Jet Li remains one of the hottest action stars around, with his latest film, Kiss of the Dragon, his most elaborate outside of Hong Kong. Li plays Liu Jiuan, a mysterious operative who travels from Shanghai to Paris on a mission so sensitive, the details are unclear even to him.
A few clues lead Liu to Jean-Pierre Richard, a brutally corrupt cop. When the mission goes horribly wrong, Liu falls into a deadly trap and becomes embroiled in a vast conspiracy - accused of a murder he didn't commit, on the run in a city he doesn't know. When Liu is thrown together with an American woman forced into prostitution, the unlikely duo goes up against the cunning and ruthless adversary who set this trap in motion. Paul Fischer spoke to Li in Los Angeles' Four Seasons Hotel.
Question: With "Kiss of the Dragon," you're making a Hong Kong style movie with primarily a French cast, in Paris, but in English for the American market. How was that culturally?
Answer: I think that's why we wanted to do it that way. I think Hong Kong makes a lot of good action movies, but their production quality is not as good as American films. America has a lot of special talent, and creative people. They know the quality so well, and then they put the Asian martial art in it, and make American action films. But we know the market has a lot of those kinds of films that use cables, computer-generated effects, that can make the actor and actresses trained in a few months do martial arts. We've seen this, so now maybe it's time to do something different. Luc Besson is quite creative as a producer. From his angle, he sees things differently.
Also, I think the Wachowski brothers are very amazing, talented. They see a Hong Kong action movie that's done a hundred times, but they use the other angle to see it. Tell it. And we think it's brand new. Amazing. But, we know the movement is the same thing. But they see things differently. So that's what we wanted, to do something different, see something different. We discussed it, and created it from the beginning. Then I think, three weeks later we have a script. Six weeks later we're shooting in Paris. Very quick! Because, we were talking about how different it is making movies in Asia and Europe and the States. When I saw how it was in Europe, it was very close to Asia. Like a small family, you shake hands then off you go! Everything has a lot of energy.
Question: So how did you and Luc Besson get together on this project?
Answer: Years ago, my manager, whose also the producer of this movie, called and said that Luc was in Los Angeles and that he wanted to meet with me. I said OK, so we just sat down and discussed the differences between making a movie in Europe, Hong Kong and the States. He asked me that question and I told him that the American movie industry is like a big family. You have your mother, father, brother, sister, sister-in-law, auntie, uncle, everything. So if you wanna make a movie, you need to make everybody happy. It takes two years, maybe three years to finish one movie. But in Hong Kong, it's a small family. If I want to do something, I tell my brother, I want to do this, this or this, and he says, "great, let's do it!" So two months later, we start production already. We don't need people to proof it all because the family is small. And he said that he can do the same thing in Paris. So we shook hands and three weeks later we had a script. Six weeks later, we started shooting in Paris. KISS OF THE DRAGON...a lot of energy and independent.
Question: The action in this movie is more violent than a lot of your Hong Kong movies, how did you feel about that?
Answer: I think it is more real. In Hong Kong, we make a lot of action movies. Usually we see that this character is a hero, he comes out the hero, fights from beginning to end, and he's the hero. He never loses. That's why I think Luc is unique to create this character in the beginning. We don't want a superhero to save the day. Why not do something where this man is not perfect, a little bit selfish, who only works on what he's doing, doesn't know how to deal with girls, more like a real person.
Question: What other projects are you working on?
Answer: "I will do one movie called "Hero", that Zhang Yimou will direct. It's a Chinese film. For action movies, you can use martial arts to talk about love, maybe use martial arts to talk about what kind [of] person you can call a hero. Through different kinds of angles you can see martial arts."
Question: Is it true you passed on the "Matrix - Part 2?"
Answer: Yes, Part 2 and Part 3. First of all, the Wachowski brothers are friends of mine. We always talk about making movies, and they love Hong Kong action movies. And I liked "Matrix Part I" a lot. I think it's a very successful movie. I can guarantee Part 2 and Part 3 will be successful. Why do you need Jet Li in it? They're already successful! Meanwhile, I have time to do my work. I made "Kiss of the Dragon", and then go back to China to make a Chinese movie, so I think this way the audience has more choice.
Question: You also turned down "Crouching Tiger". Why?
Answer: Ten years ago I promised my wife, I say we love each other, if we still do ten years later we'll be married, and if we have a baby I'll stop working, and be with you until the baby is born. So for that reason. Ang Lee had talked with me many, many years already, and we discussed how to make the film. I even introduced Ang to the choreographer, Woo Ping. The whole production, I was involved with everything.
Question: Why do you think "Crouching Tiger" didn't go over well with Asian audiences?
Answer: I think martial arts are like the ground, and the Hong Kong movie industry is like the tree. They make thousands of action movies already. For the past sixty years. So the Ang Lee movie is just like the flower on the tree, they find the right timing, do the right thing, it's perfect, a big flower. If no ground, no tree; no tree, no flower. So the timing is very important. For American audience, they thought it was wonderful. But for an Asian audience, they say, I saw it a hundred times already. Similar movies, they fly around, the girl, etc. So it's a different culture, first, second thing is right timing. I think if this movie had come out ten years ago in America, maybe it would be hard to find a theatre to promote it in. Maybe the audience was not ready to watch this kind of film. Now the audience is ready.
Question: What were the challenging scenes in "Kiss of the Dragon?"
Answer: It was hard fighting with all the fighters. We found around fifty fighters in Europe, from all over Europe. I feel very comfortable with the whole tone of the movie, the character, and the changing situations. When the situation changes, the fighting changes. The feeling is real. That's what we aimed for.
Question: Can you talk a little about working with Bridget Fonda?
Answer: She's a wonderful actress, and I'm glad Luc Besson decided to use her in this film. Usually, for action movies, the actress is a beautiful flower. They put the flower there, and then they fight. When they need the flower to come in, they bring her in. But this film, Bridget is the key. Between the good guy and he bad guy. She's in the middle, and makes the character make sense, the whole situation changes, and it's not just focused on fighting. Also, my character learns a lot of things from her, because I only work, work, work, never cares about the other person or what women think. In her life the most important thing is her baby, but I don't think about that because I'm quite selfish, I'm doing my job. But finally - the thought is very important; you need to take the responsibility to another person. So the character grew up.
Question: Did you have a message to convey with this film? The importance of keeping a promise?
Answer: Yes. In my personal life, I'm a very traditional Chinese person, and when you promise a girl something, you need to do it. Also, in a lot of Asian audiences, and probably American too, the man wants to see the action movie, he's begging the girl to go see an action movie. But this time, I really want the girl to say, come on man, let's go see the movie. Because, remember your promise. I think the man needs to be honest, take a little responsibility. Whatever you do. That's my personal thought.