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TalkTalk have created this exclusive biography of Jet Li - we believe it to be the most comprehensive on the web
Making his Hollywood breakthrough as the sinister Triad boss Wah Sing Ku in Lethal Weapon 4, Jet Li seemed set fair to follow in the footsteps of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Indeed, given his outrageous flair, his inspired melding of many martial arts and, above all, his genuine acting ability, he looked likely to outdo them both. Briefly losing himself in hi-octane, FX-packed actioners, he would at last begin to reach his potential with Yimou Zhang's classic Hero, a huge Asian hit which, after two years in distributor hell, eventually made Number One in America. Finally a household name, Li could now begin to spread his wings.
Born in Beijing on April 26th, 1963, Li Lian Jie (his Mandarin name - in Cantonese it's Li Nin Kit) has two brothers and two sisters. His father died when he was only two, and he was consequently heavily influenced by his teachers, becoming a devoted and disciplined student. By the time he was 8, his PE teacher at the Changqiao Primary School noted his extraordinary agility and grace, and recommended he be sent to Beijing's Amateur Sports School for formal training in Wushu, the Chinese national sport and a kind of martial arts performance style, rather than a mode of fighting. Here he fell under the tutelage of Wu Bin, studying academics by day and, by night, practising bends, presses, somersaults, all the tools of the prospective Wushu master.
Wu Bin quickly spotted the boy's determination and ambition, and gave him extra training. Yet still there was no power in Jet's kicks or blows. Studying his pupil's diet, the teacher discovered a fatal deficiency. Years before, Jet's grandmother had fallen ill through eating meat and had been advised by her doctor to give it up. The whole family had followed suit, partly for health reasons, partly because they were so poor. In order to boost Jet's protein intake, Wu Bin would deliver food to the family for years. His star pupil strength quickly increased.
After three years of schooling, Jet had made massive bounds. At 11, he won gold at the Chinese national championships, a feat he would perform on five consecutive occasions. He was taken on to Beijing's professional Wushu team and, over the next five years, performed in 40 countries across the globe, one of his early shows being before President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger on the White House lawn. The martial arts cognoscenti appreciated his intelligent combination of many styles - monkey boxing, chanquan, taichiquan, gun boxing, tongbeiquan. He was superb with both sword and spear.
Jet himself is quick to point out that this mastery did not come easily - he HATES to be called a prodigy, believing the term ignores his years of toil. Wu Bin, he recalls, was kind to his team-mates, allowing them rest when they needed it, but extremely harsh with Jet himself, pushing him to ever-greater extremes. Wu Bin has admitted as much. Recognising Jet's ability and ambition, he followed the stone-hearted adage "a resounding drum must be struck with a heavy hammer", forcing Jet to undergo three times as many exercises as his peers. Many times Jet wavered, nearly gave up like so many of his schoolmates, only for Wu Bin to drive him forward again.
Beyond the training, there was constant research and philosophical study. Jet would seek out and question all the old masters gathered in Beijing, also gleaning information from opera actors and dancers. Like Bruce Lee before him, he would take from any style and was very conscious that, once a new move or routine was performed, it was inevitably copied. The need for constant change and improvement was paramount.
While still in his teens, Jet became national Wushu coach. He also turned his eye towards the cinema, and caused an immediate sensation. Shaolin Temple had been a hit back in 1976. Now, in 1982, it was remade, with Jet in the role of the youngster who, his father killed, learns kung fu and both revenges himself and saves the Emperor. The film was partly shot at the real-life Shaolin monastery in the Song mountains of Henan province and, with Jet already a national hero due to his Wushu exploits, it was a nationwide smash, causing a new martial arts craze in China. Two immensely popular sequels followed, the first involving Jet being pushed to marry the supposedly lesbian daughter of a rival family.
Despite this initial filmic success, the mid-Eighties proved a difficult time for Jet Li. His directorial debut, Born To Defend was a failure and his other pictures were fairly unsophisticated efforts. Furthermore, his marriage to Huang Qui-Yan, a fellow member of the Beijing Wushu team who bore him two daughters, fell apart. Rumours flew that a third party had been involved, and Jet was said to be involved with buxom actress Nina Li Chi, his co-star in the San Francisco-set romp Dragon Fight. Nina had been Miss Asia Pacific in 1986, and later starred as a sexy spook in A Chinese Ghost Story 3, as a nubile menaced by a 7-foot Komodo dragon in Stone Age Warriors, as an evil witch in A Kid From Tibet and as a very confused girlfriend in Jackie Chan's Twin Dragons (a parody of Jean-Claude Van Damme's Double Impact). She would retire from movies in 1992 then, having reportedly lost $10 million in property deals, would reappear in 1999, as Jet Li's new wife. The couple had clearly enjoyed a long relationship but, perhaps due to Jet not wishing to taint his heroic reputation, had seldom been seen together. They now have a daughter, named Jane.
