“Jet Li incarnates a radiant, but intangible, masculinity…” Leon Hunt commenting on Once Upon A Time in China in Kung Fu Cult Masters, p. 146
Once Upon A Time in China (OUTIC) is a seminal film in the Hong Kong Martial Arts film genre. An unexpected box office hit when it was released in the early 90s, it revived a jaded Hong Kong audience’s appetite for martial arts movies within a historical setting. It spawned a string of sequels, and influenced the so called ‘New Wave’ of Hong Kong martial arts movies in the 1990s. It also made Jet Li’s career. Prior to this movie Li had made 6 films, and his career had enjoyed mixed fortunes. The first 3 (the Shaolin Temple films) were very successful, but the following 3 weren’t. OUTIC seemed to rescue a career that was flagging.
Prior to OUTIC, Li had made The Master, which was his first collaboration with Tsui Hark, who not only directed, but co-wrote and produced OUTIC. Upon watching The Master, what is staggering is that Tsui cast Li as iconic martial arts hero Wong Fei Hung in OUTIC. The earlier film is lightweight and contemporary urban in setting. Li’s part (as in all his pre-OUTIC films) is basically that of a likeable and earnest youth with fantastic martial arts skills. Don’t get me wrong – he acquits himself well in all of his early films. He looks cute as a button, and expresses the right emotion at the right times. The camera loves him, and he is engaging and charismatic. But none of these early parts demand anything of great depth or subtlety.
“None of his films prior to Once Upon A Time in China suggest anything like a star persona, or acting abilities that rise above the monochrome emotional scale of formulaic action movies.” Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, p. 143
His role in Born to Defence was his most emotionally demonstrative, but this film still does not have the subtlety of OUTIC, and Li’s part in Born to Defence is that of a young and uncomplicated person, someone, as Hunt says, with a “monochrome emotional scale”. The emotions, while strong, are similarly uncomplicated. In terms of acting parts like these, the challenge is to allow yourself to let it all hang out, and they require an investment of energy and a lack of inhibition, but not much subtlety, or nuance.
So the question remains – just what did Tsui see in him on the set of The Master or (perhaps) in viewings of the earlier films? The character of Wong Fei Hung is based on a real life martial arts master and patriotic hero of the same name. He is a sifu, a trainer and chief of other martial artists; a community leader and Chinese doctor who is responsible for influencing the welfare, and even morals, of others. This is the sort of character that needs to be played with dignity and authority. Due to his position in society and the responsibilities he bears, plus the cultural mores he was brought up with, this character just would not be believable if he were too demonstrative or transparent. The Wong Fei Hung in OUTIC is a character who would have to handle himself with restraint and discipline. So the challenge in playing this part is to perform it in such a way that the dignified and restrained sifu is believably portrayed, all the while suggesting a man of emotional depth that the audience wants to like, sympathise and engage with. This is a much harder acting challenge than just building up some uncomplicated, if powerful, emotion and letting it all pour out.
Tsui’s casting decision proved to be shrewd, and whatever instincts he drew upon to cast Li as Wong were justified. Li brings it off beautifully. He brings a gravitas and authority to this role that belies his youthful appearance and transcends his physical beauty (although being handsome and charismatic was probably no handicap when it came to winning an audience over). His performance is subtly interlaced with fleeting, but telling, expressions of feeling that suggest that underneath the surface restraint Wong is a man of deep emotion and heightened sensitivity. His performance (and indeed the whole film) is beautifully shot and directed, so that these small but revealing moments of emotion are carefully rendered and presented to the audience. In this film there are many close ups of the eyes or face, and the beautiful lighting often underlines the emotion being portrayed. One lovely sequence in the film happens towards the end of the movie when Wong is in prison. Shots of him sitting in his cell are inter-cutt with shots of his (as yet unavowed) romantic interest, Aunt Yee, carrying a lamp. The shots of Aunt Yee are connected to those in the gaol by the lighting. The flickering light of Aunt Yee’s lamp is mirrored by the flickering of a torch that is being carried through the gaol. This beautiful lighting catches the expression on Wong’s face as he thinks about a beloved person whom he assumes that he may never see again. Li’s acting here is very subtle, but clearly conveys the impression of great sadness and acute emotional pain. This is just one example of how, in this movie, direction, cinematography and performance combine to give the viewer an insight into the buried feelings of this habitually non-transparent character. In his commentary on the DVD release of this film, Bey Logan makes a lovely point about the portrayal of Wong Fei Hung. He says that we are given the impression of severity overlying passion, of deep emotions that are buckled down – sometimes with effort. Logan points out that with such superior martial arts ability at his disposal, Wong cannot let his emotions overpower his self discipline. Logan goes on to say that physically Wong can handle almost any circumstance, morally he has a strict compass, but socially, or one on one, he is often awkward and uncomfortable. This quality of a character holding himself back makes him an interesting one. In his book Kung Fu Cult Masters, Leon Hunt also puts it nicely when he says
“Li’s dramatic speciality is the tension between big (even repressed) emotions and the heroic need for reticence and control…” p. 142
Doing this is a complicated acting challenge, and it is a testament to Li’s talent that he can bring it off so well.
This is the first part of a blog about Jet Li as Wong Fei Hung. I will post part 2 next in which I comment on the physical aspects of his performance …