Jet Li and Jackie Chan super combo in Forbidden Kingdom
If Jet Li fights Jackie Chan, who will win? The audience will, says Rob Minkoff, director of The Forbidden Kingdom (Gongfu Zhi Wang), which premieres in North America today opens in China six days later.
It has been a dream come true for Chinese martial art lovers to see the two icons in one film. The story starts with a dream. Jason, an American teenage kungfu fan enters a fantastic world through the "gate of no gate," and embarks on the 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 assume Chinese cinemagoers that the film in no way cheapens Chinese culture. He was even told by his Chinese wife, a descendant of the saint Confucius, and her parents that they would not tolerate cultural mockery.
"They put great pressure on me," he says 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 China town 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).
The battles between Li and Chan, choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, give 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 says.
"He can do a bit of everything," Yuen says.
A scene from the movie featuring Jason as an American teenage kungfu fan, Jackie Chan as a drunken wanderer and Jet Li as a silent monk. Photos courtesy of Huayi Brothers
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.