Rocky Law's Dragons Of The Orient kept Jet in the spotlight, being an informative documentary that showed him as an 11-year-old on the White House lawn, as well as revealing some of his innovative training techniques, including one exercise where he hangs numerous footballs from a tree then wheels and spins to strike each as it swings towards him. But Jet needed another hit movie and, having moved into the burgeoning Hong Kong industry, he found one in Tsui Hark's Once Upon A Time In China. This was a retelling of the story of Wong Fei-Hong, perhaps China's most famous martial arts exponent, a kind of fighter-scholar who, by exhibiting deep calm and consideration for the oppressed, had come to embody the very spirit of kung fu. As one national hero portraying another, Jet Li wrote himself into the annals of film history. His action sequences were astounding, his spirit palpable and, as an ascetic monk falling for his young Westernised "auntie" (played by Rosamund Kwan), his comic timing was excellent. OUATIC was another mighty hit, Jet starring in the first two sequels that followed.
Now Jet Li was hot property. Swordsman 2 was another smash and everyone was after his signature. So vicious was the competition - and the Hong Kong industry is notoriously rough - that when Jet's personal manager was shot down in Kowloon, it was said to be because he'd refused to sign Jet over to the Triads. Instead, Jet formed his own production company, and scored again, this time with The Legend.
For a couple of years, Jet kept on the same path, generally playing Chinese folk heroes (indeed, Lethal Weapon 4 would be the first time he'd ever played a villain). In The Legend and its follow-up, he was involved in revolution against the wicked Manchu dynasty. In Tai Chi Master, starring alongside Bond girl Michelle Yeoh, he was a disgraced Shaolin monk seeking redemption. He also, in homage, remade Bruce Lee's Fist Of Fury, as Fist Of Legend, once more covering the 1937 struggle of a Shanghai martial arts school against the invading Japanese. He also released a pseudo-biopic, called Shaolin Kung Fu, that revealed yet more of his training techniques, including how to stand on one finger and how to work your neck so a spear can't penetrate it. A handy trick should NATO ever run out of Cruise missiles.
Jet Li was now extremely prolific in the Hong Kong industry, but his sights were set on world domination. With Bodyguard From Beijing, he remade Kevin Costner's The Bodyguard, protecting and falling for a beautiful murder witness and thus widening his appeal. In The Enforcer, he went further, with drama taking over from martial arts exploits as Jet starred as an undercover cop battling big-time gangsters. There were still some incredible set-pieces though, particularly when he ties a rope round his Wushu champion son's neck and swings him at his enemies, turning him into a flailing yo-yo of death.
Now came three more hits, each showing Jet to be a far deeper actor than Jackie Chan. Like his other action peer, Chow Yun-Fat, he's more thoughtful, often tortured by life and profoundly disturbed by his own violence. First came Scripture With No Words where he flipped between the life of a troubled writer and the Indiana Jones-style adventures of the hero he writes about. Black Mask saw him survive a dodgy project aimed at creating supersoldiers, seek peace as a librarian, then have to fight it out with his evil ex-buddies. Then came another installment of Tsui Hark's series, Once Upon A Time In China And America, where Jet played a master called in to help Chinese workers having a hard time on the US railroads of yore.
Then came Lethal Weapon 4 where Jet rose above some pretty cheap stereotyping to steal scene after scene, playing a black-hearted smuggler and counterfeiter who takes great pleasure in battering Mel Gibson to a pulp. The same year, 1998, brought Hitman, another comedy-thriller where he was a former soldier drawn into hunting a businessman's killer for a $100 million bounty. Poking fun at Hong Kong action movies, this would see him held up by a doofus partner, enjoying a romance with Gigi Leung and, as he cannot bring himself to whack the innocent, making a very poor hitman, indeed.
So impressed had producer Joel Silver been with Jet's showing in Lethal Weapon 4 that he now had him star in one of his upcoming projects, Romeo Must Die. This saw ex-cop Li break out of a Hong Kong jail and travel to the States to avenge his brother's death. Caught up in a war between black gangsters and the Chinese mafia, he falls for the entirely unsuitable Aaliyah (the R&B star soon to die tragically in a plane crash - Jet appeared in her video for Try Again). This carefree take on Shakespeare was directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak, cinematographer on Lethal Weapon 4, featured future Li co-stars DMX and Delroy Lindo, and would more than double its money. Industry-wise, Jet was on his way.
It could have been even better. Jet was asked to star in Ang Lee's mega-hit, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but turned it down as he'd promised not to work while Nina was pregnant. Instead, he moved on to Kiss Of The Dragon, adapted by Luc Besson from Li's own outline. Here Jet played a Chinese cop arrived in Paris to nail some drug traffickers. When his French colleague is killed, he realises that Inspector Tcheky Karyo is not only bent but the mastermind behind the murderous drugs-gang. Teaming up with Bridget Fonda, a woman forced into addiction and prostitution by Karyo after he kidnapped her child, he must both rescue the child and bash the bad boy.
