Monday, May 23, 2011

Technique as Storytelling (Or, 650 words on why Jet Li is a bad actor and an amazing storyteller)

(Contains extensive spoilers for a ten-year-old movie)

There's a moment at the end of the Jet Li alternate universe/kung-fu/stupid* movie The One that I've always loved.

*(Many other people have pointed this out, but the film's central conceit - that no person must ever be the last instance of themselves in the multiverse, because that singular nature will give them god-like powers - is INCREDIBLY dumb, given that such a situation must happen to every single person, ever, at some point, leading to armies of super-powered geriatrics who managed to outlast their counterparts).


Good guy Gabriel Law (Jet Li) has tracked his evil, murderous other-universe counterpart Yulaw (Jet Li, scowling) to an industrial site, ostensibly because it's where the next rift to another universe will open but actually because you can't have a special effects-heavy martial arts movie without setting at least one scene in an abandoned factory full of pipes to swing and chains to go Tarzan on and giant blasts of steam to not actually get scalded by.

Jet Li is not an actor known for the diversity of his performances, so casting him as two extremely different versions of the same man was a challenge he wasn't really up for. As Yulaw, he's great, playing a character built around the icy-cold, murderously focused persona Li's most famous for. Gabriel, on the other hand, calls on him to seem less like a robot designed by a mad scientist looking to have his enemies be kicked into submission (Dr. Kick-Your-Face), and more like a person. It's... less convincing.

To add even more pressure onto his performance, consider that, at this point in the movie, Gabriel is dealing with a) the existence of multiple universes, and the threat that, even if he stops Yulaw, he's going to be sent to a prison world to protect the rest of the Multiverse from HIM becoming The One, b) the fact that Yulaw looks exactly like him and has been killing cops, making him a wanted man, and c) that Yulaw, to provoke a confrontation, has killed Gabriel's wife. That's a lot of baggage for any actor to convey through his performance, and Li's limited acting skills aren't up to the task.

His martial arts skills, on the other hand, express it beautifully.

(Disclaimer: Despite having a first-degree black belt from Terre Haute, Indiana's third-best Taekwondo dojo, I am not an expert in martial arts, and may be categorizing these styles completely incorrectly.)

Throughout the movie, Yulaw has fought with a closed fist style, punching and smashing through everything that gets in his way. By contrast, Gabriel fights with open palms, defensively redirecting attacks. However, at the start of this fight, Gabriel switches styles, driven by his rage to mimic his doppleganger's style, striking with direct, brutal punches. Li's dialogue doesn't convey his rage and grief even a fraction as effectively as the viciousness he begins to fight with in this final battle. And, correspondingly, you can see Yulaw relishing the battle in the way he moves to respond, matching violent force with violent force.

If the scene has dialogue, I don't remember it. Gabriel batters at Yulaw, trying to break through his defenses, and at every turn he gets beaten back, beaten down, by the superior aggressive force. Until he is finally forced, by this physical battle of philosophies, into epiphany. A realization that force must be answered, not with violence, but with misdirection, acceptance, balance. It shows on his face, yes, but more than that, it shows in his body. His stance opens up, he becomes looser, more limber. The rage drains from him, and he opens his palms...

In that moment, The One, and Li, surprised and delighted me. It recognized that traditional storytelling wasn't going to work. Instead, it used its biggest asset - Jet Li's incredible martial art prowess - to tell the story instead, expressing the story beats through his physical talents instead of through dialogue or "acting." I'm always fascinated by alternate ways of telling a story - whether through puzzles, or music, or, in this case, through the way a man holds his hands.

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