Two of Asia's biggest stars come together for the first time onscreen in a film dubbed as a dream come true for Chinese martial arts lovers.
If Jet Li fights Jackie Chan, who will win?
The audience will, says Rob Minkoff, director of The Forbidden Kingdom (Gongfu Zhi Wang), which is the first time that the two Chinese superstars are working together in one project.
Despite comparisons in the media that unwittingly turned them into rivals, the two have been friends since they first met in the 1980s. That time, Hong Kong-born Chan was a rising star and Beijing-born Li was China's national martial arts champion.
They met in the US where Chan was making a movie and Li came to attend a martial arts event. Afterwards, Li visited Hong Kong with Chan acting as his tour guide.
"I would drive to pick him up and take him around Hong Kong. I don't know why we were sneaking around. I liked him very much," Chan, 54, said.
"When I first came to Hong Kong, I was always asking Jackie Chan out. We 'dated' secretly for many years," Li, 44, countered.
To which Chan quipped: "But I found out I still liked women so we split up."
On the set, the director had to remind both Chan and Li to slow down in their fight scenes because they were too quick. The battles between Li and Chan, choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000), gave each a chance to express his different style and personality.
"Jet was serious. He has learned traditional martial arts from a very young age, while Chan was hilarious and lighthearted," Yuen said. "He can do a bit of everything."
Chan said they both wanted to show off, adding that though this was the first time he was working together with Li, it felt like they have been collaborating for a long time.
"It felt so natural after just one rehearsal even when it was very complex. When Yuen Wo Ping said, "Let's rehearse again," I said, "We don't need to, let's just shoot!" And Jet looked at me and went, "OK! Let's shoot!" It was like a challenge."
Li likened the fight scenes to an Olympic showdown. "We have both fought with many others before but sometimes it was like an Olympic table tennis champion playing against a table tennis amateur, they might not be in step," Li said.
In his fights with Chan, however, "we are both Olympic champions. I hit a ball and he hits it back. He makes a move and I get it quickly. So naturally we fight faster and faster".
Seeing them together on the big screen is indeed a dream come true for Chinese martial art lovers. The Forbidden Kingdom story starts with a dream. Jason, an American teenage kungfu fan enters a fantastic world through the "gate of no gate" and embarks on a mission to rescue the Monkey King, who's trapped in a stone by his foe, Jade Warlord. Like the young Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, Jason has several powerful escorts, including a silent monk played by Li and a drunken wanderer played by Chan.
The family-friendly film is a collaboration of scriptwriter John Fusco and Li. Several years ago Li was seeking a story for his daughter, and from a number of candidates sent to him, he picked Fusco's, which was loosely adapted from the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. It is a mix of Chinese mythology and tales, and features a chaotic scene in which the Monkey King and Shaolin Temple monks fight together.
However, Li worried that the story was too much of a spoof for Chinese audience to accept. He suggested changing the storyline into a dream sequence. In dreams, anything can happen.
Minkoff is also quick to assure Chinese cinemagoers that the film in no way cheapens Chinese culture. He was even told by his Chinese wife, a descendant of Confucius, and her parents that they would not tolerate cultural mockery.
"They put great pressure on me," he said jokingly. "I made sure that the characters are true to themselves and to the core values they were endowed by Chinese culture."
Li has also helped introduce Chinese philosophy to the film. For example, when Jason asks Li's monk what to do when he is in danger, the monk replies: "Keep breathing." The two masters not only teach the boy kungfu, but also the importance of respecting his teachers.
"It has long been my wish to promote Chinese culture," Li says. "But it is a huge and complicated culture, so we may have to start with a simple approach first. To present a little bit of everything in an interesting way may be easier for Western audiences."
The good news for kungfu enthusiasts is that fight scenes take up a lot of screen time. There are a variety of kungfu styles on show, including the crane and tiger fist, no shadow kick and drunken kungfu. Minkoff grew up in the bay area of San Francisco. Like Jason in the film, as a little boy he went to Chinatown a lot. But what piqued his interest in Chinese culture were kungfu films.
"In Chinese kungfu movies, typically two things are being expressed," he says. "One is the physical act of the fighting, and the spiritual side of the teaching, involving experience and conscience."
Minkoff's first Chinese kungfu film was King Hu's Come Drink With Me (Da Zui Xia), in 1966. He is fond of Bruce Lee and Shaw's films, too. In The Forbidden Kingdom, he goes out of his way to pay tribute to the old kungfu films.
Chan's drunken wanderer is a nod to his 1978 film Drunken Master (Zui Quan), while the silent monk Li reminds many of his character in The Shaolin Temple (Shaolin Si). Young actress Liu Yifei's supporting role as Golden Sparrow is inspired by Pei-pei Cheng's character in Come Drink With Me, while the white-haired witch is almost a replica of Lien Ni-chang, the heroine in Ronny Yu's The Bride of White Hair (Baifa Monu Zhuan).
In Minkoff's eyes, the two superstars are just like Buddha and his disciple.
"Li was like a disciple of the Buddha, but Chan is the Buddha himself," he says. "Jet is very serious and religiously dedicated to Buddhism. Jackie is not, he is free, always bringing happiness to people around him."
The crew took part in a big ceremony for the opening of the film, which was a very traditional Chinese gesture to pay tribute to the Buddha. As Minkoff recalled, Chan was quite lighthearted about it, while Li was serious and dedicated.
The two's cooperation, says Minkoff, is like the Beatles. Each is good, but when you put them together, it is magic.
"It's history. As time goes on, it will become historic. Even if you do it again, this is the first time," he says. (By LIU WEI in Beijing/ China Daily/ AsiaNews)