Jet Li in person: “Just because I’m a mainlander, I’m supposed to expect this kind of treatment?”, the films (1)
Превод на български виж ТУК.
As a huge fan of the eastern Mortal Arts and moreover of the appealing to me people in the film industry, Jet Li was one of those, who I was happy to explore close and therefore years ago I used to check from time to time his beautiful website with interest, where I found a lot of stories and essays written himself (in English). Some of my favourite readings were his stories about the shooting process of his films in the aspect what he learned through it each time – growing up. Here you are some (part 1)… Enjoy! (For his life essays, written wonderfully and with lovely sense of humor from end to end, click HERE.)
– the Editor, Ralie Blag
Video above: “Shaolin Temple” full movie (English)
Jet talks about “Shaolin Temple”
We didn’t know how movies were made. And there were no action choreographers. Instead, the director told us the basic story, and we took what we had learned in class to design our own fight scenes. We’d show the director what we had come up with, and he’d say, “Well, in this scene, you have the advantage” or “Your character should be more vulnerable. Make the villain stronger.” And we’d go back and change it. Come back for more feedback. Go back and change it again. Before the movie even began shooting, we’d already choreographed all our fight scenes. It’s not like most Hong Kong movies, where you create the action on the set, on location. We didn’t know any better and we had no experience, so we made up most of it ourselves. It was a good learning experience.
My memories of the filming involve all four seasons – winter, spring, summer and autumn – because it took 2 years to make that movie! Well, definitely more than 12 months. The role called for us all to shave our heads, of course. That made winter a very cold proposition. Woollen caps were an absolute necessity. Then came the heat of summer and we tossed away the caps. After a few more months, we still hadn’t finished shooting. Wintertime rolled around again. Out came the caps. All of those movies from the 80’s took about that long to make. Very slow.
The best part about making that movie was… that we didn’t have to train anymore! Good-bye to 8 hours a day of mandatory drills and practice. Compared to what we’d gone through for the past few years, making a movie was a breeze! Even though we were waking up at 5 or 6 to get to the set, and shooting from 8 until sunset, this was nothing. This was relaxing. Didn’t we have to fight all day? Sure, but this was nowhere near as tiring as wushu class. In fact, after we finished the day’s shoot, we’d go out again and play soccer or basketball. There must have been about 30-40 of us young people. It was like we had too much energy.
And we weren’t very nervous either, since we were used to being around cameras from childhood. Acting, though, was a little harder… that was something that we had to work at. But to be able to take something of your own and put it up there on the big screen – that was a genuine pleasure.
The worst part of making the movie, I’d have to say, was not physical. Like I said, shooting for 10 hours a day was not a problem. But Henan in December is very chilly, and we had to shoot by the Yellow River – the river where ice floes drift downstream in the winter. There was a scene in the movie which called for our characters to fall into the river, climb out and then start fighting. Falling in… oh man. The act of willing yourself to jump into that icy river, wearing only a thin set of clothes… Never before – and never since – have I experienced such intense coldness. You jump into the water, and by the time you surface, you’re frozen. Imagine your whole body numbed away. You can’t feel your own…well, you’re already past the point of being able to feel pain. There’s nothing. The only sensation I had was that something was throbbing in the water… boum boum boum… and that it was probably my heart.
So we thought that we only had to endure this once – for maybe 5 minutes – and then it would be over. Ha! Little did we know that the fight scene on the riverbank would take another week to shoot. For the purposes of continuity, it had to look like we’d just crawled out of the water. So every morning, we had no choice but to take a bucket of that icy water and pour it over ourselves. Agony! Not so much an agony of the body than of willpower. The rest of the cast and crew were standing by wearing thick overcoats, but we had to douse ourselves with ice. Sure, we tried hot water, but it would be freezing by the time it hit the body. In the movie, that fight scene probably lasts two minutes, but the process of shooting it took us about 3 or 4 days. Oh, it was hard. And back in those days, we had no protective clothing. Nowadays, we have thermal this and waterproof that. Back then, we didn’t know about these things, and anyway the budget wasn’t very large. The only thing we could afford was our own stamina. After the fourth day of shooting, though, I couldn’t extend my fingers anymore. My striking palm had shrivelled up into a claw. It took a week of Chinese medicinal treatment to regain the full use of my hands. I guess the tendons had shrunk from all that repeated freezing and thawing!
