Jet Li was already a superstar in the world of wushu (martial arts), reigning for five years as the All-Around National Wushu Champion of China, when he left the sport at age 17 and began his career in film. His first film, 1982's Shaolin Temple, was a huge hit, catapulting Li into international stardom. Over the next 20 years, Li would follow in the footsteps of such trailblazers as Gordon Liu, Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, carving out his rightful place as one of the most popular action stars of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema. In the world of wushu films, where thousands of movies have been produced over the decades, some of the all-time best—Fist of Legend, Once Upon a Time in China, The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk, to name a few—have starred Li. But it's his most recent film, the epic period piece Fearless—a brilliant addition to the martial-arts genre—that stands to be remembered as his greatest work.
Inspired by real-life folk hero Huo Yuanjia, Fearless takes place in China during the early part of the 20th century. The son of a great wushu master, Yuanjia dreams of someday being a great fighter himself, despite the wishes of his father that the boy grow up to be a scholar. Having grown to adulthood, Yuanjia (Li) has forsaken his father to become a legendary champion fighter. But when a string of tragic incidents shatters Yuanjia's life, he goes into exile in the country for many years, only to return to the city to find Western exploitation rampant in China. As a means to break the spirit of the Chinese, businessmen from America, Europe and Japan stage fight tournaments where Chinese martial artists are routinely defeated. But when Yuanjia decides to defend the honor of his countrymen, easily defeating an American fighter, he quickly becomes the people's hero.
"This story has been in my head many years already," said Li during a recent interview. "But the motivation to make this movie came in 2003 when I heard terrible news in China. In that year, a quarter million people committed suicide. I wanted to make a movie telling a story of life."
Although it looks very much like the countless martial-arts films that have come before it, Fearless, which is based at least as much on Li's personal journey as on Huo Yuanjia's, is a deeply spiritual and emotional film that defies many of the genre conventions. It is a rallying cry, not just for a sense of national pride, but also, despite the violence, for a reaffirmation of life.
"This story is perfect to see—through the life journey—what changes you. Why you learn martial arts. How to use them. Who the enemy is. I believe it is yourself," says Li. "The enemy is yourself."
For Jet Li, Fearless is a culmination of a lifetime spent in martial arts and film. He has publicly said that this will be his last film of this nature, his final statement on what everything he has learned and experienced has meant to him. "I put my personal belief, philosophy and experiences into the whole story," says Li. "That's why I say this is my last wushu movie, because everything I want to say is already in this film."
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