Time to retire his kung fu title

Spotlight On

spotlight on Jet Li

September 22, 2006|By Robert K. Elder | Robert K. Elder,Chicago Tribune

Jet Li wants to clear something up.

The international action star is not retiring -- but Jet Li's Fearless (opening today) will be his final martial arts film.

So what's that mean?

"This is the last one, because everything I believe is in this film," says Li.

Future films will have action, he said, but Fearless, a mildly mythologized biography of 1900s martial arts master Huon Yuan Jia, marks the end of his kung fu career.

That's like John Wayne announcing he's giving up Westerns.

But it's time, said Li, star of more than 30 films including kung fu classics such as Zhang Yimou's Hero and Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China quintet.

"Think about it, I'm 43 years old," he said, flashing four, then three fingers to underline his point. "Since I was 8 years old, I've trained, learned martial arts -- eight hours a day in the beginning."

Most professional athletes have careers of 10 years -- he's been going at top speed for 35 years. On Fearless, 60 of the 90 shooting days were fighting days. Everywhere he travels, people say, "Jet! Show me a move."

"It's like you're at school, but you never graduate," Li said. "You're physically, mentally tired."

But Li (born Li Lianjie) doesn't look tired. In fact, he can't even sit still in his chair. He's animated, yelling and laughing during an interview -- a far cry from the reserved, monosyllabic Li who greeted journalists during interviews for his first U.S. film, 1998's Lethal Weapon 4.

That film marked another career phase for Li, who began public life as a wushu (Chinese martial arts) prodigy. At 19, a knee injury ended his phase as reigning champion of the All-China Games and thrust him into movie stardom with a role in 1982's The Shaolin Temple.

For his next act, Li wants to leave behind "international kung fu star" and instead be known simply as "actor." He's currently trying to kick-start a family comedy with Jackie Chan.

"I've tried to retire many times," said Li, a devoted Buddhist since 1997. "But I've met many masters, many high monks who have said, `You cannot hide on a mountain for three years. That's not you. Just do your job and then you'll have space to talk to people about what you believe.'"

Fearless, Li said, perfectly fits his vision of wushu as more than just self-defense but a path to self-discipline and spiritual peace.

Herein lies the central dichotomy: the Chinese characters for wushu are Zhi (meaning "stop" or "do not") and Ge (meaning "fight" or "war"). Together, Li said, they translate to "stop fighting."

It's a contradiction that's weighed on Li, whose Hollywood films (among them Romeo Must Die, The One and Unleashed) have been more spectacle that spiritual.

"The message was only how to ... learn some special move to kill the bad guy," Li said. "But something was missing. "Wushu" is also about how to control yourself, how to become a nice person."

He adds: "Making movies is not my life; it's part of my life."

It's a distinction that was thrown into sharp relief when he and his family were caught in the 2004 tsunami while vacationing in South Asia.

On a trip to the pool with his two small daughters, Li noticed people running toward his hotel, so he started running, too. Within a few steps, waves hit his hips, then his chest.

"Then it was too late, the water makes you float," Li said.

After a couple more steps, water hit his mouth. His nanny, holding his youngest daughter, started to struggle and the current pulled them out to the ocean.

Hotel employees rushed to help and brought everyone inside, above the first floor.

"You're not very afraid at that moment. That was the first wave. But two hours later, the second one came. You think, `I'll die, OK.' But my little girls, my wife ... that's scary," Li remembered.

That night, Li couldn't sleep at all, so he meditated.

The answer he came up with would be to ramp up charity work for his One Foundation (one-foundation.com) and to infuse his work with his Buddhist worldview.

"This is the perfect story to match my philosophy," Li says, referencing Fearless.

The subject of the movie, Huon, turned martial arts into a sport, promoted it as a spiritual discipline and took on all challengers to defend China's martial honor in high-profile exhibition fights against foreigners.

But will Fearless really be Li's last martial arts movie? Yes, Li said, but with an addendum.

"People always change their minds," he said. "That's humanity, always changing." Jet Li says Fearless will be his last martial arts film -- at least for now.

Robert K. Elder writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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