The world’s most popular action star sits lotus-style on a couch in the Regency hotel suite, talking about the evolution of the martial arts film. His English isn’t great, but that doesn’t matter. Jet Li is good with his hands… “I don’t want to give the message to the audience, Chinese people only know how to kick ass,” says the 42-year-old movie star, clenching his fist. “After violence, what? What? Show me what? Beautiful fight? Cooler fight? It’s still a fight. Martial arts alone, it’s just a sport.”
Li is talking about the kick-first, ask-questions-later martial arts pictures that defined the genre for U.S. fans, starting in the 1970s, when Li was a martial arts wunderkind growing up in early-70s Beijing. Chairman Mao Zedong’s repressive government allowed theatrical exhibition of just 20 foreign films each year, and scrutinized mainland-produced films for government-approved messages. Meanwhile, Britain’s unruly Chinese colony, Hong Kong, cranked out about 100 super-violent kung fu pictures a year, making an international superstar of Bruce Lee, keeping the world’s grind-house theaters and drive-ins in the black and inspiring a generation of testosterone-addled boys to kick at their own reflections while imitating Lee’s angry dove sounds.
Nevertheless, Li believes kung fu now trumps kung fu then. The genre has become less self-contained, he says, treating fighting not merely as fighting, but as a means of expressionÑone that can be incorporated into a wide range of stories and genres.
“In the 1970s, martial arts film was more about the style. Snake style, drunken style, something something,” Li says, angling his fists and wrists to illustrate martial arts variants. “The difference was outside,” he says, touching the skin of his forearm and forehead so that the listener knows that by outside, he means “external.”
Today, Li says, pointing at his heart, “Good martial arts films, they show more inside. Like in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ang Lee used martial arts to talk about love and culture. In Hero, Zhang Yimou used martial arts to talk about peace and about what kind of person can be a hero. They use martial arts to talk about different levels of philosophy or life.”
It’s tempting to dismiss Li’s enthusiasm as a huckster’s pose. Li is in New York promoting Unleashed, a so-so international coproduction starring Li as an orphaned, abused killer, torn between two surrogate dads, the gangster who raised him (Bob Hoskins) and the piano tuner who treats him with kindness (Morgan Freeman).
However Unleashed gets received, it probably won’t affect Li’s status as the world’s most beloved martial arts star since Jackie Chan. Among other genre landmarks, Li starred in Swordsman, Once Upon a Time in China, Shaolin Temple and their sequels, plus martial artsÐheavy American pictures like Lethal Weapon 4, Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 the Grave.
If you’ve seen these films, and if you believe action pictures can aspire to the status of popular art, Li’s statement sounds less like a pitch than a simple assertion of fact. Some of the most visually, rhythmically, technically assured films of the past 15 years have been martial arts picturesÑor action pictures with a strong martial arts componentÑproduced mainly in Pacific Rim countries. And despite baffling missteps by English-language distributors, they’ve found grateful audiences in the States.
Stephen Chow’s mind-boggling action comedy Kung Fu Hustlea rare film that actually deserves its near-unanimous praiseis headed for a $100 million worldwide gross, $14 million of which comes from its stateside release in March. The Thai-produced fight flick Ong Bak: Thai Warrior grossed about $14 million worldwide, and made a U.S. cult sensation of its blank-faced, acrobatic star, Tony Jaa.
Zhang Yimou had two big U.S. successes last year with Hero and The House of Flying Daggersthough the two films’ nearly back-to-back release was more a fluke of timing than evidence that U.S. distributors truly understand the power of their own acquisitions. Hero, an intricately structured, color-coded, at times abstract parable of China’s national character, was so successful in Asia that Miramax snapped up the American rights for $20 million, then inexplicably sat on the movie until August 2004, even after it wrangled an Oscar nomination as best foreign-language film. Despite its dense plot and intensely nationalist themes, Hero opened at number one in the U.Sthanks, in part, to Li’s stateside popularity among action fansand went on to become one of the top-grossing subtitled films ever released in North America. (Approximately $58 million of the movie’s estimated $158 million worldwide gross came from American pocketbooks.)
