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Jet Li's emotion in motion
Updated: 2006-02-13 16:13

His acting may still be stiff, but Jet Li's new film proves that nobody can dish out pain so expressively.
Jet Li's emotion in motion
FINAL CUT: Li is unbeatable in the ring
"Character is action," wrote henry James, and though the Master was probably not referring to chop-socky kung fu movie stars, the dictum definitely fits Jet Li. An actual martial-arts champion, the Beijing-born Li has made a career of acting with his feet and his fists.

That's fortunate for him, because when he's standing still or forced to speak, Li can be as stolid as a stone, especially in his Hollywood films. (His Romeo Must Die, costarring the late hip-hop singer Aaliyah, featured quite possibly the most awkward stabs at romance ever witnessed outside a middle-school dance.) But put Li on the offensive, against a live opponent or 10, and he opens up on screen how he fights is who he is. The man can reveal a surprising spectrum of emotion in a roundhouse kick.

In Fearless, Li's new Chinese-language film, the star gets to showcase the full range of his action characterization while kicking butt in cathartically violent ways. Playing Huo Yuanjia, a real-life fighter who energized China during the last dark days of the Qing dynasty, Li puts a Buddhist spin on his storyline.

Instead of spending the film singlemindedly seeking revenge (see: every kung fu film ever made), Huo is forced to learn that there's more to martial arts and life than just winning or losing, living or dying.

He comes to represent something larger than himself, and trades a warrior's mere honor for a grander spirit. Though hard-core Li fans may disdain the philosophizing, Fearless is a satisfying reminder that he is more than just an action figure.

That doesn't mean Li has become a proponent of nonviolence. At the start of Fearless, Huo is a ball of highly skilled but undirected martial-arts aggression; his only goal is to become the top fighter in his hometown of Tianjin.

Jet Li's emotion in motion
Kung Fu star Jet Li, seen here 06 January 2006, said his latest film "Fearless", which is opening in Beijing, would his last foray into the martial arts genre. [AFP]

He accomplishes this in rapid order, knocking off any and all contenders in a series of brutal one-on-one fights. This isn't elegant Ang Lee combat, fencing on treetops.

Huo cracks skulls, snaps fingers and shatters knees. Surrounded by an entourage of drunken sycophants, squandering his money, ignoring the warnings of his wiser friends, Huo acts like a 19th-century Mike Tyson.

He's clearly headed for a fall. It comes when Huo, for nothing more than vanity, takes on Master Qin (Chen Zhihui) in a gorgeous teahouse, which they reduce to rubble. The fighters go at each other with every available weapon, until a crazed Huo lands the killing blow.

His victory comes at a terrible price. One of Qin's students slaughters Huo's family in reprisal. Overcome by guilt and self-loathing, Huo drifts away, ending up in the kind of idyllic rural village where a beautiful blind girl named Moon can help him understand that existence is about more than just beating people up.

Thankfully, this pastoral interlude is fairly short, and any romantic feelings between Huo and Moon are kept properly subtextual. But Huo's chilled-out and centered demeanor translates into a gentler, more powerful form of kung fu. That serves him well when he departs for a Shanghai that's been drawn and quartered by foreigners. There, in a spurt of nationalism, he takes on Western and Japanese fighters, eager to prove that Chinese aren't the sick men of Asia.

The duels in Fearless are ably coordinated by Yuen Wo-ping, the master behind the Matrix films. But this time there are no hidden wires, no camera tricks. Yuen must have enjoyed working with professionals such as Li a lot easier when you don't have to make Keanu Reeves look like a kung fu master.

Director Ronny Yu's best-known films are the gorefests Freddy vs. Jason and Bride of Chucky, which should tell you all you need to know about his aesthetics. At least Yu goes easy on the red-blooded nationalism: Japanese star Shido Nakamura is allowed a measure of honor as Huo's final nemesis.

Li has warned that Fearless might be his last martial arts movie. If so, he's chosen one that shows just how far he's come from the spin-kicking automaton of his earliest films.

The emotional journey of the average kung fu hero is briefer than a quick jab to the nose, whereas Huo suffers and changes. If Li is incapable of expressing that change on his face, it shows in his moves.

Hard kung fu is replaced by a softer, more flowing style, and aimless anger by peace, even in battle. However, Fearless lacks the pure martial energy of Li's rawest films, such as Once Upon a Time in China.

Pacifism, while a nice philosophy, doesn't make for the most dramatic action flick. But for Li, a serious Buddhist in real life, it's the sort of action that reflects his surprising spiritual character while still allowing him to get in his kicks.Jet Li's emotion in motion