"In his final martial arts epic..."
Fearless is being marketed as Jet Li's final martial arts film. Don't worry fight fans, because he's only referring to Chinese Wushu films. A Wushu film, if you have to ask, is a martial arts film that takes place in ancient China. Think "Once Upon A Time in China" or "Tai Chi Master". Jet Li has made a slew of these and has decided it's time to move on. He'll still be the king of action, but won't be fighting as a monk in the tenth century.
This was my third interview with Jet Li. I'm always taken aback by how disarming and funny he is in real life. His characters on screen are always brooding and dark. The real Jet Li is nothing like this. I can't wait for the much anticipated Jet Li - Jackie Chan collaboration. They've got a script and the shoot is scheduled for next April. I'm hoping for a buddy comedy with a whole lot of action mixed in. That could be film to show Jet Li's range and broaden his already immense audience.
Is Fearless really your last martial arts film?
Jet Li: Yes, it is my last Wushu film in China
Jet Li: Because Wushu in Chinese films, a lot of action films, means war, fighting, physical contact. Use violence against violence to beat up each other, just focus on that. Nobody talks of stop. Martial arts have two parts. One is external, other internal. The external is physical part. The internal is philosophy of how to be, what kind of person learns martial arts. This story is good. I believe what the real master did one hundred years ago, his philosophy. I have learned martial arts for thirty-two years. My belief and philosophy are in this movie. After this, nothing to talk about.
So this is the end of your fighting films?
Jet Li: I will do movies, like the Lions Gate movie, Rogue. FBI fights Mafia, beat up each other. Which punch is Chinese punch? Where is the American kick? I think this is just physical material, no philosophy here. The fight is the story. So I see these as two different kinds of movie.
How would you describe the connection between the physical and spiritual essence of Wushu?
Jet Li: Like this film, if you look deeply, there is no bad guy in it. There is a lot of action sequence from beginning to end, but no bad guy. Everybody use different angle to fight. They fight for honor, ego, selfishness. In martial arts, the biggest enemy is self. Inside you struggle because you want to prove something. Like my character, he just want to beat up everybody. But his journey is like my life. I was champion for five years in China. I make a successful movie and become well known actor in Asia. Suddenly, a lot of people around me, "I'm the one" (makes kissing sound). Everybody love me, I'm the best. But you make a mistake at this point. You need to drop down. Nobody is perfect, nobody is superhero. This character is a real person. He goes up and down. He learns from mistake.
Will you ever quit making action films specifically?
Jet Li: I think all actors want to change. When you do something many times, over and over, you want to do something fresh. But movie is still my business. A lot of action actors want change, but no studio wants to spend money on something that is not guaranteed; not proven. I think it is very difficult. It is hard to change.
Do you find it difficult living up to expectations from your audience and the studios?
Jet Li: Yes, in acting you do a lot of research. Audience watch Jet Li because of the fight. They watch other actors because they are funny. If they want funny, they don't want to see Jet Li, they watch the other guy. That's the reality I face, until the one day I can prove I can make film without action that is a fun movie. Then everybody will say Jet Li, hmmm.
Have you tried doing non-action films in the past?
Jet Li: I tried, but the studio pay the money. They say million dollars for the writer. So I search for weeks, get a script to show to the studio. They say, "no fight". (laughs) They say we want to see monk fight! It never happens, but I still try.
So what of the rumors of you and Jackie Chan working together. Is this true?
Jet Li: (pauses) Rumor (laughs). No, it's true. Jackie and I wanted to make movie for fifteen years. But every time something happened and it didn't come true. Right now, we have studio, script, everything. I think we go to shoot next April.
Can you talk about the story, or is top secret?
Jet Li: (laughs) I think only producer and director allowed to talk about movie. But it is going to be a fun movie.
Getting back to this film, the fighting involves a lot less wire-work...
Jet Li: That's the audience, they don't want to see that anymore, the cables.
So the one-on-one fighting style, that was your preference? How much input did you have on designing the fight scenes.
Jet Li: Woo Ping [Yuen Woo Ping] is the top fight director. He is a friend of mine and when I make movie he come to help. We discuss everything together. I think the first thirty minutes for us is easy. Just hardcore fight, beat up each other. The difficult part is when the personality changed, the life changed. The martial arts has to change at the same time, because you always use your physical with your heart. You need to show this on screen, but still have interesting fight. The ending sequences were very difficult. We show emotional scene, but still have power.
What's it like wearing and fighting in that hairpiece?
Jet Li: (laughs) I do a lot of movies with this kind of character. I shave my head every day. They put on a cap. The drama is okay, but the fighting. It's very heavy and the whole thing will drop. So you have to sew it on. I make a lot of film like this, so I'm used to it.
You could have chosen any director for your final Wushu film. Why did you choose Ronnie Yu?
Jet Li: Today, even with a movie made in China, I want a worldwide audience. You need to find a director to tell the story to the world. There is a lot of great Chinese directors, but they only know how to make traditional Chinese story. Ronnie is wonderful to tell a story, to show the character as human. He's a wonderful guy.
You've mentioned before that the state of Chinese youth influenced your decision to make this film. What are you referring to specifically?
Jet Li: In 2003, I heard terrible news in China. In one year, they have a quarter-million suicides, from ages eighteen to forty-five. But most of them are teenagers. I do research as to why they give up. I think it is because of single child per family policy. In the beginning, they are king of the family. But when they are teenagers, they start to have trouble. They don't know how to deal with love, school, because they are not so special anymore. They are no longer the best, important, and don't know how to handle this. I am a Buddhist. I want to make movie about being strong, courage from beginning to end. I think this will have special meaning to teenagers. There is no pure success. I am action actor. I have broken almost every piece of my body. Like this movie, ninety day shoot, sixty days fighting. After twenty days, I couldn't move, walk. I hope no one take picture like this. This is the other part of this life. I spend time talking to students about this. I still work with Red Cross and special foundations to talk to teenagers about understanding life. I believe that Olympic philosophy is the best. The important thing is to do your best. That is good enough.
Jet Li's Fearless is in theaters this Friday, September 22nd and is rated 'PG-13' for violence and martial arts action throughout.