To understand Jet Li start with the fact that he is the only actor who has ever dared to remake a Bruce Lee movie.
“Li Shao Lung [Bruce Lee] is a hero over there [in China],” Jet Li explained, “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: The Bruce Lee Story].”
Fist of Legend (1994) was Jet Li’s remake of The Chinese Connection (1973), one of a trio of films that turned Bruce Lee into the world’s top action star practically overnight. His movies offered something that had never been seen on film: a combination of martial arts virtuosity, a cleancut image and an intensely charismatic screen presence. Notwithstanding his gracious words, in remaking a Bruce Lee movie, Jet Li was telling the world that he thought he could do the legend one better in one or more of those three parameters.
As a martial artist, Jet Li would be lying if he pretended to stand in Bruce Lee’s shadow. Unlike Dragon star Jason Scott Lee who, as a non-martial artist, was understandably leery about undertaking the physical challenge of portraying Bruce Lee, Jet Li had become China’s national wushu champion at the age of 13. Throughout his teens the prodigy was one of China’s living treasures, traveling the world to put on exhibitions. By the time Li remade The Chinese Connection at the age of 30, he had become a screen idol in his own right as star of 19 action films that showcased Li’s amazing prowess with kicks, blocks, punches and spectacular, mostly unwired acrobatics.
As for the cleancut image, Jet Li has built one of the squeakiest. At least onscreen, he is purer than any major star, not having so much as kissed a girl in any of his three dozen films though he did play — much to his professed discomfiture and later regret — a bit of a don juan in The Swordsman II.
“I did my job, but honestly, I’m not sure I was ever able to really inhabit the character during the entire shoot,” Li gripes of having to play a womanizer. “Ling had a lot of behaviors that I didn’t approve of and couldn’t identify with.” The unpleasant experience even prompted Li to start his own production company. “I wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t have to take any other roles that would feel too forced.”
Li’s real life is less antiseptic. His first marriage ended soon after he fell in love with Nina Chi in 1989 on the set of Dragon Fight. The fact that Li didn’t marry Nina until 10 years later — two months after she had become pregnant with his third daughter — points to a personal style that balances principles with a deeply pragmatic streak.
“Let’s not rush into anything,” he had told Nina back in 1989. “If we still feel this way about each other ten years from now, I think we should get married then.” In response to her advance promise to accept any such future marriage proposal, Li made her a second promise on the spot: “If we ever decide to start a family, through every month of your pregnancy I give my word that I will not make any movies, until the child is born.” The promise doesn’t seem strangely premature in light of the fact that Li’s three-year-old marriage to Huang Qiyuan — with whom he had two daughters — had been broken by his meeting Nina while making a movie.
This decade-old promise to Nina is the reason Jet Li cites for having declined the Li Mu Bai role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which ultimately went to Chow Yun-Fat. “Starting from the time that Romeo Must Die wrapped production,” Li recalls, “I didn’t work on any films for about 12 months, a whole year, because I was at home with my wife.”
Another striking example of Li’s deeply pragmatic streak is the way he changed the ending of Chinese Connection when he translated it into Fist of Legend. Instead of dying defiantly in a burst of gunfire, Li’s Jing Woo drives away in the back of a limousine to live out his life with the Japanese woman he loves. Li’s personal philosophy seems to distill down to: principle takes precedence over self interest, but love or personal promise trumps principle.
Asked whether he has ever regretted the decison to pass on Crouching Tiger, Li responds, “My film career is only one aspect of my life. Relationships are more important. And I believe that keeping one’s word is one of the most basic principles of human conduct.”
Jet Li has gone beyond merely professing to observe principle; he has shown he has the courage to follow them. Approached by the Triad to star in a film, he refused. We can infer the refusal was in the face of threats of dire consequences because, soon thereafter, his personal manager Jim Choy was shot to death gangland style.
That blend of physical virtuosity and a deep sense of personal honor has given Jet Li international screen idol status. You can debate whether his screen charisma equals Bruce Lee’s, but there’s no question that it’s on par with at least the living first-magnitude action stars.
Ang Lee, who knows about global blockbusters and bombs, chose Jet Li over megastar Chow Yun-Fat for the Crouching Tiger prequel (2005). The willingness to take Li over a star who delivered not only box office but critical acclaim in the original CTHD suggests something of the regard Chinese around the world have for Jet Li. He’s seen as the real deal, China’s chosen warrior. It’s a regard sometimes lost on Asian Americans who like to affect a sneering attitude toward short (5-6 1/2) martial arts stars who speak labored English. But Jet Li wins the respect, if not admiration, of anyone who learns how he overcame poverty and natural timidity to emerge as a bona finde champion of the Chinese nation and, ultimately, the Chinese people. In fact, he seems to have been chosen to fulfill that role from the start of his life.
Li Lian Jie was born April 26th, 1963 in Beijing, the youngest of five children. His father died when Lian Jie was two, leaving his mother to raise him along with two sisters and two brothers. His mother was so fearful for his safety that she kept him from riding a bicycle or going swimming. It wasn’t until the age of 15 that he learned to ride a bike.
“Any risky activity — any kind of exercise that was even slightly dangerous — was off-limits,” Jet Li would later recall. “While kids my age were out playing in the street, this docile little boy stayed inside. ‘Don’t touch that!’ adults would tell me, and it would never occur to me to touch it. ‘Don’t eat that!’ — and I would leave it alone. Those are my earliest memories.” Next