Jet Li to Star in a new Tai Chi movie about Yang Luchan
The new movie, slated for 2012, is being co-produced by Jet Li and Huayi Brothers. Li’s insight into the art and the character will be based on his years of study in traditional “internal” and “external” martial arts.
Huayi Brothers Studios have played a roll in several successful movies, including “The Forbidden Kingdom” (2008) with Jet Li and Jacki Chan, and the 2004 mega-hit martial comedy, “Kung Fu Hustle” (simply called Gōngfū in China.)
However, this new film will be the first project by Huayi Brothers new subsidiary, Diversion Pictures.
By the sounds of it, this 15 million dollar movie, chronicling the many adventures of Yang Luchan, may become a trilogy. Yang Luchan was the famous 19th century tai chi master who learned tai chi at its birthplace and brought to Beijing. The style created by Yang Luchan and his descendants is called Yang Style Tai Chi, and is arguably the most popular style of tai chi in the World. Apparently, Yang’s life has too many great stories to be crammed into a single movie.
Li himself is expected to play Yang in the second film, with a different (as yet unnamed) actor playing the younger Yang in the first, and another actor filling the role for the third film.
This trailer of Jet Li’s 1993 hit, “Tai Chi Master” is provided courtesy of http://uk.filmtrailer.com
Jet Li gave tai chi a boost once before. In 1993 he starred in the film “Tai Chi Master” (called “Taiji Zhang Sanfeng 太極張三豐“ in China) in which he plays the mythical daoist hermit who is often credited with the creation of Tai Chi Chuan. In the USA, the movie was called “Twin Warriors”, clearly a marketing decision by executives who believed, probably correctly, that the movie going public in the USA would not associate tai chi with anything other than mild callisthenics for old people.
This misperception is extremely widespread, partly because tai chi is an exercise that is particularly good for seniors. The thorn in Jet Li’s side (one that I share) is that the general population does not think of it as being any more than that. The truly profound depth and power of tai chi is simply lost on most people.
Li has vowed to open a tai chi school himself in order to clear up the image of the ancient art.
Li began his road to fame when, at the tender age of 12 years, became the youngest ever champion of Wushu (Chinese martial arts). He stood on the podium, and was still not as tall as the silver and bronze medalists, who were in their 20’s. He is standing tall now, however, with nearly 50 movies and a video game in his resume. Western audiences know him from Hollywood blockbusters such as Lethal Weapon 4 (1998), Romeo Must Die (2000), Unleashed (2005), and The Expendables (2010). In China, however, he has been a star of sorts ever since his World Championship victory won him a trip to the USA and an audience with President Richard Nixon. (Nixon offered the young Lianjie a position as his bodyguard, but Li declined saying, “I would rather defend a billion countrymen than a single individual.” This earned him an early place in the national lore.
Li has been making movies in China since 1982, when he starred in that country’s first ever blockbuster hit film, “Shaolin Temple” (少林寺). This movie is credited with starting the modern craze for Shaolin Kungfu, and the resurrection of the Shaolin Temple.
There are many martial artists who might challenge Jet Li’s credentials for promoting authentic tai chi. “After all,” they might say, “he is a champion of modern wushu, which is itself a corrupted and emasculated version of traditional wushu. It was promoted by the communists as a safe and non-threatening sport in which parents and party leaders could feel comfortable enrolling the nation’s youth.”
But one must understand that Jet Li is actually an outspoken critic of modern wushu today. He is also far more of a traditional martial artist than most traditionalists realize. Like many traditionalists, he is able to perform the modern acrobatics when necessary, but his real strength in such performances is his ability to manifest deep internal power.
One must also remember that what martial artists do on the screen is not what they practice at home. Remember that the moves which Bruce Lee performed for the camera would not pass muster in his own school.
I might be tempted to agree with the sceptics if the art that Jet Li had become famous for was the modern wushu that one sees today. The sport has been greatly changed by bureaucratic interference and the need to make the quality of performance easier to quantify. Now the judges can be younger and less experienced than they could in the tournaments of Jet Li’s day.
Back then, the judges were grandmasters and lineage holders, the top of the field. Wushu World championships were won with scores of 9.0 – 9.5 out of 10. No one even got close to a perfect score because the judges knew what should be possible, and mastery was never achieved by students as young as the competitors. As time went on, however, standardized judging required that competitors be judged according to a sliding scale. The standard was not master, but the level that could be expected by competitors of the time. So, the best performance that could be achieved by a current international competitor would be the standard by which all other competitors would be judged. They would not be judged according to deeper and more profound principles.
As wushu competitions continued to be more and more “standardized” there was a need to impose new choreography so that younger and younger judges could measure it more easily. That is why you now see tai chi competitions where athletes are expected to perform ridiculous acrobatics that would never be seen in a traditional tai chi routine. At the same time, the more profound and important principles of internal power, martial spirit, and peace of mind are removed from the equation entirely.
In the old days, the masters who were recruited to coach and judge the communist sanctioned martial arts were all people who were respected for their traditional martial arts and gongfu (“Kung fu”). The taught the arts with an understanding of the true meaning, and they passed this esoteric knowledge on to worthy students. Competitors like Jet Li had the opportunity to study with many of the great masters. And contrary to some foreign propaganda, there were many great masters who survived the Cultural Revolution and did not leave China.
Jet Li, being a star and favoured by his coach and task master, Wu Bin, was permitted access to the most of the best teachers of the time. In addition, he would visit the judges after each event and beg them (some might say “harassed”) to advise him on ways that he might improve.
Jet Li was also very creative and inquisitive in his training. He very quickly realized the limitations of his knowledge, even after winning the national championships 3 times in a row. He made a point to seek out traditional teachers and to research the inner secrets himself.
Li is not a bureaucrat, and he does not seem to feel hamstrung by the limitations imposed by obstinate bureaucracy. He is outspoken, and far from a conformist. He is an active student of Tibetan Buddhism (Kagyu School under Lho Kunsang.) His philosophy and lifestyle reflect a deep understanding of the deep essence of martial arts, and particularly of internal arts like Tai Chi, Xingyiquan, and Baguazhang.
Tai chi has been watered down in many places, but can still be found in its pure form. Their are various reasons for the “weakening of the soup”. Some see it as a result of standardization and micromanaging by the Chinese “establishment.” By applying confucian and communist party sensibilities to any arts, the actual artistry becomes nothing more than craft. Creativity is sacrificed so that the marketability can be quantified. Everyone must create art that is sanctioned or recognized in order to get the support of the government.
On September 10, 2011, Li made a speech to the 8th Netrepreneur Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, in which he decried the way in which China’s business interests are promoted. China has spent billions of dollars to export its culture, but the efforts have clearly lacked creativity or imagination. There is the typical propaganda that seems to say “This is government sanctioned propaganda!” Any attempt to generate true creativity will always be stifled in China because there will always be a point where the production needs to pass some anti-counter-revolutionary bureaucrat who cares more for his or her own job than for the actual quality of the art. In this way, the Chinese bureaucracy is just like many mega-corporations anywhere else in the world. Real art, and free thought is at the mercy of people who are afraid of what other people might think.
While China is the most populous country in the world, its cultural influence is limited. That will always be the case if the government continues to micromanage art and expression.
To take a lesson from tai chi, they are trying to hold the water by squeezing it tightly. They don’t understand why it slips through their fingers.
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