For Asian cinema fans, this is the equivalent of those endless 'Could Wolverine take the Hulk?' arguments, which rage endlessly around the world of Marvel comics. And why not? In Jackie Chan and Jet Li, you have nothing less than an inter-generational clash of titans: two dedicated professionals, each possessed of balletic grace and extraordinary physical resilience, who've single-mindedly dedicated their lives to filmmaking and their bodies to stunt work, risking serious injury and even death along the way.
For Chan, now 58 (!), cinema has been his entire life. A poor student, growing up on Hong Kong Island, he failed his first year at primary school, and when his father was transferred to Canberra, to work as head cook at the US Embassy there, young Jackie was packed off to the China Drama Academy, a subsidiary of the famous Peking Opera School, where he came under the tutelage of Master Yu Jim-yuen.
For the next decade, he trained rigorously and single-mindedly. He especially excelled in acrobatics and martial arts, and soon began making some small appearances in King Hu classics like The Love Eterne (1963) and Come Drink with Me (1966), before working as a stuntman on two classic Bruce Lee films, Fist of Fury (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973). The same year saw his first starring role, in Little Dragon of Canton.
Jet Li, a decade younger, was born on the mainland—in Beijing—but followed a not-dissimilar trajectory. Competing as a wushu fighter through his adolescence, he gained a place on the Beijing team, where his prodigious agility and skill soon garnered attention, and won him the support of renowned coach Wu Bin—who even bought food for his impoverished family, Jet's father having died when he was just two years old.
He soon parlayed his fame into an acting career, beginning with 1982's well-received The Shaolin Temple, which spawned two sequels, and made the 19-year-old a star. He followed it with the Once Upon a Time in China series, and a remake of Bruce Lee's Fist of Fury (unimaginatively titled Fist of Legend), before making his Hollywood debut in 1998, in Lethal Weapon 4, and then in Romeo Must Die, alongside the R&B singer Aaliyah. But he turned down the lead in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, having promised his wife he would not work during her pregnancy.
But while the press have often tried to generate a rivalry between the two stars—and fans of either are passionate in their loyalty—mostly they've taken care to appear coolly respectful of each other's work. Only when Jet starred in 1995's High Risk—a kind of wacky HK take on Die Hard—did there seem legitimate grounds for speculation: that film's director, Wong Jing, had clashed with Jackie Chan on his previous film, City Hunter, and turned Jet's role into a savage satire of the older actor. Cinemagoers and critics noticed, Chan fans were outraged, and Jet was obliged to publicly apologise.
Still, it was another 13 years before the two actors finally appeared together onscreen, in Rob Minkoff's The Forbidden Kingdom, a film which, ironically, was unworthy of either of them.
Friday February 8, 9:30pm
Director: Ronny Yu
Starring: Jet Li, Shidô Nakamura, Betty Sun
Before he ran off to Hollywood to make C-grade junk like Freddy vs. Jason and Bride of Chucky, director Ronny Yu crafted one of the greatest-ever HK romps, in 1993's The Bride with White Hair. And while this Jet Li vehicle doesn't quite surpass that achievement (mostly, due to some overly-busy editing), it's a welcome return to form for the director, nonetheless. A biopic of early 20th century martial-artist Huo Yuan Jia, it allows star Jet Li to do what he does best: kicking ass while, at the same time, musing on the futility of revenge. Unsurprisingly, though, the star—then aged 42—announced this would be his last traditional martial-arts role.
Friday February 8, 11:25pm
Armour of God (1986)
Director: Jackie Chan
Starring: Jackie Chan, Alan Tam, Rosamund Kwan
Blurring comedy with thrills in his trademark style, this Jackie Chan vehicle verges on Indiana Jones territory, as the star and a bumbling sidekick (played—well—by Alan Tam), former Canto-pop stars, embark on a quest to locate missing pieces of medieval armour, a journey which takes them into Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The film's production, however, was far from seamless: during a relatively routine stunt (seen at the beginning of the film), Chan leapt onto a tree from a ledge; however, the branch he grabbed snapped, sending him plunging to the ground, and badly injuring his skull; the star later said it was the closest he ever came to death.
