Li Lian Jie (Jet Li)
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While Jet Li has already become famous internationally as an actor in kung fu movies, cinephiles often overlook the fact that he was also one of China's all-time greatest martial arts stars and national sports heroes. Determination and will made him the top star of the Beijing Wushu Team at age eleven, when he won All-Around Champion in the National Wushu Championships. He went on to take it again four more consecutive times, breaking records and making martial arts history.
Jet Li was born on April 26, 1963 in Beijing, China. He was eight years old when his physical education teacher in Chang Qiao Primary School discovered the young boy's jumping, agility, and grace. He sent Li to the Beijing Amateur Sports School for wushu training, where Li fell under the tutelage of Wu Bin. Thus, Li attended regular classes at day, and also followed an evening curriculum which included leg presses, bending, and somersaults.
Wu Bin became a kind of father figure to Jet Li, who lost his own father when he was only two, and as a wushu coach he certainly saw the potential of a future star, both in natural talent and in perseverance. He designed extra training for Li. Wu Bin was pleased with the speed and agility of his pupil, but found that Li lacked strength for kicking and punching. He visited the Li home and discovered that the family did not eat meat because at one point the grandmother has fallen ill and the doctor advised her to avoid it. The entire family followed in the habit, but Wu Bin told them that the young Li needed the protein to develop his strength, and he in fact continued to bring food to the struggling Li household for years.
In three years, Li's sophistication in martial arts grew substantially. Many other children in the Beijing Amateur Sports school wushu program dropped out due to the mental and physical rigors. Li, instead, continued to practice punching and kicking, agility and flexibility, and swords and spears late into every night. By then, he was no longer able to attend regular classes and was practicing wushu eight hours a day, six days a week.
People often speak of Jet Li as a prodigy and a child wushu genius. Li himself answers this sharply in a short memoir which is now highly publicized: "I am not a prodigy and newspaper reports about my having consciously trained and practiced wushu since I was a child often annoyed me beyond measure. It was simply not true. Like everyone else, I came across numerous problems in the course of training and many a time I wavered and thought of dropping out. It was my coach Wu Bin who helped me steer clear of all obstacles and encourage me never to give up. His admonitions and his patience in guiding me along will always remain in my heart of hearts."
After three years of serious wushu training with Wu Bin, and becoming a national junior champion, Li became a member of Beijing's professional wushu team in 1974. For many eleven year olds, the pressure might have been too much, but for Li it seemed to raise him to another level. For one thing, the physical training intensified greatly. For another, and perhaps more important, it broadened his vision of the martial arts. Running around a 350 meter track 20 times in 25 minutes took discipline, but studying the characteristics of different martial arts styles, and assimilating them, took both an artistic and a martial arts perception. Li began to blend free gymnastics exercise, barehand forms and weapons together with his own highly skilled jumping and speed. He was able to take advantage of many martial arts masters gathered in Beijing, and he studied their different points and qualities, soaking up all they had to offer.
Li looked for the essence of martial arts. And then at his first National Wushu Championships in 1974 he demonstrated his knowledge of it. As one writer noted, "His interpretation of the requirements set for the contest was based on a thorough study as well as a clever combination of the characteristics of various schools: the flowing Chang Quan (Long Fist), the free Chang Quan, the brisk and light Hou Quan (Monkey Fist), the graceful Tong Bei Quan (Through Back Fist), the inner energy of the Tai Ji Quan (Tai Chi Fist), among others. Thus the most important thing, in his mind, was the integration of the forms of running, springing and leaping with a sense of beauty." Li took first in the compulsories, and then went on to win the highest marks in sword, spear, traditional barehand sets, saber, and two men sparring, making him All-Around Champion. In fact, Li would remain All-Around Champion for five consecutive years.
One thing that set Li apart from other competitors was the creativity in his routines and the fact that he continued to set higher standards for himself each year. His specialties, once performed, were no longer secrets, and as one observer remarked, "Judges all praised him for he was never content, for he was ever advancing, for he had brought the traditional art to a new high." Many others who knew him as a competitor corroborate this, and Li took every possible opportunity to gain experience from all the wushu masters he encountered, including Beijing Opera actors and dancers.
