Martial Arts of Shaolin (Lau Kar-leung, 1986) — June 18, 2014
Of interest for the early Jet Li performance and the location shooting in China. A glimpse of things to come in the move out of the Shaws studios and into the big, varied world. Lau Kar-leung keeps putting Li in costumes (a monk, a lion, a woman), as if he’s not sure where his persona lies and is just trying stuff out. There was always a vagueness to Jet Li. The script lets everyone down: rote and a little dumb.
Added July 5, 2018:
Martial Arts of Shaolin, from 1986, was Lau Kar-leung’s first film to be shot in Mainland China and his only collaboration with Jet Li. It was part of a series of Shaolin films built around Li, all of which are unrelated to each other and unrelated to either Lau or Chang Cheh’s Shaolin stories. Li plays a monk who secretly harbors plans for revenge against the Manchu minister who killed his family. He sneaks away to the capital and fails in his assassination attempt, but hooks up with two other young people who had much the same plan. Li comes from the Northern Shaolin Temple, while the other two come from the Southern one, which accounts for the fact that Li, trained in a very different style from Lau’s Cantonese martial arts, moves completely unlike Gordon Liu. The primary draw of the film is the location shooting. While Lau was much more particular and inventive in his use of locations than Chang Cheh, rarely reusing the same locations in multiple films and forever finding new spaces for his complex fight scenes, he was always somewhat limited by Shaws’ studio-bound production standards. Filming on the Mainland afforded him vistas unlike anything available in the colony, from the vast courtyards of the capitol to gorgeous green mountains and rivers to the Great Wall itself. Lau pulls his camera back even further than usual to incorporate these features into his shots, giving us both the natural beauty of the environments as well as a more holistic view of the intricate choreography and skills of his highly-talented lead actors, like Jet Li (and later Donnie Yen and Wu Jing), members of the Beijing Wushu team.
Black Mask (Raymond Lee, 1996) — March 22, 2016
Saw this dubbed when it got released in the US in 1999. Surprisingly enough, it’s better in the original language. Best part of rewatching these movies now is recognizing the character actors: Lau Ching-wan as Jet Li’s cop buddy; Anthony Wong as a freaky drug dealer; Karen Mok as the librarian who might have a crush on Li. There’s even screenwriter Roy Szeto as one of the library co-workers and Story of a Discharged Prisoner director Patrick Lung Kong as the final villain.
Anyway, I’d still take this over every Marvel movie of the past decade.
Dr. Wai in ‘The Scripture with No Words’ (Ching Siu-tung, 1996) — March 21, 2016
This was one of the first Hong Kong films I ever saw, in one of the last HK double features Landmark ran in Seattle in the late 90s. Famously there are two versions of the film: an on-set fire destroyed a bunch of sets, which led to budget problems and some reshoots to make an international version, which dramatically altered the film’s storyline. I’m pretty sure that’s the version I saw back then. The Chinese version is a meta dual-timeline story about a pulp novelist (Jet Li) who has writer’s block because his wife (Rosamund Kwan) is leaving him. His assistants (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Charlie Yeung) start writing it for him, an Indiana Jones-style serial which we see acted out with the actors from the real world all playing counterpart characters in the fictional one.
The plot of the novel makes absolutely no sense, as various authors (including eventually Li and Kwan) change it on the fly to reflect their perspectives on the real world events and characters. As a commentary on the silliness of using art to reflect life, it has a kind of lunatic greatness, the ultimate expression of director/choreographer Ching Siu-tung’s rejection of verisimilitude in favor of the fantastic image. Also, Jet Li fights a pair of sumo wrestlers, Billy Chow, and a giant rat.
Guardians of Martial Arts (Wen Zhang, 2017) — November 18, 2017
Jack Ma, one of the richest men in the world, daydreams about fighting all the best martial arts stars, and because he’s so rich, they actually go along with it. Neat to see Tony Jaa, Wu Jing, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, etc all together, with Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-ping, and Ching Siu-tung doing the choreography. They do a respectable job of indulging the money.