BEIJING — Since the death of Bruce Lee nearly 40 years ago, many have held the unofficial title of kung fu box office master, including Jackie Chan, who keeps retiring and un-retiring, matching the genre with jokey repartee; and Jet Li, one for purists who remains a powerful draw across Asia.
Enter a new dragon, if you would, this one a real-life martial art champion, who the Chinese shingle Huayi Brothers hopes can fight his way to the top of the list of claimants, and capture the global imagination.
Yuan Xiaochao is a two-time world champion and gold medalist at the Doha Asian Games in the practice of wushu, or Chinese martial arts, and changquan, which means “long fist,” a discipline that involves fully extended movements. In his acting bow — in Stephen Fung’s “Tai Chi 0,” which bowed out of competition at the recent Venice Film Festival, and opens in China at the end of last month — Yuan plays a fighter who pursues his dream to become the greatest practitioner of tai chi.
“I always liked watching Bruce Lee movies, and I admire him very much as he helped people know and love Chinese kung fu. But it’s been a long time since those films, and we have many young people now, and I wanted to do something more contemporary for young people,” Yuan says.
“I grew up with Jet Li’s movies, and I was influenced by him,” Yuan says.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of kung fu in China, and in areas of Asia where Chinese culture is popular.
In central China, kung fu is compulsory in many high schools, and Chinese students are familiar with knife wielding, snake boxing and other arts of self defense.
Kung fu is actually a generic term for many different skills, used mainly in the West. In China, people use the word wushu to refer to martial arts. Practitioners say other martial arts like karate originated from kung fu.
Kung fu encompasses the fierce, but witty, Bruce Lee chopsocky classics of the 1970s and elegant artistic films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Hero,” and draws top helmers like Peter Chan, Tsui Hark and Zhang Yimou. It is a global cinematic language that appeals to the mass-market chopsocky consumer in Shanghai and the highbrow Zen Buddhist cineaste in a Parisian arthouse. The humorous kung fu movie is still a big draw, as Stephen Chow’s “Kung Fu Hustle” has shown.
Yuan is the first to admit that performing martial arts in movies is different from being a martial arts athlete.
“Movements that are perfect for competing don’t necessarily make for a good performance,” he says. “So I watch and analyze my movements on the screen.”
Yuan says that when he competes, his coach corrects him; but in “Tai Chi 0,” there were a number of masters. “There are so many people around you, and you have to work with them,” he says.
Huayi topper Wang Zhonglei says there hasn’t really been a new big-name wushu practitioner in the movies for a while — one who can fire the imagination of a younger audience.
“This is the right time for a martial arts legend,” he says. “But they have to be a genius.”