Jet Li’s Reel and Real Kung Fu Hero Roles: Part 2

In Part I of this article, I listed the Chinese kung fu heroes Jet Li played based on the order when the films’ events took place throughout Chinese history: The Shaolin Temple (1982) during the early Tang Dynasty; The Tai Chi Master (1993) circa 1365; and Fong Sai Yuk I and II (1993) and The New Legend of Shaolin (1994) all occurred between 1723-1735.

After doing the third Shaolin Temple film, Jet thought about quitting movies, yet a project came along that inspired him to continue, a film that cemented his name in Chinese kung fu flick history portraying China’s all time favorite cinematic and true life hero.

Jet Li films taichi master

 Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China (1991~1997)

jet li films once upon a time in china poster
Once Upon a Time In China (1991)
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Once Upon a Time In China 2 (1992)
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Once Upon a Time In China 3 (1993)
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Last Hero in China (1993)
jet li films once upon a time in china and america
Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997)

In 1991, the father of fant-Asia film, Tsui Hark, cast Jet Li as folk hero Huang Fei-hong in Once Upon a Time In China (OUTIC), the film in which Jet broke his leg and from then on welcomed the use of stunt doubles. Although the franchise had five sequels, Jet starred in OUTIC II (1992), OUTIC III (1993) and the final installment OUTIC and America (1997). Jet Li played a more comedic version of Huang in the Last Hero of China (1993).

All set in the late 19th century and nearing the end of the Ching Dynasty, Huang battles foreign forces in OUTIC, fights a foreigner killing cult and protects Sun Yat-sen in OUTIC II, tackles marriage, assassins and lion dance matches in OUTIC III (1993), and in OUTIC and America, faces Indians, racism and Chinese mobsters in America.

Jet pointed out to me 20 years ago, “In the ’50s and ’60s, Huang reflected the people of that era. Back in Huang’s days and in OUTIC films, when China opened its doors to Western culture, people learned things, good or bad. My Huang character focused on learning something good from the Westerner while keeping the good from our culture.

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Huang Fei-hong films

Historically, Huang films represented the generations of Chinese at the time they were made. For me, Huang reflected on who I was when the films were made…a man battling to understand his own culture and open himself up to the West.”

Born in 1847, in Canton, Huang was the true reflection of the Confucian code. Apart from his phenomenal Hong chia kung fu, fei tuo (metal weight attached to rope) and iron wire skills, Huang was renowned for his chivalry, righteousness and devotion to running his father’s Bao Zhi Lin Chinese herb clinic.

jet li films once upon a time in china 3 picture

He was also Canton’s top lion dancer (nicknamed Lion King) and renowned for his no shadow kick that was made famous by Tsui’s OUTIC films, where Jet Li would fly sideways through the air kicking his legs as if riding a bicycle.

It’s known as the Hong Kong kick in Hollywood. Nobody really knows what the no shadow kick looked like because it was so fast that it didn’t leave a shadow.

He later married teenage bride Muo Gui-lan that was bestowed to him in return for saving her father’s life. Deeply saddened by the destruction of his father’s clinic during the Republican Revolution, Huang slowly passed away and died in 1924 at age 77.

wong fei hung

Jet Li in Fearless (2006)

jet li films fearless poster

Next stop, 1910, the Manchus are falling, the Republic of China is rising, and Japanese imperialists are everywhere. This is the setting for the Ronny Yu directed Fearless (2006) where Jet Li plays the legendary Huo Yuan-jia, a man that rose up to defend China’s honor when Chinese morale was at an all time low.

Eleven years ago, Jet shared,

Fearless is less a story about Huo the man than an expression of his spiritual path. In 2003, I learned that 280,000 people in China committed suicide every year. I hoped the film might encourage those who lost faith in life to be strong again. In the film, Huo’s attitudes toward life, the world and martial arts are like mine. He died at age 42, I made the film at 42. I tried to reflect the philosophy of people my age in the movie. Message…live your life positively.”

jet li fearless

Huo Yuan-jia

Huo was born with jaundice in 1868, and thus his father forbade him from learning kung fu. Yet he learned anyway by secretly watching his father teaching others for ten years. He excelled in mi zong chuen (lost trail fist) and strengthened his reputation by physically battling a bandit that had a 1600-man army. He then used mental prowess by defeating a Russian wrestler and British boxer both without lifting a fist.

jet li fearless fighting foreigners

In 1909, Huo established the Chin Woo Physical Training School, his credo being that students should practice kung fu to strengthen their mind and body as to perfect oneself and their spiritually.

As Huo’s jaundice worsened, he sought treatment from a Japanese doctor who spread the word about Huo’s skills to local Japanese judo schools, which led to a fight with Shanghai’s top Japanese judoka. Due to his ailing health, Huo’s top student Liu Chen-zhen fought the judoka and won.

Shamed by the defeat, 10 Japanese fighters attacked Huo and Huo broke all of their hands. It’s believed that to avenge the Japanese’s loss the doctor poisoned Huo.

jet li fearless fighting japanese

Jet Li in Fist of Legend (1994)

jet li films fist of legend poster

Which comes to Jet’s final real hero film, Fist of Legend (1994). Set in 1914 Shanghai, Jet plays Huo’s student Liu Chen-zhen who returns from Japan to Shanghai to fight the Japanese martial artist that according to the film, killed Huo during a duel. It’s a remake of Bruce Lee‘s Fist of Fury (1972; aka Chinese Connection), which is truer to the Huo legend, as Chen-zhen tried to find out who poisoned Huo.

Jet explained,

“In Bruce’s version, all Japanese were unsympathetic and evil. When Japan invaded China, I’m sure there were Japanese who opposed the invasion, the expansionist policies and their army’s atrocities, just as all Chinese weren’t good. In Fist of Legend I wanted a wider array of Japanese characters to show they all weren’t bad. It’s also a love story between a Chinese man and a Japanese woman. Love doesn’t have national or racial boundaries, it’s just love and the lesson of this crucial point is often overlooked.”

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