Pretty memorable, that movie.
Jet talks about “Shaolin Kids”
The genesis of the storyline for Shaolin Kids was our own youthful mischief. The writers asked us actors about our experiences and we told them about what it was like to grow up in a wushu school. They took these anecdotes of playfulness and friendship, of teasing and tricks, and fashioned them into a narrative and set it in ancient times–boys representing Shaolin, girls representing Wudang. Actually, although the setting of the film is historical, it’s not based in any particular historical period; this is fitting, because the stories themselves are timeless: about girls and boys training together and growing up together. I like to think that the film conveys that feeling of camaraderie and joviality.
The movie took about 10 months to film, which means the cast and crew experienced all the seasons again. And again, probably the most memorable thing about the movie was the weather. Shaolin Temple may have been too cold, but Shaolin Kids left me with my worst memories of heat. There’s actually a rule in China that when the weather gets too hot, businesses and schools shut down. If the temperature exceeds 40 degrees Celsius (102° F), people have the right not to go to work. We were filming the movie in Hangzhou. One day, the weather forecast was 42° C. Everything else in the city had shut down, but we had to continue filming.
One of our favorite things to do was to cook eggs on the ground. Around noon, we’d crack an egg onto the ground, sit around it with our watches, and count how long it took for it to cook. Within a few minutes, it was ready to eat – guaranteed.
Not that any of us had much of an appetite. All we wanted was ice water. We’d walk around hugging our big bottles of cold water–we guzzled bottle after bottle of water, and then we’d go shoot our fight scene.
The weather was so blisteringly hot that even ordinary activities became hazardous. We soon found that whenever any of us took a fall and put a hand to the ground to push himself up, the heat of the ground would take off a layer of skin. So the crew had to water the ground constantly. Right before a take, they sprayed water all over the area to be filmed. We’d shoot a scene, and as soon as it was over, they’d start watering the ground again. Too hot. Imagine what it was like with the sun directly overhead. By my own reckoning, it must have reached 45° C (111° F) on some occasions. During fight scenes, it was not uncommon for one of us to go into shock from the heat. You’d be fighting, and suddenly somebody would topple over. Somebody would revive us and then we’d have to shoot the scene again. I don’t think there was a single one of us who didn’t have that experience.
I don’t know why making movies was so hard back then. Really, I’ve often said that I could make three movies in the 90’s with the energy I spent making one movie in the 80’s! Who knew that making films would prove to be such a test of the will? Maybe it’s because the style of filmmaking that was preferred back then made different demands on us. Because the directors liked to film entire fight scenes in a single shot, each take might last 30-40 seconds. They kept the camera in one place, without changing angles. This was to show that the actors’ gongfu was real. Nowadays, of course, nobody uses real power in movie fighting. You’ll never see more than two movements in a single shot before the director cuts to a different angle, pulls back, zooms in, etc.
There were other ups and downs to the experience of making Shaolin Kids, of course. For example, sometimes we would shoot in areas where running water was not available. So when we returned to our quarters at night, we would boil a big cauldron of water. Everybody would take a gourd and ladle out their share of hot water–and that was your bathwater for the day! We lived like the poorest peasants. I think actors today might have a hard time imagining the conditions we worked under.
Jet talks about “Martial Arts of Shaolin”
To tell the truth, I didn’t really want to make a third Shaolin movie, but for various reasons, I had to. Unlike the first two films, none of us in the cast had much creative participation on Shaolin Temple 3, because the studio had hired Lau Ka-leung, a big Hong Kong director. In fact, this movie engaged a lot more people from Hong Kong for both the crew and the cast. On the previous two movies, everybody had been a mainlander. Now they were even bringing in stunt doubles from Hong Kong to help out with the shoot. Soon we started to notice certain discrepancies.