Zhang’s more austere, stately follow-up, House of Flying Daggers, earned about $87 million worldwide; $11 million of that came from its U.S. release last winter. Yimou’s films landed on countless top-ten lists, and Daggers earned the filmmaker the National Society of Film Critics’ best director award. Also in 2004, two intense Japanese period-pieces about swordsmen, Takeshi Kitano’s Zatoichi: The Blind Samurai and Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai, found small but devoted audiences in U.S. art houses. Last year’s long-delayed release of Andy Lau and Alan Mak’s Chinese pulp thriller Infernal Affairs was badly botched by U.S. distributor Miramax (surprise!). But the movie still found stateside fansincluding Martin Scorsese, who’s currently remaking the picture with Leonardo Di Caprio.
If the above films managed to defy Americans’ preference for English-language blockbusters, it might be because Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon paved the way. Directed by Taiwanese-born filmmaker Ang Lee, the Chinese-produced, subtitled, action-packed love story earned multiple Oscar nominations and critics’ awards, grossed $213 million worldwide and $128 million in the U.S., thanks partly to young women who don’t normally flock to that sort of movie, but found the picture’s epic love story engrossing. Dragon was so financially successful that it prompted grousing among longtime Asian-film buffs, who complained that the movie’s specific genrewu xia, a fantasy-inflected variant of martial arts in which combatants defy gravityonly seemed fresh if you’d never seen the previous 30 years’ worth of Chinese examples.
The argument is somewhat irrelevant when one considers that U.S. viewers had, in fact, seen a bastardized wu xia picture just a few months before Dragon: the Wachowski brothers’ original Matrix, a blockbuster chimera that used China’s gravity-defying, master-and-apprentice martial arts genre as its esthetic base, then stirred in bits of cyberpunk literature, Franz Fanon agitprop and elements from videogames, Japanese anime and Star Wars (which, as any first-year film student knows, was a Flash Gordon-ized remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress).
The roaming mind should also note that East and West have been conversing through action cinema for about 60 years now, starting with Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, which were remade as The Magnificent Seven in America and A Fistful of Dollars in Italy. It’s doubtful that the endless parade of mostly shallow and irritating English-speaking martial arts starsfrom Chuck Norris through Steven Seagalwould have existed without Bruce Lee’s magnetic example. (Norris, a former celebrity karate instructor who coached Steve McQueen, fought Lee onscreen in 1974’s Return of the Dragon.) Jet Li’s embrace by young, urban moviegoersmade official in hip-hop/kung fu hybrids like Romeo Must Die and Cradle 2 the Graveechoes Bruce Lee’s 1970s embrace by black, Latino and poor white moviegoers, who projected themselves onto Lee’s narratives of wounded pride and righteous payback. East doesn’t just meet West every now and then; they’ve been exchanging notes for decades.
This endless chain of influence is part of what Jet Li is getting at. Since the 1970s, the best martial arts films have become increasingly difficult to pigeonhole, either by nationality or by genre. Describing Hero as a martial arts picture is like calling The Searchers a Western; the label only fits if you fixate on a movie’s surfaces and ignore its depths.
With its color-coded, deliberately contradictory flashbacks and its sustained inquiry into the definition of heroism, Hero is also a story about how national myths are constructed and maintained. The rigorously designed combat sequences become the adrenaline-jacked equivalent of position papers, expressing the temperament and philosophy of individual combatants and their role within the narrative. The flamboyantly comedic Kung Fu Hustle is the Star Wars of its genrea virtual encyclopedia of cinematic influences, each entry brazenly boldfaced for our delight. Where Lucas quoted The Searchers, Triumph of the Will and The Wizard of Oz, Chow quotes The Matrix, Musketeers of Pig Alley, The Untouchables, Gangs of New York and even the Fred AstaireÐGinger Rogers musical Top Hat. (At one point, the movie’s erstwhile hero, Chow’s wannabe-gangster Sing, bends back a mute girl while holding a knife to her throat; their posture replicates a Top Hat poster behind them.) Chow tweaks and then sanctifies one of the oldest film-critic clichŽsthe comparison of action movies and musicalsby having his fighters literally dance.
