The Evolution of Jet Li: At Home and Abroad

Hong Kong action cinema and the Western fascination with these films is by no means a new phenomenon. Although there is a more limited following abroad than there is in their home country, audiences have always delighted in seeing the martial arts of countless action stars over the years. However, there has always been a clear division between Hong Kong and Western viewers. It is even evidenced today with the limited availability of original films in their native language. This rift has existed for many years, but with the employment of stars that work both in Hong Kong and abroad, has the divide began to wear down. Still the use of Hong Kong actors in Hollywood films is still a relatively recent development. One such actor that embodies this new trend is action star, Jet Li. With actors like Jet Li willing to work outside the confines of the Hong Kong action industry, the similarities and differences between the two industries and their respective treatment of action films is becoming more and more evident. In specific regards to Jet Li, his versatility has allowed him to become a prominent force in Hong Kong action cinema as well as in the Western world. Jet Li’s career has spanned years and even continents as evidenced in his success in Once Upon a Time in China in 1991 and his continued success in later films, such as Unleashed, transcending worlds from a broader martial artist to a more personal actor.
Although Jet Li’s success today as a martial arts legend has been firmly established, it took a great deal of practice and discipline on his part. In 1971, at age 8, Jet Li, born as Li Lianjie, began practicing Wushu at the Bejing Amateur Sports School. Wushu is a form of Chinese martial arts, but more specifically refers to the sport of Wushu, which is more rooted in performance than in actual combat. Li proved himself to be an adept learner. By the time he was 11, Li had joined the Bejing National team. This opportunity to compete abroad opened a great deal for Li. It gave him the opportunity to travel around the Globe as he competed and to see the World. This exposure to the World outside of Hong Kong is often credited as giving Li an appetite for the world outside of martial arts. However, while on the team, he enjoyed great success, winning fifteen gold medals in the Chinese wushu championships. When he was 11, he was awarded the All Around Champion title, which over the course of the next 5 years he would win on several other occasions. It is this popularity in the sport of Wushu that catapulted Li to stardom. His success as a competitor brought him the attention of filmmakers in 1982, leading to him being cast in the 1982 film Shaolin Temple. This is where he first got his screen name, Jet Li. Supposedly his screen name was thought up because a publicity company in the Philippines thought his real name was too difficult to pronounce. The name Jet supposedly came from a childhood nickname he has received while training in Wushu because of his speed and grace with the performance sport. It was then that the incarnation of Jet Li, as we think of him today, was born.
Although the two films, Once Upon a Time in China and Unleashed, came at very different stages in Li’s life and career, the two films share some similar bonds thematically and in the treatment of Jet Li’s character. One example of such is the hero status that Jet Li shares in both of these films. In Once Upon a Time in China, Li plays Wong Fei Hung, who is a folk hero in Hong Kong. Many great martial artists had portrayed him in films before this epic, but Li brought to the role his own training in Wushu, making the role his own. More importantly, Li portrays a hero to all the people of China. In the film, the Chinese way of life is disrupted by outside forces who are kidnapping people and shipping them off to work as slaves. This concept of an outside threat has been seen before by Hong Kong audiences, but it shapes the perception of the hero. This was not a threat to a small village or an individual attack, this was a threat to the Chinese themselves and Li embodied the resolution. In essence, Li’s status as a hero in Asian cinema was cemented with this film. In Unleashed, Li’s character, Danny, has a very different path. His hero status is much more personalized as he fights to assert himself, but also protect the family that he has grown to love. However, he’s also a very different hero in this film because where Wong Fei Hung had been firmly established as an entity in Chinese culture, he was starting anew with this character of Danny. The back-story behind Unleashed is that Danny was raised to fight at his master’s command. He struggles to break free from his old way of life; therefore the difficulties inherent in rising to the hero status are complicated as he fights outside forces while battling inner demons. Regardless, he manages to overcome both these obstacles in an effort to protect the family that has cared for him. The hero is much less glorified in Unleashed, but still, that endears him more to us as an audience member. While Li may have become a symbol in Once Upon a Time in China, in Unleashed, he becomes real as a character. Regardless, the fact remains that although both films take place in different locations and in different time periods, Jet Li’s hero status is firmly established with both.
Another common tie between the two films is the theme of honor. Honor is an integral aspect of Asian culture, which makes it understandable how this would play a large role in Once Upon a Time in China. When the indignity of slavery is factored in, the stakes are raised as the honor of an entire culture is threatened. Although this film deals with an entire community, it also has its more personal moments. An example of this would be when Wong Fei Hung’s love interest is captured. While the importance of defending the Chinese people is never given the back seat, Wong Fei Hung’s personal investment in the situation is made all the more important when the woman he loves is in jeopardy. However, in Unleashed, honor is handled quite differently. While the family unit is crucial to the development of the story, Danny’s past is perhaps more important. It’s more of a struggle for him to get back his own sense of self and self-respect. He has worked to create this separate life for himself, apart from the violence, so when he is dragged back into this lifestyle; this is in direct violation of his wishes. He wants to be able to start over, but he must fight for himself. The problem is he only knows how to fight for himself in one way, and that is through violence. This inner struggle is necessary to the natural progression of the character as he struggles to build a respectable life for himself from the shambles of his past. With Once Upon a Time in China and Unleashed the importance of honor, for one’s people and for one’s self are driving forces in these movies, although in very different ways.
This concept of self and of the individual is another crucial idea to both these films. In Unleashed, Danny’s struggle to exist as an individual in a world he doesn’t fully understand is the dramatic situation. However, by the end of the film, Danny has been able to assert himself as his own man, with the help of the people in his life. There is never any doubt in the viewer’s mind that the importance of individualism and being one’s own man or woman is a central plot point in the film. In Once Upon a Time in China the individual functions differently. Where Unleashed dealt with man against one man, Once Upon a Time in China deals with one man standing against a greater force. In a time where the people were paralyzed by fear, Wong Fei Hung dares to stand against the Americans. The need for an individual to represent the masses was crucial to the success of this film. Although the individual is represented differently and one emphasizes the importance of self versus the other, which recognizes the individual as instrumental to the greater good, both handle the topic in their own manners.
Although Jet Li’s career may not be as prolific as some, he has proven himself to be a capable martial artist as well as actor as his films shift in tone and action, while maintaining the same core values. Jet Li’s status as a hero was solidified early on in his career, but with Unleashed, we see a return to this hero, albeit a much more personal one. Also, we see a shift in the handling of honor in the time between these two films. Where Once Upon a Time in China deals with one man’s struggle to defend the honor of a nation, Unleashed handles one man’s journey to gain self-respect. Finally, Jet Li’s films celebrate the individual in all sorts of manners. These two films represent both the similarities of Jet Li’s films in themes, but also serve to illustrate the drastic differences in the handling of these themes. Jet Li’s evolution as an actor is undeniable and his early work in Once Upon a Time in China in contrast to his work in Unleashed, are the proof that some things only get better with age.

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