For Shaolin Temple, all of us had been paid 1 yuen/day. For Shaolin Kids, the cast and crew received 2 yuen/day. At the time, I hadn’t thought too much about it; I didn’t have a very clear concept of money. By the third movie, though, because I was a little older, I had a more mature perspective on things. I was starting to notice the existence of inequality in the world.
In a situation where all of us were earning the same amount of money — if the lead actor and the lowest extra are both earning 1 yuen/day — there wasn’t much we could do about it, because we were working within a certain system. If we are living in a society which is organized along systematic lines to ensure that the distribution is completely equitable, I have no basis to dispute it. But if you bring in people from another system (in this case, Hong Kong) who are earning 150,000 yuen/month to your 3 yuen/day — and they don’t actually do anything — then you start to notice social inequity. Backlash sets in; you develop a resentment against the work itself.
I wanted to ask the movie studio in Hong Kong why they were treating their two crews differently — why they were creating divisions within a group that was supposed to work together. As lead actor, my job was quite a bit more demanding than that of a stunt double. I was fighting on camera from morning until night while they stood in back waving their swords and yelling – and yet they were earning more than I did? I began wondering if I wanted to stay in this line of work.
I don’t want it to sound like it was only me. There were many people on the set working very hard for next to nothing, simply because they were from China. The contradictions started to pile up in my heart as I realized that others perceived us and our work as less valuable. I started to think: “Just because I’m a mainlander, I’m supposed to expect this kind of treatment?”
Don’t get me wrong: it wasn’t all about money. We were separated by more than our salaries. The two crews even ate differently. We ate our simple mainland lunches, and the Hong Kong crew ate Cantonese food, which was provided to them via special catering.
In a commercial society, perhaps, this kind of stratification is very common — even expected. In Hollywood, for example, the measure of an actor’s stardom is the size of his trailer. But when discrimination is based on nationality, something is terribly wrong. It defied all logic. The studio was depending on me to sell their movie, but they weren’t treating me with the most basic level of respect. In a capitalist society, this would be unacceptable. In a socialist society, it was intolerable.
As a result of these conditions, my heart wasn’t into the actual filmmaking. Instead of devoting myself to the act of making the movie, I was constantly resisting the circumstances under which the movie was being made. This came to a head with a certain incident on the set involving a 4:00 a.m. shot. As you may know, scenes set at sunrise and sunset are the most difficult shots to film because the window of opportunity is so limited. A minute or two too late and the light is no longer what you need. In order to seize that brief moment, the crew must start preparing several hours ahead of time. We had such a shot in Shaolin Temple 3; all of us had to wake up at 2:00 a.m. to get to our location on time and set up the equipment. As daybreak approached, we all became very anxious…because the director was nowhere in sight. We waited.
The first light of morning came…
We waited until 10:00 a.m. That’s when the director finally showed up.
His first words were: “Aiya! The light’s all wrong! Weren’t we planning a sunrise shot? Oh well, guess we can’t do anything about it now. Let’s call it a day.”
I felt like we were being toyed with. I believed that we had been the victims of a power play, or a mind game — and that this little exercise had been completely unnecessary. Because of that incident, I went to great lengths to find the producer and to say these words to him:
“I may not know much about making movies. I’ve only made two, and I’m very young. So can I ask you a simple question? If the shot list calls for a scene to be shot at daybreak and the crew is ready at 3:00 a.m., and then the director shows up at 10:00 a.m. and says the light’s all wrong, is he wrong or am I? See, I really don’t understand much about filmmaking, and I’d like to learn. If you say I’m wrong, then I guess I really don’t understand this industry, in which case I promise to go back home right now and never make another movie.
“On the other hand,” I continued, “if you think the director’s the one who needs to learn something about filmmaking, then maybe you’ll agree that he owes the entire cast and crew an apology.”
Well, here I am, still making movies.
So many problems cropped up during the making of that film. The set was brimming over with complex struggles; it really opened my eyes to issues of power and class. It was certainly the most tension-filled film I’ve ever worked on.
(read also about “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Kiss of the Dragon”, “The Matrix” HERE)