The above praise should not be construed as a blanket dismissal of earlier martial arts pictures. Ronny Yu’s poetic and theatrical action love story The Bride with White Hair (1993) plainly influenced the tone of Crouching Tiger and the design and execution of Zhang’s two wu xia films. In the 1980s and early 90s, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung did action comedies that were as carefully constructed and film-history-conscious as anything being done today. (Chan’s brilliant Project A and Project A-2set in a 19th-century port city filled with thugs and pirates wielding axes and spearsis as choreographically inventive as Buster Keaton’s best work, and surely an influence on Kung Fu Hustle.)
Still, Li is right to suggest that the recent run of martial arts pictures reaches deeper (and further) than its predecessors. This evolution probably has something to do with the quickened pace of economic, political and technological change. The first few waves of Asian martial arts pictures were aimed mainly at homegrown (or regional) marketsparticularly in China, whose government forbade certain messages and images while encouraging others, and shut out Western pop culture to the extent that that was possible. Undeterred, Hong Kong’s wild and wooly film industry cranked out hundreds of movies a year. But until the mid 90s, even the most accessible, action-driven releases rarely made it beyond English-language art houses, midnight screenings and cult video stores. With rare exceptionsnotably the Hong KongÐbased Chan, who shot his biggest movies in multiple countries, a la James Bondthe international market was often treated as a glorified afterthought, something that could be addressed later via reediting, dubbing and the addition of English-language pop to the soundtrack.
In the past decade, the rise of the Internet and cheap DVD authoring technology made it harder for repressive governments to regulate pop culture’s ebb and flow. When a noteworthy new release comes out in any country, word spreads instantly through cyberspace. The movie can be imported from overseas distributors or downloaded illegally by anyone with the right software and connection, then packaged and distributed for sale. (I personally know six people who saw Hero on video a solid year before Miramax got around to releasing it in the United States. Kung Fu Hustle and Ong Bak were likewise imported, downloaded, copied or traded among martial arts fans all over the world, many months before they officially left their home countries.)
“Right now, in any country anywhere, you can see anything you want, faster than the theater,” Li says, seeming at once appalled and delighted. “Long before the premiere in this country or that country, people have tapes lined up for sale on the streets.”
Li sees this phenomenon as evidence that distributors are still stuck in 20th-century business models, while their customers have moved into the twenty-first.
“Hong Kong film industry is dead now, but the audience still wants to see Chinese movies, martial arts movies,” Li says. He points out that during Hong Kong’s creative and financial peak in the late 1980s, the industry cranked out hundreds of films a year; now it’s lucky to put out 40. Yet the mainland Chinese film industry has become both more productive and more open to importing and exporting pop culture; ditto Vietnam, Thailand and other neighboring countries. Thanks to the internet and home video, Asian and American moviegoers have become more curious about each other’s movies, and more capable of satisfying their curiosity. It’s a nightmare for distributors and producers, but a dream come true for movie buffs. And it contributes to the notion of cinema as a language of pictures, and moviegoing and moviemaking as an endless conversation between people and nations.
“In Unleashed, the hero, who is Asian, finds a new family with a black man and a white girl,” Li says, bringing the conversation full circle. “They are not a real family, but you see those three people standing there, and you believe that they are family. I believe that in real life. I believe love has no borders.”
He holds his hands rigid and parallel, framing his own knee as if in close-up. “I ask my leg, ‘Are you Jet Li?’ My leg say, ‘I am not Jet Li. I am leg!’ My leg, my fingerevery part of me, they all have names, but they are not Jet Li.
“But then you move the camera back,” Li says, gradually moving his hands farther and farther apart until, from the spectator’s vantage point, they frame the actor from head to toe. “This is Jet Li,” he says.
But the lesson isn’t over. Still interrogating himself, Li asks, “Who are you?” Then he cups one hand in a rough oval and holds it palm-down over his own head. “I am Beijing. Now pull it back some moreÉ” he continues, raising his hand another few inches over his head, “I am China.” Then he extends his arm as high over his head as he can. “You go higher and higher, into space, and ask, ‘Who are you?'”
Li answers himself: “I am human being.”
Volume 18, Issue 19