Jet Li: A Biography
 By James Robert Parish
$18.00 - Softcover
203 Pages
Thunder Mouth Press

The first English language book on Jet Li has finally made its appearance and for the most part it covers his life and films in a satisfactory workmanlike fashion. The author blurb states that Parish has written over 100 books (primarily on film related subjects) which certainly brings the term “hack/rush job” to mind, but for the most part the research seems sound and the writing is informative if not all that insightful or inspiring. Though certainly a Jet Li fan, the writer is clearly not a Hong Kong film expert and the book contains a few basic factual errors (i.e. Jet’s girlfriend in Fist of Legend is mis-identified as Ada Choi who in fact plays the prostitute or he identifies Donnie Yen in Iron Monkey as Wong Fei Hung – Yen of course plays Wong’s father) – but still the book contains a lot of information on Jet that I had not come across before. It’s not really clear though whether Parish did any original research – or interviewed Jet or any of his contemporaries (my guess is not) – or whether the book was simply a collection of many other writings on Jet that he melds into a cohesive whole.

Jet’s life is tracked from the very beginning up to his completion of The One in 2001. For me the most valuable parts were on his early life and his films leading up to the first Once Upon a Time in China in which a lot of missing holes were filled in for me. There is also some important historical context put around Jet’s early years that were of interest – for example the fact that Wushu tournaments had been banned in China during the Cultural Revolution and that the first one that Jet entered and won was in fact the first one in many years. Once the narrative reaches his film successes in the 1990s it becomes a lot more formulaic – some information on the making of the film, a well-written plot synopsis, box office results and the response from selected Western critics. Of the 200 odd pages, 130 of them are devoted to his pre-Hollywood career and 55 to his few years in Tinseltown - a ratio that may or may not please his older fans.

Always a concern with these types of books is that often the subject is treated with kid gloves and their faults whitewashed over, but Parish does bring up the fact of Jet having an affair with Nina Li while he was married to his co-star from two of the Shaolin Temple films and that he also made use of doubles on many occasions (often due to his injuries or for non-Wushu stunts) in his films. Though the book never gets close enough to Jet to really allow the reader to feel he understands him, it generally paints a very good picture of him as a person and as a driven artist – and the quotes that are attributed to Jet make him sound like a very thoughtful, analytical and moral person.

All in all it’s a good easy read that shows a fuller and more human side of Jet than we have seen hitherto and has some interesting film tidbits – so I would imagine that even if this is not the comprehensive book that Jet Li fans might be looking for, it is at least for now a book that they will find enjoyable.