Jet Li's Fearless
There has always been a certain fascination with stories about notable people. The biography is a time honored format but there has been a growing trend to embellish the facts usually for dramatic purposes. Perhaps the real start of this was with Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ one of the earliest novels based on actual events. The key phrase here is ‘based on’. Many have criticized such films for the deviation from the facts but many such films work better if you can over look the alterations and just enjoy the story and the film. One movie that this is particularly true for is "Jet Li’s Fearless". I’ve seen a lot of discussion about the inaccuracies but one thing has to be remembered; this is an entertaining film that just happens to pertain to a man who once lived. I am very certain that such ‘enhanced’ biographies are as old, if not older, than their completely factual counterparts. This film is made to honor the man it depicts but not so much as a factual account but in the manner that the story may have been passed down through the years.
Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li) was one of China’s most renowned practitioners of the martial art known as Mizong. In flashbacks we see Huo as a young boy working next to his father, Huo Endi (Collin Chou). Although Endi is a famous martial artist he is opposed to his son following in his footsteps. The boy witnesses his father’s defeat in a match because he was unwilling to deliver the final, fatal blow. After the son of the victor teases young Yuanjia beating him up the boy vows that he will never again be defeated. As he grows to manhood Yuanjia becomes a force to be reckoned with on the Leitai, the platform used for martial arts expositions. As his prowess increases so does his hubris. He has apparently forgotten the moral guidelines of his father and has become belligerent. One of Huo’s disciples is injured by rival master Qin Lei resulting in a grudge match to the death. After Huo kills his opponent he returns home to discover that his mother (Hee Ching Paw) and daughter have been slain by Lei’s followers. Wanting revenge his seeks out the men who killed his family to murder them and their families. The man commits suicide and upon seeing his family hiding in the corner Huo spares their lives. Next there is a little sub plot concerning infidelity which prefaces the required journey to find himself. At his lowest Huo is rescued by an old woman (Yun Qu) and her blind grand daughter (Betty Sun). He learns the lesson of compassion and returns a new man to his village, now a bustling city. Foreigners have begun to crowd the city much to the resentment of the native population. Huo challenges an American wrestler Hercules O'Brien (Nathan Jones) who has been making a name for himself defeating local fighters. Huo not only wins his match against the foreign menace but gains O’Brien’s friendship. The win pulls Huo into a social struggle against the influence and control of foreigners. He fights a virtual United Nations of opponents becoming a national hero in the process. All this leads up to the climatic battle that in itself is worth watching the film.
One aspect of this film that makes it part of cinema history is it is reportedly the last martial arts film by the great Jet Li. Now in his mid forties he is looking to leave these action films behind and move into other genres. Since he is not only a master of martial arts but a good actor it is certain that he will be successful in whatever he tries. This film represents a departure from other Li films. While there is action galore it is more realistic than his previous work. The use of wires to enable the actors to perform moves that defy gravity are minimized. The action is more organic; more founded in reality than most of the Chinese martial arts films I have seen. This only adds to the focus of the film, more about the spiritual journey of a man than his ability to kick butt. Director Ronny Yu has finally returned to his roots after crossing the ocean to the States to direct such ‘classics’ as ‘Bride of Chucky’ and ‘Freddie versus Jason’. Yu presents a look at a legend as a man; complete with doubts and fears common to us all. He paces the story in such a fashion that the exposition never becomes tedious. The fight scenes are used as punctuation not the focus of the film. When the blind girl is helping Huo it reminded me on the scene in Frankenstein between the old blind man and the monster. There is such humanity in this that you can not help but to be pulled in emotionally, a very rare thing for a martial arts film. There is also a look at the political climate of the early twentieth century. After millennium of holding itself apart from the savages in the west China found itself caught up in a power struggle with the Westerners. Huo represented the superiority of China; something the population needed to hold on to their way of life.
Unlike so many martial arts actors Jet Li works as a leading man. He is able to carry a story and convey actual human emotions. This is the perfect transition as Li moves into a new phase of his career combining his martial arts and acting talents. The man has range and I’m not jus referring to his ability to reach out and touch someone. He is able to take the audience on the emotional arc of the character permitting us to feel for Huo. For the young people who come to idolize martial artists Li shows that there is a responsibility connected to ability. This is a spiritual journal that transcends the time and place; it is universal. While Li will be missed in this genre I certainly look forward to his next film.
I have to give it up for how Universal has presented this film on DVD. While so many studios try to pull every last dollar out of the consumers by releasing separate unrated and theatrical releases Universal provides both in one release, finally, a studio that cares about the fans and listens to them instead of their accountants. I have seen announcements that this was to be a two disc release. Both versions of the film are provided on a single disc using seamless branching. This has been a part of the DVD standard since the beginning but few studios seem to utilize it. The anamorphic 2.40:1 video is stunning. The color balance is nothing short of amazing. There are a few grainy shots but overall the transfer is great. The audio is another case of Universal caring about the people that put down their money to buy their product. There is a great amount of flexibility in how you can configure the sound and sub titles. You can listen in the original Mandarin with English sub titles or choose to hear a dubbed version. There is also an extras featurette with Jet Li’s discussion of just what went into the making of this film. Even if you are not particularly a fan of Hong Kong action flicks pick this one up and enjoy. It something that can appeal to both the action oriented guys out there and their wives and girlfriends.