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There's not much fight left

`Fearless' star Jet Li hopes the film's message against violence takes hold.

September 21, 2006|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

JET LI has been distressed at his encounters with young people, not only in China but also around the globe.

"On the street, I see a lot of young teenagers saying, 'Hey, Jet Li. Beat up somebody! Fight! Fight!' It makes me think that they think Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li only know how to beat up somebody."

After making martial arts movies for 26 years, the 43-year-old actor is ringing down the curtain on that part of his career with "Jet Li's Fearless," which opens Friday.

It contains a message for those young people.

"In this movie and in my past three movies, I continue to say that violence is not any solution," the energetic actor said in a recent phone interview from New York.

That doesn't mean he has retired from acting or from action movies.

He recently completed "Rogue," a thriller involving the FBI and the Mafia. "There are car chases, gunshots," he said. "It's physical contact, but not martial arts. I think it's a different kind of genre."

"Fearless," directed by Ronny Yu ("The Bride With White Hair"), tells the story of Chinese martial arts master Huo Yuanjia, who in the early years of the 20th century became the most famous fighter in his country.

As a young man, he is unbeatable in his home region of Tianjin. But as his fame grows, so does his pride. After one of his bouts leaves another master dead, members of Huo's family are slaughtered in revenge, including his beloved young daughter.

Drifting through the countryside in shock, Huo is rescued from near-death by women from a peaceful country village. Their simplicity and kindness lead him to realize that martial arts is about sportsmanship, not brutality.

Though he died in 1910, Huo's Jingwu Sports Federation is still a viable force in numerous countries.

Like Huo, Li said that he has realized that the true spirit of martial arts -- wushu, as it is known in China -- has fallen by the wayside.

"In most action films, they talk about fighting and using your physical skill to fight the bad guys," Li said. "You use violence against violence. It's always revenge."

The true meaning of wushu actually is "stop fighting," he said. So he felt Huo's life story was the perfect project to share his personal beliefs "and show the whole martial arts, not just as a physical [sport]. We have a lot of action sequences in the movie, but we also honor the beliefs. I say everything in the film."

At his first meeting with Li, director Yu asked the actor to give him a week so he could work on the story line.

"I sort of changed it from all of his previous drafts and made it simple," Yu said. "It's about a man's journey. I also gave him a lot of room to show his beautiful movements of Chinese wushu. I told the fight choreographer, Yuen Wo Ping, 'Let's go back to the roots of old Chinese wushu with longer takes.' We don't use tricks. We don't use wires or CG effects. We don't have to hide anything because we have the best wushu expert in the movie."

Li has donated money to the Chinese Red Cross and has spoken to teenagers in his native country to encourage them to find honor in themselves. He has been horrified over the number of suicides in the country by young people, which in 2003 numbered about 280,000.

The actor says young Chinese have given up hope because "everything is too good. With a single child in the home, they are spoiled when they are little. The mother and the father give things to them. The economy is better and better. As teenagers, they don't know how to handle their lives. I want to tell them to be strong. Life is not easy. I wrote a special line in the film, 'I cannot choose when I am born, but with courage I go to the end.' "

For his previous film, "Unleashed," Li had an acting coach. "She helped me a lot to understand, to believe the character," the actor said. "In this movie, I didn't try to act. I just do what I believe. You see in the movie this guy who never lost in combat but he made a big mistake in life."

Li acknowledged he also had made mistakes when he was beginning his film career.

"When I was young, I was for five years in a row the martial arts champion. Suddenly, I made a movie and I become a well-known actor in Asia. Suddenly, a lot of people kiss you, make money from you and say you are the king of the world. You can become selfish, aggressive. I think that life is a journey, and until your 30s you are learning from your mistakes."

One sequence in "Fearless" hit close to home for Li: when Huo is weeping over his daughter's lifeless body. Yu told Li to remember his near-death experience with his young daughter in the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami that devastated southern Asia.

Li and his daughter were in a hotel lobby in the Maldives when the water began to surge. As he held his daughter over his head, Li recalled, "the water was coming to my mouth. It was a very dangerous situation. If God made the water one step higher, I would have died. But I am still alive. That is why I try to do my best to help everybody."

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