Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Monday, September 18, 2006


A movie review. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the original article.

September 17, 2006
Exit Kicking: Jet Li’s Martial Arts Swan Song

"POWER, precision — and don’t forget speed,” says the young martial arts whiz Chen Zhen, played by Jet Li, to a bunch of eager students in “Fist of Legend” (1994), and you know this very serious-looking guy isn’t just talking the talk. As Mr. Li demonstrates in the movie (and had, at that point, been proving to Asian film audiences for more than a decade), he can walk the walk, and kick the kick too. And since power, precision and the kind of speed that doesn’t sacrifice either of the first two qualities are not currently in long supply on the world’s screens — even in action movies, where you’d think they were pretty much required — it’s fairly alarming news that Mr. Li is calling his new picture, “Fearless” (set to open Friday), the “conclusion to my life as a martial arts star.”

Going to the movies seems a little less exciting already.

Mr. Li (born Li Lianjie) has been practicing wushu — the comprehensive term for the martial arts of his native China — since he was 8; between the ages of 11 and 16 he racked up 15 gold medals in the sport at the All-China Games, before retiring from competition to begin his movie career. He is now 43, about the age when all but the stubbornest, most self-delusional athletes and ballet dancers are forced to admit that their bodies, which have served them so well in their difficult, exhilarating pursuits, are somehow not quite as reliable as they used to be.

This physical deterioration is of course highly relative: except perhaps for a fractional loss of speed, Mr. Li’s wushu in “Fearless” looks as fierce, fluid and elegant as it did in “Fist of Legend,” and in the four “Once Upon a Time in China” historical epics he starred in for the Hong Kong producer Tsui Hark between 1991 and 1997. Jet Li at 70 will probably still be moving better than most of us did at 20.

He, however, undoubtedly feels the difference, and more to the point, it matters to him. “Fearless,” which features at least as much martial arts philosophy as actual combat, leaves no doubt that Mr. Li is a true believer in the spiritual value of his wushu. The character he plays here, Huo Yuan Jia, is an important figure in the history (and mythology) of Chinese martial arts.

Huo — who in the year of his death, 1910, founded Jing-wu, the Shanghai wushu academy that Chen Zhen defends with such gravity and ferocity in “Fist of Legend” — espoused principles like self-discipline, restraint and pride, which Mr. Li, it’s clear, devoutly shares. (In “Fearless” Huo attempts to restore the martial honor of China — at that time widely derided as “the weak man of Asia” — by competing in a series of patriotically charged exhibitions against foreigners, whose fighting styles prove to be no match for the purity and power of his wushu.)

It’s clear too that in this martial arts star’s view, there’s no sense even aspiring to such lofty ideals if the body and the mind are at anything less than their peak. He’s establishing a standard that virtually requires him to abandon his art at the first, smallest sign that he can no longer execute it to perfection.

Perfectionism is not a concept ordinarily associated with martial arts movies; nor is restraint. But part of the fascination of the genre (for those of us, that is, who remain sheepishly hooked on it) is that while the films themselves can be sloppily plotted and directed with a shameless, mind-clouding flamboyance, they serve as showcases for practitioners of an exceptionally rigorous art.

Fighting through the obstacles the genre itself puts in the way of the artists (and our appreciation of them) can be heavy going. Here in the West, wushu — or if you prefer, kung fu — movies frequently arrive from Asia like contraband, roughly handled and distributed almost clandestinely.

Until Mr. Li’s first English-language picture, “Lethal Weapon 4” (1998), brought him to the attention of American audiences, seeing a Jet Li movie in most parts of the country took a fair amount of planning and legwork (going to Chinatown theaters, finding specialty video sources, etc.) and also demanded a mighty high tolerance for mangled, faded prints, risible dubbing and deeply puzzling subtitles. To say nothing of the keen investigative work needed to sort out the many titles an Asian martial arts movie might acquire in its checkered distribution history. (I am myself the proud owner of DVD’s of both “My Father Is a Hero” and “Jet Li’s The Enforcer,” which are the same, not very distinguished, 1995 film.)

But when, at least four or five times in every movie, Mr. Li goes into a routine that allows him to do what he does best, and cares most about, all is forgiven.

Watching a martial arts picture is a lot like sitting through a Hollywood studio musical of the 30’s or 40’s: you wait for Astaire and Rogers, or the Nicholas Brothers, or Donald O’Connor to take the stage, and you learn to endure the witless banter and clunky farce that fill the long minutes between numbers. (And, as in Astaire’s movies, a solo turn is often a showstopper. About halfway through “Fearless,” Mr. Li takes himself to the top of a hill, all by his lonesome, and uncorks a complex, thrillingly sustained wushu workout that Twyla Tharp wouldn’t be ashamed to have choreographed.)

WITH a handful of exceptions — the first three “Once Upon a Time in China” pictures, “Fearless” and Zhang Yimou’s luminous, stirring martial arts poem, “Hero” (2002) — Mr. Li’s 30-plus movies aren’t worth talking about as movies, and in too many of them frantic cutting and an overload of special effects obscure rather than enhance their star’s abilities. But in every one there’s at least a moment or two that reveals something improbably pure, a flash of unaccountable grace.

That’s because Jet Li in action is a virtuoso of physical lucidity, a creator of sharp, memorable images of the human body’s unlikeliest capabilities. When he’s still, preparing to strike, his line — as ballet dancers put it — is clean, well defined, expressive of the extraordinary force that’s about to be unleashed. When he leaps, his elevation is remarkable (unlike many martial arts stars, he’s more exciting without wires than with), and his control in the air can be as breathtaking as Mikhail Baryshnikov’s. His transitions between moves are smooth, assured and impossibly swift. And the blow, when it comes, always looks devastating.

Except for the violence, what Mr. Li does is ballet. (That beleaguered art, come to think of it, would probably be quite a bit more popular if there were more fighting.) Or was, anyway.

It’s apparent that when he says his latest movie will be his swan song as a martial arts star, he really means only that he will no longer practice on screen the traditional wushu of masters like Huo Yuan Jia, no longer presume to represent the art at its highest level. This is not so different, actually, from what Mr. Baryshnikov did 15 years ago, when he retired from ballet but continued performing in the less demanding idiom of modern dance.

And that, it seems, is the kind of twilight career Jet Li has in mind: no more movies like “Hero” and “Fearless,” but (why not?) plenty of pictures in the contemporary-urban-action mode he’s been slumming in for the past five or six years. Most of those films — from “Romeo Must Die” (2000) through “Unleashed” (2005) — haven’t been very good (though I’ll admit to a sneaking fondness for the 2001 film “Kiss of the Dragon”).

But there’s reason for hope nevertheless, because Mr. Li is a past master of smuggling the most astonishing beauty into the crassest settings. (The first movie of this new phase in his career, “Rogue,” in which he plays a mysterious assassin, is in postproduction now.) There are bound to be, as there always have been in this artist’s work, moments of barely imaginable power, precision and speed. And don’t forget grace.


Reel Fanatic said...

I just can't wait to see this one ... I can only go to one movie this weekend, so it might have to be All the King's Men, but Fearless will definitely be next .. Jet Li rules!

Rick Matz said...

I don't know when I'm going to get around to seeing it, but I'm looking forward...