The days of Jet Li's performance are long past, but for those curious to see the young competitor there is the kung fu documentary Dragons of the Orient. The film offers a glimpse at Jet Li's style, both training and performing. It shows the eleven year old Li dressed in a bright red outfit performing a two man fighting set with his teammate Chu Shi Fai on the White House lawn during his tour of the United States. He is also shown at twelve, practicing and competing, wielding a saber at lightning speed. He is then shown at nineteen, giving the camera a taste of saber, three-section staff, and spear. This is no Jet Li of the movies with camera angles and special effects - but it is even more impressive, because it is real. Li the master becomes Li the student as the camera captures him learning and refining Tai Ji Quan elements from the ninety-seven year old Wu Tu Nan, and then Pa Gua Zhang (Eight Trigrams Palm) from the equally aged Li Zi Ming. Finally the film shows Li training with a device of his own invention doing an exercise called "Beating Stars." Surrounded by a group of soccer balls suspended between trees with taut ropes, Li strikes the different balls as they rebound and created a surrounding web of continuous motion. In this way, "one attacks from all four sides and protects from four sides too. It practices the hands, eyes, body and feet to be swift and fast, turning and responding."
Li's first movie was Shaolin Temple, released in 1982. This made him famous as it was modern China's first kung fu movie. The film introduced Shaolin kung fu to the world. There were hundreds of youngsters who visited the remains of the original Shaolin temple after seeing the film, hoping to train in the same manner as Li's character did in the movie. In fact, the Chinese government had to exhort students not to drop out and become disciples at the temple. When the movie was advertised in the Philippines, the name Li Lian Jie was shortened to Jie Li. Then, as some noted that Li's film career seemed to have taken off with the momentum of a jet, the name Jet Li was born.
Li's big break into Hong Kong cinema was in the movie Huang Fei Hong (Wong Fei Hong), in which he acted as the renowned martial artist that went by the same name. The movie was so popular that it lead to five sequels, with Li again taking the role in three out of the five. Since the release of the movie, Li's popularity in Hong Kong skyrocketed, and he began working in the former British colony.
A number of excellent period pieces followed this success, including the movies Fong Sai Yuk, Swordsman 2, and especially Tai Chi Master, which ranks as one of the top martial arts film classics of all time. Directed by Yuan He Ping (Yuen Woo-Ping), and co-starring Qian Xiao Hao and Yang Zi Qiong (Michelle Yeoh), the film imagines the early years of Zhang San Feng and his creative development of Tai Ji Quan. The design of the martial arts choreography is complex, shifting from one style to another, with a pace that builds to the emotional climax of the film.
Still looking for the right modern day kungfu movie, Jet finally scored with two films showing off his contemporary style. Bodyguard from Beijing, a re-make of the American Kevin Costner film, combined romance with action. And then My Father is a Hero took the usual undercover cop story and combined it with the kungfu kid motif to create fun and suspense.
1995 presented Li with a new challenge with Fist of Legend. a remake of Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury, Li was playing the hero Chen Zhen, but in the shadow of another martial arts hero- Bruce Lee himself. Li spoke of this role: "Bruce Lee is a hero over in mainland China, just like everywhere else. Many young Chinese admire him and want to be like him. I'm not doing this film to say: 'Hey look, here is the new Bruce Lee!' No, it's to show my respect for his memory. Like the American movie Dragon." It was essential that the martial arts in this film be outstanding, and with Yuen Woo-Ping choreographing them, it was. The dramatic buildup of the fighting to the film's climax is completely compelling. The film received critical and box office success in Hong Kong, and Yuen Woo-Ping reports that the martial arts in it was also a popular hit with the local kung fu cognoscenti.
Jet Li has made the leap into Hollywood as the lead villain in Lethal Weapon 4. Certainly this role is a huge departure for the man, who has never acted as a villain in any earlier works. When Li was asked why he accepted the villainous turn, he replied simply, "Because I am an actor."
Li's performance in Lethal Weapon 4 was apparently enough to impress producer Joel Silver, who helped cast Li as the lead in the urban Asian action flick Romeo Must Die, released in 2000. Silver is no stranger to fancy moves, having produced the 1999 mega-hit The Matrix. As impressive as Matrix stars Laurence Fishburne and Keanu Reeves were, Silver conceded, "With the Matrix, we had … actors who really did not know martial arts. They had to train for four months just to create martial arts sequences [aided by] special effects. But Jet … Jet is a special effect."