the idea is not to think of yourself as something truly special. I can think that I’m No. 1 in the world, or I can think that I’m a normal guy with a lucky life because I’m able to do these films. It depends on how you think and what kind of personality you have. You must always be kind to other people, try to help them and have a good heart.”

I ask Jet Li if it’s hard for him to have a good heart in an industry where everyone wants something from him to make themselves rich or to improve their status in the business.

“Well, that’s the part of life where one must learn,” he replies. “I’m not a perfect monk yet; this is why I learn every day. And even though I may not reach my goal in this life, I can still continue to learn and become a nicer person. You may have a name, a house and money, but it is all temporary. When you die, your name is gone, your money is gone. The point is you never really own anything. Everything you have now is an illusion.”

Movie stars are expected to gracefully handle all the questions and requests they get bombarded with. That may wear thin the patience of some, but not Jet Li. “If you think about it, it could be tiring [because] I’ve done this for 21 years,” he says. “Hundreds of reporters ask the same questions, and that can make you tired; but when you’re a Buddhist, you learn to see things from different angles. I could have retired already, but I want to share [this kind of ] knowledge with young audiences. I want to talk about philosophy and try to get people to not hate each other. That is part of my life.”

I jokingly apologize that I must now become one of those reporters and ask about The One because, after all, that is why the studio has let me onto the set. He impishly laughs and says, “OK.”

The One is the brainchild of the outrageous X-Files writing team of Glen Morgan and James Wang. Pro wrestling pseudo-hero The Rock was slated to star, but when WWF chieftain Vince McMahon refused to let him go, the film’s action was destined to take on a more mythical dimension with Jet Li.

The movie’s plot revolves around the theory that an infinite number of parallel universes exist in the same space as ours but in different dimensions. The theory also holds that bridges can be opened between them. In The One, the worlds that exist in some of these universes have joined a futuristic United Nations called Multi-Verse. Because the inhabitants of some worlds have learned how to travel between universes, Multi-Verse has established a police force to monitor for Hitler types and squash them before they get started.

Jet Li plays two characters: Gabe Law (“Good Jet”) and Yu Law (“Bad Jet”). Yu is a Multi-Verse agent who, while fighting in one universe, accidentally kills his other self and Highlander-ishly discovers he can absorb the energy of his counterpart. As he travels to other universes and kills the equivalent of himself in each …