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July 23, 2015

Jet Li: Chinese Masculinity and Transnational Stardom

jet li book cover.jpg

Sabrina Qiong Yu - 2012
Edinburgh University Press

What I did find most useful here is a discussion on the difference between martial arts as practiced in life, as opposed to martial arts as a performance for film. This is a point of contention for some audience members who have concerns about authenticity. Jet Li had already established himself as a mainland Chinese national champion well before he became a movie star, first in Chinese language cinema, and eventually, with uneven results, with English language films. It was through working with Tsui Hark on the Once Upon a Time in China series that Li understood the difference in how his physical performance appeared on film, and has adjusted that performance to fit the camera. Li's ease of accommodating the camera is contrasted with the two martial arts stars that preceded him, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. As Yu points out, Lee proves his authenticity by performing bare chested, while Chan uses outtakes during the final credits to reiterate that he is doing his own stunts.

In terms of representations of Chinese masculinity, Yu is interested in the dual readings generated by several of the films starring Li. Yu's methods may be called into question as there is no consistency regarding her sources for these readings, whether they be professional critics, fans, or in one case, a captive audience of fellow former students. What is clarified, is that Jet Li sexual chasteness in most of his films is his own choice, that he is uncomfortable expressing romantic feelings in his own life as well as before a camera.

Too much information? Maybe. On the other hand, it does help explain why Li and Brigit Fonda don't do much more than exchange glances in Kiss of the Dragon. Without understanding this aspect of Jet Li, this makes Kiss of the Dragon appear to be not much more than an updated version of Broken Blossoms, but with an actual Chinese star and martial arts, rather than Richard Bathelmess or Emlyn Williams in yellow face saving the white woman. And fortunately, we are also beyond calling someone "Chinky" as a term of endearment. Why Li's choice of onscreen chastity is important is that it is sometimes interpreted as a continuation of the Chinese man in western screens as being asexual in western films opposite Fonda, or Aaliyah in Romeo must Die.

A bigger problem exists in discussing Swordsman II. Essentially, Li's character falls in love with a character played by Brigitte Lin, a transgender, a man who castrated himself to become more female, and attain certain martial arts secrets. The questions raised here are whether or not Swordsman II is a portrayal of same sex attraction, and whether or not Brigitte Lin's taking of the role as the object of Jet Li's affection defines their relationship. What confounds me in this examination of how Swordsman II is that Ms. Yu does not even mention the Chinese theatrical tradition of two men or two women portraying a heterosexual couple. Yu is right about one thing regarding Swordsman II, with Brigitte Lin as the appropriately named Asia the Invincible, it's difficult to remember who else is in this film.

Even within the span of three years since initial publication, Yu's assessment of Jet Li's career indicates that it may be too early to draw any conclusions. Li's sole performance as a dramatic actor, in Oceans Heaven is an anomaly. At age 52, Li has continued to be in films produced primarily for Chinese language audiences where he still displays virtuoso physical dexterity, alternating with increasingly thankless appearances in Sylvester Stallone's Expendables series, I would think primarily to maintain a presence for western audiences. That Jet Li has achieved a measure of stardom in English language films, something that eluded Chow Yun-Fat, brings up the question that not only applies to Chinese actors, is mastery in martial arts a prerequisite for for an Asian actor to any degree of western stardom? It is also quite possible that there will be no transnational actor like Jet Li, or Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee, as with the commercial explosion of mainland Chinese film, there is a diminished need to appeal to western audiences.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 23, 2015 11:21 AM