In China, JET LI is the biggest star since Jackie Chan. But though he's kicked Mel Gibson's butt and given Shakespeare the martial arts treatment, Li's move to America has not always been easy. Words: Judith Ho
From mainstream to arthouse, Chinese cinem . in America, stylish auteur WONG KAR-WAI is
The super stylish films of WONG KAR-WAI have brought the Hong Kong filmmaker international acclaim. But the
writer-director-producer has no intention of going west. Words: Miles Fielder
AT SFT 6|N AND DRESSED ALL IN BLACK, JET LI COULD WALK THROUGH any street in Britain and not turn a head. Yet, in Warner Brothers' waiting room, the head of many a dizzy fan is spinning. Goggle- eyed hacks from France, Portugal and Greece have flown into London specially. The pretext is 'interview', but autograph books are at the ready.
In the West, Jet Li boasts a mere cult following; on home turf (mainland China and, since the 905, Hong Kong) he is the biggest star since Jackie Chan. An ex-martial arts champion, he started training at the age of eight before kicking and punching his way around the world. At the age of seventeen he decided he'd do it all over again, but this time on celluloid. He's starred in 25 Hong Kong films, including the enormously popular Once Upon A Time In China series, and does his own stunts every time.
Li looks not in the least like an action star, not only is he slight-framed, he is effusive, bright-eyed, even giggly. He goes so far as to claim he is shy (something his co-star, R&B diva and MTV award winner Aaliyah later confirms), but there is little evidence of that today; he is animated and personable. Then again, he's so far hit our screens only as the villain in Lethal Weapon 4. He almost didn't accept the part, unwilling to be typecast in the Oriental baddie mould. He is frank: ‘I've never played a villain before, rather the good guys in Hong Kong movies. I worried about it. So Joel Silver [the film’s producer] said, "OK, here is another offer".’ This offer was a two-film deal. The second role, two years later, is as the hero in Romeo Must Die.
It is the lengthiness of the Hollywood filmmaking process that Li has found the biggest culture shock since his move to LA. 'Hong Kong is just like a small family, two brothers who make decisions
IT'S MAY 1997. I'M IN CANNES AT THE FILM FESTIVAL, SITTING WITH WONG Kar-Wai who’s wearing his trademark cool shades. He’s describing to me how he had planned to distort the image of his second film, 1991’s Days Of Being Wild, so it would be stretched across the cinema screen to almost twice its width. It’s a dreamy tale of a man wandering through Hong Kong in the 60s, see? Kar-Wai’s plan never came to fruition, but it does illustrate the lengths this internationally renowned art house filmmaker will go to in order to push the boundaries.
Cut to August 2000. I’m in Edinburgh’s Sheraton Hotel during the film festival, again sitting with Kar-Wai who’s still wearing his shades. He’s asking me if I’ll let him know whether the mono soundtrack on the working print of his latest film, In The Mood For Love, which I saw in Cannes this year, is better or worse than the stereo soundtrack on the final print that’s going to close Edinburgh tonight. ’The mono sound is more direct,’ he says. ’Perhaps it suits the setting.’ Then, Kar-Wai gives me his business card, which is very stylish, just like his films.
In The Mood For Love is a super stylish romance set in 605 Hong Kong, hence the mono question. Innovation in this film also has narrative origins: a married man and a married woman embark on an affair, but Kar-Wai focuses on the cuckolded pair, played by Hong Kong stars Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung. ’We wanted them to play all the parts,’ says the director. ’We wanted to make comparisons between the wives and the husbands, but it was too complicated.’ Instead, we never see the lovers.
This is the first film Kar—Wai has made since Hong Kong reverted to
Chinese rule. Any significance in the period setting? ’I don't
think it was very conscious,’ says Kar-Wai. ’I was young in Hong Kong in that year . I lived in an apartment like the one in the film, everything was very warm and friendly. I wanted to create that feeling again.’
' In The Mood For Love derives its considerable erotic charge from the unrequited nature of Cheung and Leung’s