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Jet Li's Reel-to-Real Kung Fu Hero Roles, Part 2

Jet Li in Shaolin Temple

After doing the third Shaolin Temple film, Jet Li thought about quitting movies, yet a project came along that inspired him to continue, a film that cemented his name in Chinese kung fu flick history while portraying China’s all-time favorite cinematic and real-life hero.

Here is Part 2/2 of Jet Li Kung Fu Roles.

In 1991, the father of fant-Asia films Tsui Hark cast Jet Li as folk hero Huang Fei-hong in Once Upon a Time in China, the movie in which Li broke his leg and from then on welcomed the use of stunt doubles. Although the franchise had five sequels, Li starred in only three: Once Upon a Time in China II (1992), Once Upon a Time in China III (1993) and the final instalment Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997).

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Jet Li played a more comedic version of Huang Fei-hong in The Last Hero of China (1993).

All the Huang films were set in the late 19th century near the end of the Ching dynasty. Huang battles foreign forces in Once Upon a Time in China, fights a foreigner killing cult and protects Sun Yat-sen in Once Upon a Time in China II, tackles marriage, assassins and lion-dance matches in Once Upon a Time in China III and faces Native Americans, racism and Chinese mobsters in Once Upon a Time in China and America.

“In the ’50s and ’60s, Huang reflected the people of that era,” Jet Li told me. “Back in Huang’s day and in the Once Upon a Time in China films, when China opened its doors to Western culture, people learned things, good or bad. My Huang character focused on learning something good from the Westerners while keeping the good from our culture. Historically, the Huang films represented the generations of Chinese at the time they were made. For me, Huang reflected on who I was when the films were made: a man battling to understand his own culture and open himself up to the West.”

Born in 1847 in Canton, China, Huang was the true reflection of the Confucian code. As a child, he was a martial arts street performer and later became a martial arts instructor for Gen. Li Fu-ling’s 5th Regiment of the Cantonese army and the Cantonese Civilian Militia. Apart from his phenomenal hong chia kung fu, fei tuo and iron-wire skills, Huang was renowned for his chivalry, righteousness and devotion to running his father’s Chinese-herb clinic, where he gained fame for his bone-setting abilities.

Huang was also Canton’s top lion dancer (nicknamed Lion King) and renowned for his “no-shadow kick” that was made famous by Tsui’s films. In them, Jet Li would fly sideways through the air, kicking his legs as if riding a bicycle. It became known as the “Hong Kong kick” in Hollywood. Nobody knows what the no-shadow kick looked like because it was supposedly so fast that it didn’t leave a shadow.

Later in life, he married Muo Gui-lan, a teenage bride who was betrothed to him during his golden years in return for his saving her father’s life. However, deeply saddened by the destruction of Bao Zhi Lin during the Republican Revolution, Huang began to weaken and died at age 77 in 1924.

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“People’s lives are like films,” Jet Li told me. “You play your character in real life, and film puts your whole life into a short time. Each film has a different story and life, and you become that person for a few months, and after that, you become another person. In real life, you learn to love, deal with people, learn different languages and cultures. In film, you learn things you may never do — cop or ancient hero — but they all have a part in your life, and together it makes you grow as one.”

Next stop, 1910. The Manchus are falling, the Republic of China is rising and Japanese imperialists are everywhere. This is the setting for the Ronny Yu-directed Fearless (2006), in which Jet Li plays the legendary Huo Yuan-jia, a man who was called to defend China’s honor when the nation’s morale hit an all-time low.

“Fearless is less a story about Huo the man than an expression of his spiritual path,” Li said. “Much of the movie’s plot is fiction, although the setting and time periods are factual. Our aim was to tell a convincing story where Huo is portrayed as human and not a god. In 2003, I learned that 280,000 people in China committed suicide every year. I hoped the film might encourage those who lost faith in life to be strong again.

“In the film, Huo’s attitudes toward life, the world and martial arts are like mine. He died at 42. I made the film at 42. I tried to reflect the philosophy of people my age in the movie. Message: Live your life positively.”

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In Fearless, Huo dreams of continuing the legacy his father established as a world-class fighter. After reaching his goal, a personal tragedy causes him to disappear for several years — until September 14, 1910. On that day, Huo resurfaces to defend the honor of China at an international fighting tournament. It happens at a time when Chinese morale is plummeting. Because of the one-on-one battles, the country’s pride soars, and Huo becomes a symbol for Chinese nationalism, a man regarded with reverence.

Born with jaundice in 1868, Huo was forbidden by his father from learning kung fu, but for 10 years, he secretly watched his father teaching others. Huo mastered the mi zong style and earned his reputation by battling a bandit who led a 1,600-man army. He also used his mental prowess to defeat a Russian wrestler and a British boxer — without lifting a fist.

When Huo established the Chin Woo Physical Training School in 1909, his tenet was that students should practice kung fu to strengthen their mind and body while perfecting their spirituality.

As Huo’s jaundice worsened, he sought treatment from a Japanese doctor who told local Japanese judo schools about Huo’s abilities. That led to a fight with Shanghai’s top Japanese judoka. Because of his declining health, Huo sent his top student Liu Chen Zhen to fight the judoka — and he won. Shamed by defeat, 10 Japanese fighters attacked Huo, and Huo broke all of their hands. It’s believed that to avenge the Japanese losses, the doctor poisoned Huo.

Which brings us to…

Based on another aspect of China’s history, Li’s final hero film Fist of Legend (1994) was made. It came along 20 years after Bruce Lee portrayed Liu and thus inspired Jet Li to become an actor. Fist of Legend was Jet Li’s homage to Bruce Lee’s Liu.

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Set in 1914 after Huo’s death, the movie has Liu Chen Zhen returning from Japan to Shanghai to fight the Japanese martial artist who, according to the film, killed Huo during a duel.

Jet Li’s Liu is cast in a different light, and his nod to Bruce Lee’s fighting style occurs during the finale when Jet Li awkwardly bounces around like a Western boxer.

“It wasn’t real boxing, and you can tell I wasn’t used to it,” Jet Li said. “Although it doesn’t look good on film, we needed the stylized punching. People can boast that their martial art is the best, but everything is not the best. So I have that character learn karate [and] boxing and put all those good things together into the character’s own style. Isn’t that what Bruce Lee did with his martial art?”

After Bruce Lee passed away, many actors started mimicking his moves and his looks. Jet Li, on the other hand, tried to avoid the comparison, even going as far as changing the romanization of his surname from Lee to Li. So why did he choose to do a film based on a character made famous by Bruce Lee?

“In Bruce’s version, the topic was narrow and focused on one point of view: The Japanese were all evil and unsympathetic villains. When Japan invaded China, I’m sure many Japanese opposed the invasion, the expansionist policies and the atrocities of their armies — just as all Chinese were not good. In Fist of Legend, I wanted a wider array of Japanese characters to show they weren’t bad. Plus, it’s a story about love between a Chinese man and a Japanese woman. Love is something that doesn’t have any national nor racial boundaries. I thought the movie made a good point of this crucial lesson that is much too often overlooked.”

Regarding playing real-life Chinese kung fu heroes, Jet Li said, “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 more real and work. My films about the old heroes of China represent that younger generation of Chinese. I don’t think my characters did that in real life. We create them, and by doing that, we can learn something through them.”

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