The Theory of Chaos

Monday, October 02, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - Jet Li's Fearless

Full review behind the jump

Jet Li’s Fearless
: Ronny Yu
: Chris Chow, Christine To
: Ronny Yu, Bill Kong, Jet Li
: Jet Li, Dong Yong, Nakamura Shidou, Sun Li, Collin Chou

It is expected in your average fighting movie that, if the opponent in the final showdown invites the hero to sit for a meal with him beforehand, that some intimidation, or at least an attempted poisoning, is going to be on the menu. So what a surprise it is that when Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li) accepts the request of Japanese master Tanaka (Nakamura Shidou) to take tea with him, that what follows is exactly that – two warriors of near superhuman power and ability, on the eve of battle, drinking tea and respectfully sharing their philosophies with one another. Tanaka speaks lovingly about the various grades of tea, and the preparation required to achieve the most transcendent flavor. Yuanjia smiles and counters “
If I am in a good mood, the grade of the tea does not matter.” And, though he does not agree, Tanaka finds this foreign viewpoint charming.

Some of you might be cringing at the above, because you are here to see combat, not friendly people smiling at one another on a sunny day. Rest assured that in
Jet Li’s Fearless – misleadingly billed as his “final martial arts epic” (he will kick and spin in films again, rest assured, there’s a fine parsing of genre language happening here) – you will see athletic clashes of dizzying variety and dexterity, staged by the world-famous choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen (The Matrix, Kill Bill, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

But you will also see a story cunningly bent to an idea that is clearly near to Jet Li’s heart. In
Hero he used martial arts as a means to cry out for national unity. Here he advances the message, and argues – during and in between stunning kung fu displays – that physical power cannot overcome honor, that fighting is primarily a means of discovering one’s own weaknesses, and that self-respect and respect for others are really self-reinforcing parts of a single mighty weapon.

How many movies can you name that pay more than lip service to an idea like that, that live it and breathe it? How many martial arts movies truly elevate “respect” to the level of highest virtue? Here is one that does it, and does not fail to please fans of the form at the same time.

The story, told in strokes that are broad and occasionally simple to a fault, is based loosely on what is known about folk hero Yuanjia’s life and the makeup of the turn-of-the-century China he lived in. Foreigners from Europe, America and Japan were filtering throughout the country, gaining commercial influence, and Chinese culture was being both exploited and degraded as a result (in one scene we watch a missionary pushing Bibles on street merchants). As a people the Chinese felt dispersed and humiliated, weakened by decades of interfamily squabbles, and these feelings were frequently reinforced by fighters from around the world who would hold open contests, belittling the Chinese people as “Sick Men of the East”.

Yuanjia, whose family for generations studied wushu (kung fu) in order to protect traveling merchants from bandits, began to answer the challenges, and established the Jing Wu Sports Federation in Shanghai as a place for the Chinese people to recover their pride through self-improvement. Not so they could beat up their oppressors, but because their very pursuit of excellence would unite them and set them free from oppression.

It’s easy to envision the epic spars such a storyline could inspire, but Fearless is more interested in the journey of a man to such a pure state of consciousness. As with the wushu its protagonist espouses, the journey becomes its own point. He is not so wise at the beginning.

As a child he is sickly, so his father (Collin Chou) refused to train him, and insisted he pursue scholarship instead. The child yearned to fight, studied in spite of father’s wishes, and grew into a man who was fearfully skilled, but shallow and arrogant. He cares only about being the unquestioned champion of his province, and his ego, his weakness for flattery and drink, lead to shattering tragedy.

He exiles himself to the countryside, and is taken into a small village, where he works in the fields and doesn’t understand why the other planters all stop and stand serenely when a breeze sweeps down through their valley. Fearless is, for all its other goals, also a universal lament for a simpler time, about a country that heals a man, and how that man finds a way to heal the country in return. Director Ronny Yu, known most in America for horror movies suffused with a kind of punky brio (Bride of Chucky, Freddy vs. Jason), here gets his crack at sweeping vistas, and with his long-time collaborator Hang-Sang Poon behind the camera, he captures them stirringly enough.

This structure, which lingers on Yuanjia’s evolution and leaves what you would expect as the climax shorter than customary, is part of Jet Li’s challenge to viewers with Fearless. He will fight with fist and sword and spear, he will demonstrate to the tips of his fingers the mastery over the physical he’s achieved in a quarter century of movie stardom. The fights, ranging from dizzyingly high platforms to circus tents to ritual halls, are splendid and largely reality-based, using little-to-no wirework and eschewing the supernatural aerial ballets of Hero.

But to him, that is not as important as winning you over to this philosophy. If this is to be his final statement about martial arts and what they mean to him, how compelling that he used not stunts to make his point, but story.


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