Friday February 15, 9:30pm
New Police Story (2004)
Director: Benny Chan
Starring: Jackie Chan, Nicholas Tse, Mak Bau
A reboot (as the title implies) of the Police Story series which helped make Jackie Chan an international star in the mid-1980s, this version dispenses with much of the playful, semi-comedic tone of the originals, seeming both darker and grittier—and Chan's performance as a down-and-out detective, trying to redeem himself, ranks among his best latter-day roles. There's a nice line in social commentary—turns out, the villains of the piece are the children of some of Hong Kong's richest citizens—and a few extraordinary stunts: a slide down a burning rope is sure to make viewers wince. Only a cloying sentimentality in the final reel threatens to derail proceedings.
Friday February 15, 11:45pm
Once Upon a Time in China (1991)
Director: Hark Tsui
Starring: Jet Li, Biao Yuen, Rosamund Kwan
One of Tsui Hark's greatest films—evincing, at times, the influence of Western directors like David Lean—this 1991 effort almost singlehandedly re-ignited interest in the martial arts genre, spawned a host of sequels, and made a star of its leading man, Jet Li. As the 19th-century doctor and martial artist Wong Fei-hung (the same character played, a decade earlier, by Jackie Chan in the Drunken Master series), Li owns every frame in which he appears—and the difference between his performance and Chan's is telling: he's grave where the older actor was comic, serene where Chan was manic. It's a different interpretation, for a different time. And the fight sequences are breathtaking.
Friday February 22, 9:30pm
The Warlords (2007)
Directors: Peter Chan, Wai Man Yip
Starring: Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro
Peter Chan is one of Hong Kong's most versatile and consistent filmmakers, and he brings real emotional punch as well as considerable visual flair to this remake of a 1973 Shaw Brothers classic (simply titled The Blood Brothers). Hopelessly outnumbered, the three men (Jet Li, Andy Lau and the always-great Takeshi Kaneshiro) must rely on ingenuity to prevail . . . yet occasional moments of cornball sentiment—damp-eyed speeches about heroism and honour—are consistently undercut by an underlying tone of fatalism. As Li's first-person narration notes, when he emerges from a corpse-strewn battlefield in the opening shot, “As I crawled out from under the bodies, I was already a dead man.”
Friday February 22, 11:30pm
Project A: Part II (1987)
Director: Jackie Chan
Starring: Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Rosamund Kwan
A sequel to the wildly successful original, this sees Jackie Chan go it alone, without original co-stars Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung: fellow graduates of the Peking Opera School, who with Chan had formed the 'Three Dragons', the pair were away shooting Eastern Condor. Unfortunately, in doing so, it loses one of the primary advantages of the first film: the funny, fractious relationship between the three leads. Instead, Chan is reduced to playing the fall-guy in a series of stunts and set-pieces more indebted to the Marx Brothers (one scene here is a direct homage to the ship's cabin scene from A Night at the Opera) and Buster Keaton. Not classic Chan, perhaps—but enjoyable.
Friday March 1, 9:30pm
The Myth (2005)
Director: Stanley Tong
Starring: Jackie Chan, Hee-seon Kim, Tony Leung Ka Fai
A fusion of historical fantasy, comedy, lite sci-fi and martial arts, with action set between China and India, this 2005 Jackie Chan vehicle (he produced as well as starred) is a genre-bending romp—one whose outlandish narrative neatly masks the need for Chan to shift into different kinds of projects (and less physically-demanding roles) as he settles into late-middle-age; and also, for Hong Kong cinema—increasingly overshadowed by the Mainland—to revisit the large-scale ambitious works of its 1980s heyday. It mostly succeeds, though at 118 minutes, goes on rather too long for its own good—but individual set-pieces (notably, an extended fight in a paper factory) more than reward attention.
Friday March 1, 9:30pm
Once Upon a Time in China II (1992)
Director: Hark Tsui
Starring: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Donnie Yen
Even more commercially successful than the original, this second instalment of the franchise re-teamed director Tsui Hark and star Jet Li, here tackling the fanatical 'White Lotus Society', an extreme nationalist cult, opposed to any hint of Western influence or modernity, that's led by a seemingly invincible priest. The romance sequences between Fong and Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) are slightly hokey, and the action is a little slow to start—it's over an hour into the film before any of the major combat sequences begin—but, when it does arrive, the wirework is jaw-dropping, not least for being shot in a series of meticulously-choreographed long takes. The visuals, meanwhile, are suitably painterly and grand.