Based on martial arts legend Huo Yuanjia, a man who became the most famous fighter in all of China at the turn of the 20th century, Fearless fulfills Li's longtime dream to play the Chinese hero onscreen. Li worked for more than a decade developing the movie about the legendary martial artist, a man who many say parallels the Hollywood action hero.
“This generation has seen Jet Li advance martial arts, and so he is, in many ways, a modern-day Huo Yuanjia,” states Fearless director Ronny Yu.
While Li might humbly disagree, even he can't argue that he was born to play the role. Back in 1997, Li had considered retirement. However, he remembers, “My Tibetan master said, ‘You can't retire; you have some responsibilities in the future.' I asked, ‘Can you tell me what these are?' He said, ‘No one can tell you; you need to figure [that] out yourself.'” With the completion of Fearless , Li has answered his own questions.
As screenwriters Chris Chow and Christine To began working on the script, the planned screen incarnation of Huo became imbued with many of the actor's own experiences. Li confirms, “This character is quite close to me. I put a lot of my life experiences into Jet Li's Fearless ; I put my heart in it, all my beliefs, the physical part, the mental part – all I've been learning in martial arts since I was 8-years-old. When you watch this film, you'll really know Jet Li. I express all that martial arts means in my life through this character; why I'm learning martial arts, what martial arts is to me.”
That, Li says, is part of the reason he thought Fearless was such a fitting film on which to end his martial arts career.
“Usually, martial arts films deal only with its physical element,” Li tells Scott Thill of Morphizm.com. “Physical power can be used in many movies, but it's just a device to help story and character. Films usually do not bring up the mental and philosophical elements of martial arts – how to use martial arts or how to become a true martial artist in life. Not many movies talk about this subject. From my understanding, there is nothing deeper than this. That's why I say this is the last martial arts movie for me.”
While Fearless might have a deeper meaning for Li than most of his other films, fans can rest easy knowing that more heart doesn't mean less action. Out of a 90-day shooting schedule, 60 days were spent filming action sequences. Director of photography Poon Hang Sang even points out that certain sequences were filmed at six times the normal speed so that Li's movements could be captured on camera and edited into the movie in slow motion. And while Yu admits Fearless was the most difficult picture he's ever made, he's also quick to point out it was one of the most special.
“I didn't want to confine Jet; I wanted to give him room to play,” Yu states when discussing the filming process. “With so much room [ Fearless marks the first time, out of nearly three dozen films in nearly 30 years, in which Li fights predominantly in an arena], magic comes up. Jet would bring in his own ideas, which would make the sequences better.”
Li adds, “We examined every style of Wushu (martial arts) there is – different styles, different weapons, different fighters – and the result is a film for true martial artists.”
Despite all the action, though, Li hopes audiences leave the theater remembering that Fearless illustrates the often forgotten truth about martial arts: that it is more than just fighting and violence.
“I made a lot of films where people use violence against violence,” Li tells Ricky Lo of The Philippine Star . “I always say that violence is not the only solution. Western reporters ask me, ‘Show me a movie where violence is not the only solution!' This film will show it.”
“This movie's philosophy is you can use martial arts to help people, not just for violence. That's another of my personal beliefs: violence is not the only solution. Wushu is not ‘I fight you, you fight me,' it's to stop that. You can beat up someone's body, but that doesn't change their heart.”
By telling the story of a trailblazing martial artist, Jet Li's Fearless affords the actor a valedictory on the subject as he moves into new phases of his storied career.
“It's not enough to know how to fight,” Li states. “You have to understand the spirit of martial arts. It's also not enough to have a strong body; you have to have a strong soul. Huo had both.”
Considering Huo's life was cut short when he was only 42-years-old, the same age Li was when he shot Fearless , it seems even more fitting that Li is branching out into other movie genres at this point in his career. Up next for the recently retired martial arts star is the action-thriller Rogue . Although it might not seem like such a drastic departure, Li has already gone on the record as saying is “not a typical Chinese, what we call kung fu or martial arts movie.” In fact, as Li explains to Stax on IGN.com while on the set of the LionsGate film, Rogue helps illustrate yet another reason why Li's stepping away from the martial arts genre.
“Martial arts in my mind is totally different,” Li says when discussing the lines between the martial arts and action genres. “The Chinese character, how they write about martial arts is to stop war. Stop the war or stop the fighting. The two words, put them together is martial art, like that kind of idea. But later on we take out the art. We only fight, fight, fight – show the violence only. But this kind of film ( Rogue ), an action film, I will continue playing. Action [is] just action. You can find a lot of physical contact, fights, street fights. In my own heart, it's not about art. It's a different type of movie.”
Only time will tell if Fearless really is Jet Li's last martial arts epic, if it is, Li couldn't be more satisfied with his final Wushu picture.
“I believe Jet Li's Fearless is my most personal and important martial arts movie,” Li concludes. “This film captures the martial arts beliefs and philosophies I have learned and experienced over the past 30 years.”
Jet Li's Fearless releases in theaters Sept. 22.