Halfway through Jet Li's new film, "Fearless," a biopic about China's 19th-century kung fu master Huo Yuanjia, Huo is shocked when he returns home to the city of Tianjin and finds the streets filled with Westerners lambasting the Chinese as "Asia's sickly people." Enraged, he sets out to defend his country's pride by entering an international competition--and is killed in the process, becom-ing a national hero at 42. For Li, "Fearless"--which opened around Asia Jan. 27 to sellout crowds and wide acclaim--represents his own attempt to secure an indelible place on the big screen. " 'Fearless' is my last kung fu movie," says Li, 43. "I want to make that ultimate film for myself and the world."
That's becoming increasingly difficult for a lone kung fu star to do. In an age when talented mainstream actors like Chow Yun Fat and Ziyi Zhang can dance their way through spectacular action scenes with the aid of wire work and computer animation, action stars like Li and Jackie Chan--who made their names through sheer physical prowess--are being crowded out. Since Ang Lee's 2000 "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" reinvented the dramatic kung fu epic, art-house martial-arts films such as Zhang Yimou's "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" and Chen Kaige's "The Promise" have become the new template for kung fu classics. Indeed, the much-loved chop-socky movie has evolved from a B-flick, star-driven vehicle into a mainstream, auteur-driven genre with big names and megabudget production values aimed at both box-office receipts and award recognitions. "It's hard for an action star in this age of CGI, lush cinematography and great action scenes doable only with a big budget," says New York-based film critic Howard Feinstein, who writes for The Guardian. "When you get an Ang Lee or a Zhang Yimou going into the kung fu genre, the audience is mesmerized by both great dramatic scenes by popular actors and fantastic martial-arts sequences."
Li went all out to make "Fearless" stand up to such competition. He cashed in on his decade-plus friendship with premier action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping ("The Matrix," "Kill Bill") to secure his talents, and the film went through 10 screenwriters to ensure a seamless plotline. Perhaps most compelling are the movie's emotional action scenes, which propel the story forward rather than serve as visual breaks from the real action, as they do in films like "Flying Daggers." "One notable thing with this movie is that there are no villains," says "Fearless" director Ronny Yu. "The good guy and the villain both reside in Huo himself."
It's easy to see why Li was drawn to such a character. Huo used kung fu to overcome asthma and his fear of heights, becoming a master before his untimely death. Li, himself a veteran cultural diplomat with movie careers in China, Hong Kong and Hollywood, understands that view of the art. "Kung fu is a means to build your self-pride rather than to destroy others," he says. "We are outraged when we are called 'Asia's sickly people.' But if we are strong and believe in ourselves, it doesn't matter what people call us."
--In contrast to Chan, whose blend of humor and action has made him Asia's biggest kung fu star for nearly three decades, Li has always preferred to play serious, patriotic heroes bent on saving China from foreign influences. To many Chinese that makes him the true heir to Bruce Lee, who died in 1973 at 32.
Li's whole life has been built around kung fu. Born in Beijing, he enrolled at the Wushi Academy when he was 8. As a child, he won China's national martial-arts competition five years in a row. After his first victory, his prize was a visit with U.S. President Richard Nixon in Washington. He embarked on his film career in 1979 with "Shaolin Temple" and has since starred in 34 movies, including the landmark "Once Upon a Time in China" series in Hong Kong and "Hero" (2002). He became the first ever China-born star to be imported to Hong Kong and then Hollywood. Long interested in Buddhism, he was baptized as a monk in 1998 and says his faith compelled him to end his kung fu career.
The desire to retire intensified after the 2004 tsunami. With his wife, the actress Li Chi, and their two daughters, he was vacationing in the Maldives when the giant wave struck. As they rushed from the beach, a piece of furniture injured his foot. They headed inland to another hotel but had no way to contact anyone for several days. "When we came out from hiding, everywhere we went we saw death," he says. "I realized that life is unpredictable. I want to spend the time I have on things more meaningful."
To be sure, years of performing kung fu stunts have taken a physical toll. Li says he has seriously injured at least one part of his body in almost every movie he has made. Though he is ready to quit kung fu, he doesn't necessarily want to give up film. "Hopefully I could do movies that are more meaningful," he says. "I want to do something for the world." Plenty would argue he already has.