`Hero,' with Jet Li, finally opens in U.S.

Most popular Chinese-made movie was shelved here

Movies: On screen

DVD/Video

August 26, 2004|By Terry Lawson | Terry Lawson,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

If the Olympics aren't providing enough proof that fighting for what you want can pay off, consider Jet Li and Hero for renewed inspiration.

Directed by one of the most revered mainland Chinese filmmakers in history, Zhang Yimou, Hero was released as Ying xiong in China two years ago and became the most popular Chinese-made movie ever released in that country. It was later a hit in Europe and was even nominated for a 2003 Oscar after brief qualifying runs in Los Angeles and New York.

Hero, however, remained on the shelf of U.S. distributor Miramax while the company considered how to handle the historical drama about a local sheriff (Li) who, as legend has it, played a large role in the unification of China. Also held in limbo was the Asian hit Shaolin Soccer, which the company finally released in a dubbed and edited version this year. When it flopped, the decision was made to release the full-length Hero with subtitles.

"It was very frustrating because we were all so proud of what we had done," says Li. "But I'm happy that the right thing was done, and Yimou's film will be seen as it was intended."

Though it draws on the story that inspired 1999's The Emperor and the Assassin, Hero is as exciting as that film was sober. This is due in no small part to the athletic grace and skills of Li, who turned down the lead in the Academy Award-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to take a role in Romeo Must Die.

Even though Li is best known in the United States for appearances in Lethal Weapon 4 and stunt-driven B-moves like Romeo, Hero proves him to be an actor with charisma and depth.

"I have made 33 films since 1980," says the 41-year-old Li, "and I believe this to be the best one I have ever done. It was an honor to be chosen by Yimou to play this character. Every Chinese boy grows up knowing this story."

Li, the youngest of five children, was raised in Beijing by a single mother (his father died when he was 2) who refused even to let him ride a bicycle for fear he could get hurt. But his physical gifts prevailed, and by age 9, he was a prodigy at Beijing's martial arts academy. In 1974, when Li was 11, he performed before President Richard M. Nixon on the White House lawn as part of a cultural exchange aimed at establishing diplomatic relations with China.

According to Li, Nixon jokingly invited him to become his bodyguard. Instead, he became his country's martial arts champion, and his achievements, along with his good looks, led to his first movie role in 1979's The Shaolin Temple, a film that kicked off a kung fu craze in China.

To pursue his new career, he moved to Hong Kong and became one of the biggest Asian movie stars by making classic action films like 1989's The Master and 1991's Once Upon a Time in China. They established a template for the hundreds of historical martial arts fantasias that followed.

Hollywood producer and Hong Kong movie fan Joel Silver cast Li as a villain in Lethal Weapon 4, which led to his starring role in the United States in 2001's The One.

Fans, however, have long known that Li is more than flying feet and Olympic-quality gymnastics. So he says he was "very, very grateful" to have the opportunity to return to China to make Hero, which also stars Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, two admired Chinese actors.

In that same spirit, Li has moved back to China, where he says filmmakers like Zhang Yimou are now allowed "to pursue the stories they want to tell in the way they want to tell them." No longer, Li says, are filmmakers required to run a grueling and often bewildering gauntlet to get their films shown at home.

He will return to America, Li says, to make a film called A Monk in New York, but looks forward to moving back and forth frequently between the two nations.

"My hope is for us to become one world of peace without having to give up the things that we believe in," says Li. "I want my fighting to be in the movies, not in life."

For film events, see Page 35.

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