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The Multiverse and Jet Li's 'The One'

What movie has martial arts, a famous Asian martial arts-action star, and is about a multiverse? If you guessed Everything Everywhere All at Once, you would be right, but there was another movie with those same credentials back in 2001, The One, starring Jet Li.

If you missed it, it’s no wonder, it may have gotten lost amid two big franchises releasing their first installments, TheLord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Heck, I missed it myself when it initially came out. It wasn’t until I started studying the art of Xing Yi Quan, that I was made aware of it.

A friend of mine that studied internal martial arts said, “Hey, you want to see some great Xing Yi? Check out the movie The One with Jet Li.” I did and he was right.

In The One, Jet Li’s character, Yulaw, is trying to bump off the other versions of himself that exist in other parallel universes. When he is the only one, he will be the most powerful. While there are wormholes, special agents trying to stop him, and a lot of exposition about the rules of the multiverse, the main thing to watch is Jet Li, as he exhibits some remarkable Xing Yi and Bagua Zhang techniques.

Xing Yi and Bagua Zhang Two martial arts that you don’t hear about as often as some others are Xing Yi Quan and Bagua Zhang. Both are internal martial arts and along with Tai Chi Quan, make up the three main Chinese internal martial arts styles. While most readers are likely familiar, at least in passing, with Tai Chi, the styles of Xing Yi and Bagua may not be as well-known. Speaking broadly, the main characteristic of Xing Yi is its linear approach. The motion is straightforward and striking is done with explosive energy. Bagua is characterized by a circular motion and its use of palm strikes. Both styles have a long and rich history.

I studied Xing Yi, and as a practitioner, I am delighted when it occasionally shows up on the screen. To see the explosive punching and varied applications of the movements is always a treat. Except for The One, I have only ever seen Xing Yi or Bagua used specifically in Asian action films, most notably in The Grandmaster (2013) and the Ip Man films with Donnie Yen.

Jet Li’s Greatest Enemy Is Himself For Yulaw, (The evil Jet Li) to become all-powerful, he must defeat the last version of himself that is left, Gabe (The good Jet Li). There are some great fights with cops trying to stop Yulaw and even a couple of skirmishes with cars and motorcycles, but the set piece is the match between Jet Li and himself. A stunt double was used, and their face was digitally altered and replaced with Li’s.

For the main fight, the differences between the two characters that Jet Li plays are further distinguished by having Yulaw use the explosive and aggressive style of Xing Yi and Gabe use the more circular and sophisticated, Bagua. It is interesting that a conscious decision was made based on each character’s personality, rather than just random techniques that look good.

The action in The One is crisp and precise, and my friend wasn’t lying, it is some of the best Xing Yi I’ve ever seen on film. (It is Jet Li, after all) And the same goes for his Bagua Zhang. Jet Li uses the techniques in applications that show their power and that both arts, while often heralded as being great for exercise and health, are at their core, combat arts: They are for fighting.

If I have one complaint about The One, it is that costar Jason Statham is underutilized. He is mainly the exposition vehicle for the explanation of the multiverse and the rules of the game, as it were, but I would have loved to see him do more in the movie. We do get to see Statham and Li together again in War (2007), which is worth checking out if you haven’t seen it.

Tidbits from the Multiverse The DVD version that I used to own, was packed with extras and had some interesting features and documentaries on the making of the movie, and you can find many, but not all of them, on YouTube.

For The One, the martial arts choreography was done by Corey Yuen, no stranger to martial arts action or Jet Li movies for that matter, having directed Legend (1993) withJet Liand Transporter (2002) with Jason Statham, to name a couple of his films. Incidentally, to bring everything back to the beginning, and the idea that maybe we are in some kind of multiverse, Mr. Yuen’s assistant for the film The One was Ke Huy Quan, who just won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Everything Everywhere All at Once.

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