Reviewed by: Michael Karounos
|Featuring:||Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Nathan Jones, Shido Nakamura|
“Fate made him a warrior, courage made him a hero”
“Jet Li’s Fearless” is based on the life of Huo Yuanjia, a master of the Mízōngyì style of fighting in the early 20th century whose life is the source of endless TV movies, documentaries, and films in China. In the West, we are familiar with Huo Yuanjia through the movies of Bruce Lee (“Fists of Fury,” 1972) and Jet Li (“Fists of Legend,” 1994), both of which are excellent examples of the genre and tell the story of Huo’s disciples after his death.
“Fearless” portrays Huo’s childhood, his young manhood, and his adulthood. It is, strictly speaking, a rite of passage movie, showing how Huo overcame his ignorance, pride, and selfish ambition to become a great martial artist and a defender of Chinese pride.
Before that happens, Huo lives his life as an angry young man with a chip on his shoulder. He has a compulsion to prove that he is the best fighter in the city of Tianjin. One of the recurring motifs of the film is a madman who repeatedly asks Huo: “When will you be champion of Tianjin?” Over the length of the movie, the question undergoes an evolution in tone from mocking, to triumphant, to ironic, to poignant. It is a powerful device which reflects Huo’s spiritual progress even more than it does his fighting prowess.
Huo eventually becomes champion of Tianjin, defeating good fighters, foreign fighters, and crowds of fighters along the way. When he begins to drink heavily (a metaphor for how his success has intoxicated him), his mother warns him: “Wushu is not about winning; it’s about discipline and self-restraint.” But it is too late for Huo. When one of his fighters is beaten up by another master, Huo takes his revenge and suffers the tragic consequences.
Huo goes into the countryside, where he discovers who he is as an individual, apart from his identity as a fighter. In a sense, he becomes a born-again Chinese, respectful of religious traditions, of his nation’s pride, and of his martial arts. He uses his fighting ability to further the cause of his people and country rather than to glorify himself.
There are moments of pure bravura in the film. The fight scenes are masterful and creative and, above all, convincing. There is very little of the special effects that are used extensively in such films as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or “Hero.” Also, Huo’s transformation from an arrogant bully into a humbled master is moving. Some critics consider that portion of the movie to be “preachy,” but his life with the grandmother and her blind granddaughter, Moon (Betty Sun), provide for instructive moments such as when Moon tells him: “[Although blind], I can see everything in my heart.” The audience understands this to mean that though Moon is blind, she can “see” herself clearly. This contrasts with Huo who, while seeing, does not see himself as he is. The idea resonates strongly with the Christian perspective of those who claim to see but who are blind (John 9:41; 12:40).
When Huo returns from his sojourn, he engages a path of repentance which takes him to his old friend and to the wife of the man he killed. He apologizes to both and is clearly a humbled man. The change in his external conduct bears witness to the change in the inner man and affects everyone around him. Unfortunately, the last portion of the movie degenerates into self-pitying melodrama, which may appeal to Chinese audiences because of the strident nationalism and martyr-like death of Huo, but which will leave others disappointed.
Overall, the movie will appeal to fans of the genre, so long as they understand that there are long dramatic passages. The moral of the movie may be summarized as pride goes before the fall (Proverbs 16:18) and that repentance brings times of spiritual refreshing (Acts 3:19).
The film perhaps is more memorable as a biography of Huo Yuanjia and Li’s farewell to the martial arts genre. It will be enjoyed best by those who can’t wait until it comes out in DVD to see the fight sequences. My advice is to wait.
Background: In 1910 Shanghai, China was occupied by four foreign powers: Belgium, England, Japan, and Spain. The Chinese were humiliated in their own streets and foreign fighters, undoubtedly for box office draw, made outlandish statements such as calling China “the sick man of the East.” As it turns out, this is a true incident, reportedly involving a Russian wrestler (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huo_Yuan_Jia#_note-huozizheng). The movie combines this historical incident with another, that of the actual British boxer Hercules O’Brien (played by the freakishly-large Nathan Jones), who challenged Huo but never fought him.
In the movie, the character of Hercules O’Brien is given the Russian’s 1901 slur and is made, not surprisingly in these anti-American times, to be a brute American. So, the slur the Chinese resented in 1901 from the Russian, the filmmaker’s falsely attribute in 2006 to an American. Although the United States was not one of the imperialistic powers which humiliated China in the early 20th century, the filmmakers went out of their way to portray the American as the most barbaric character in the movie, as a caricature of a human being. Clearly, the purpose for doing so is to symbolically show the Chinese audience that China is greater than the United States. This is an unfortunate example of nationalistic jingoism which doesn’t speak well for the integrity of the filmmakers.
Violence: Heavy / Profanity: None / Sex/Nudity: None