Kiss Of The Dragon was successful on two counts. It made money but, perhaps more importantly, with its strong emotional core, gritty performances and tough action, it won him back those fans who'd moaned to his web-site that the stunts in Romeo Must Die were too obviously faked. Back on track, he now took on The One, directed by James Wong, then hot after the hit shocker Final Destination. This was sci-fi of some complexity, being based on the premise that there are 124 parallel universes and we all exist in each of them. Furthermore, when one of our many selves dies, his power is shared amongst the other 123. (Immediately, of course, you're wondering why there aren't thousands of ultra-powerful 96-year-olds bounding around - but you must let that slide). Enter Bad Jet, who has the ability to flit between universes. His plan is to kill all his other selves and become the omnipotent Highlander-type One of the title. Thus he lands on Earth and goes after a deputy sheriff in LA County, all the while being pursued by agents of the Multiverse Bureau of Investigation (one of them being Delroy Lindo).
Beyond some splendid effects - one of which saw him take a motorbike in each hand and crush an opponent between them - this was a testing project for Jet. Having to play three characters, he had to make each one a distinctive personality and gave each different kung fu styles. Not easy, but he pulled it off and doubtless did a better job that the original headliner would have done. Initially keen to make this his credits-topping debut, The Rock had instead decided to take The Mummy Returns. It turned out to be a smart move, advantageous both for him and Li.
Next, Jet reunited with Joel Silver, Andrzej Bartkowiak and DMX for Cradle 2 The Grave. Here, DMX and his gang would break into an LA diamond vault while being tailed by Taiwanese cop Jet, the two stars joining forces when the REALLY bad guys nick the stolen black diamonds, their dastardly plan being to use the stones to manufacture WMDs on the cheap. Naturally, being a Silver production, it was action all the way, but it was at least imaginative action, with absurdly fast and destructive chases, one involving an all-terrain vehicle jumping from rooftop to rooftop. Unsurprisingly, the movie entered the US box office charts at Number One.
The next year, 2004, Li would find himself at the top of the charts again, but this time unexpectedly. Several years before, he'd starred in Hero, an epic directed by Zhang Yimou, who'd previously delivered such classics as Red Sorghum, Shanghai Triad and Raise The Red Lantern. The film, the most expensive in Chinese cinema history, had been a huge hit in Asia, but had not secured US distribution. Even after Miramax picked it up in late 2002 it had not been released in the States, though it had secured a dedicated cult following due to imported DVDs.
Finally, it burst onto American screens in August, 2004 and, defying all expectations, hit Number One where it stayed for two weeks. Critics were unanimous in their praise for its awe-inspiring beauty, if not for its plot-line. Jet played a warrior who arrives before the king, claiming that he's killed three assassins sent to murder the monarch and asking to be rewarded and retained. His story is told in flashback, like Kurosawa's Rashomon, and it is up to the king to decide whether the man is honest, lying for money or is himself an assassin. It is a simple tale, complicated by its structure, but this is not the point as, as the critics noted, Hero is an otherworldly visual experience, beautiful even by the standards of Kurosawa's own Dreams. In interviews, Li would talk about Zhang's extraordinary attention to detail. He'd explain that the actors had waited seven days while 500 horses were dyed black: how one lakeside scene had taken weeks to film because the water was only still enough to reflect the actors clearly for two hours a day: how Zhang needed EXACTLY the right quality of daylight to make Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi appear as enticing and strange as he wished them to be.
It had not been an easy shoot, Jet said. Surrounded by fine actors like Cheung and Tony Leung, he'd felt insecure and out of place. Forget it, Zhang had told him, your character is unsure of his position, too - you'll be fine. Then there was the accident with Donnie Yen, when Li cut his eyebrow badly. Yen did not complain, indeed he thought the scar would provide a nice counterbalance to the one Jet had given him on his other eyebrow during the filming of Once Upon A Time In China 2.
Jet had taken a huge pay-cut to secure Hero but, having been paid $5 million for Kiss Of The Dragon and $7.5 million for The One, he was now a rich man, rich enough to actively seek to widen his range. Next would come Danny The Dog, once again part-written by Luc Besson. Here, Li would play a slave-fighter, a man with the mind and personality of a child who's been taught nothing but violence by his "owner" Bob Hoskins - Hoskins' aim being to make money from his mayhemic talents in illegal fight clubs. When Hoskins suffers an accident, Li meets Morgan Freeman, a blind piano teacher who tries to introduce him to creativity, to beauty, to humanity throught the power of music. And not a flying all-terrain vehicle in sight.
Holding his own alongside the esteemed likes of Freeman and Tony Leung, Jet Li has taken great strides towards earning the respect of his peers. The pre-eminent martial arts star of his generation, now befriended by the likes of Joel Silver and Mel Gibson, he will continue to have mega-hits and, having studied English for four hours a day for years, he will doubtless appeal to the Western market more and more - without having to stick, like Jackie Chan, to comedy blockbusters. But don't be surprised if he begins to step out into Beat Takeshi territory - he seems determined to become a bona fide thespian. As his PE teacher noticed 30 years ago, the man has amazing ability. And grace.