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Jet Li’s bids the martial arts film industry farewell with honor, style, and grace in his swan song wushu film about Chinese martial arts legend Huo Yuanjia
On September 22, 2006, the United States was finally treated to a wide release of Jet Li’s final wushu film on the big screen. Fearless opened in the US, cracked the weekend top 10, and has stayed there since its release, a definite achievement for an Asian release in the United States, adding to its box office success in Asia where it was released earlier in the year. The financial success is an apt reward for a film that has it all: beautifully choreographed fight scenes, a coming-of-age story, and a subtle allegory about China’s recent economic resurgence.
Spoiler warning: the following is a detailed summary of the narrative. The film is loosely based on a real martial artist, Huo Yuanjia (played by Jet Li), with many of the events in the film exaggerated or based on legend. The film begins in Shanghai in the year 1910. Huo is in the midst of a tournament involving four fighters from the international settlement government. After easily defeating the first three fighters, the film flashes back to Tianjin in the late 1800s to show the earlier part of Huo’s life. As a child, Huo witnesses his father’s defeat in a martial arts tournament, and vows never to lose and further dishonor the family name. As an adult, Huo is a burgeoning star in the martial arts tournaments, but each victory builds his arrogance and carelessness, and he alienates those closest to him. After a tragedy that is related to one of his martial arts tournaments, he exiles himself to an ethnic minority tribe in the Chinese countryside, where he learns respect for life from Moon (Betty Sun), a blind woman who takes care of him, and from her grandmother.
Eager to make amends for his past, he heads back to Tianjin, and discovers that much has changed from the time he left. The city is no longer a minor Chinese city, but a major international port, with Western imperialists fully integrated into Chinese society. In a newspaper, Huo reads of the mistreatment and disrespect that the Westerners have toward the Chinese. He decides to go to Shanghai to challenge an American boxer and defend China’s honor against the imperialists. With his first victory, he challenges others that dare mock and disrespect the Chinese, and his reputation as someone who stands up against imperialism grows, much to the chagrin of the imperialist politicians. They increasingly view Huo as a threat because of his ability to inspire the Chinese to stand up to their control. In an effort to publicly humiliate him, they challenge him to fight against their four boxers, taking us back to the fight at the film's beginning. The film ends with a match between Huo and the Japanese representative. End spoilers.
Many American film reviewers of Fearless gave it only mild support, with many mediocre reviews saying that while the film was definitely entertaining, it was a little cheesy and predictable for their liking. The character development is not terrible, and is no different from a Peter Parker discovering that “with great power comes great responsibility” in the Spider-Man series, or any other superhero or comic book film.
But while the film is definitely of the “feel-good” variety, there's more going on. In recent interviews in promotion of the American release, Jet Li has mentioned that this film is meant to get people to stop fighting, and signifies non-violence as the highest achievement in martial arts. This point is one of the film's more obvious messages, as represented by a debate between Hou and his friend from childhood, Nong Jinsun. During a friendly discussion in Huo’s more arrogant days, Huo stands in the ring and talks about how one has to fight when one is in the ring, while Nong suggests that one has the choice not to enter the ring at all. The message is further iterated throughout the film, and most obviously at the end.
Aside from the more obvious message that Jet Li has continued to push, the film has several other themes that are worth looking into more. Huo’s rise in the fighting world can be seen as a loose allegory for China’s current economic development. With so many recent concerns about rising Chinese economic power, many governments are concerned about what increasing Chinese competition means for their political economies. The Chinese government has made great efforts to publicly reassure the rest of the world that its economic rise will be a peaceful rise. In Fearless, Huo is careful to make sure that his Western opponents are not killed in the competition, even if he is victorious, and the focus for Huo is more about mutual respect toward each fighter than about the victory. Mutual respect is a major issue for the Chinese, after over 150 years of economic and political submission in global affairs.
Another debate portrayed in the film is about the path to development. For over a century, Chinese have debated how best to adapt to the technology and economies of Western Europe, the United States, and later, Japan. Many of the intellectuals of that era were split between continuing Chinese traditions of learning, adapting Western technologies and sciences to Chinese traditions, and rejecting Chinese traditions altogether for Western innovations. The debate is shown through the contrast between Huo, who continues to wear distinctly Chinese clothing, and his friend Nong, who dons a western style in order to thrive in business. The film ultimately takes the middle road in this debate, portraying Huo’s ability to defeat the imperialists on their own terms, and using Chinese notions of adaptability in traditional fighting and weaponry.
Other points to note about the film are the use of ethnic minorities in the film. In the film, it is an ethnic minority settlement that helps Huo discover himself and arrive to the state of mind that allows him to defeat his imperialist opponents. This is part of an increasing trend to include China’s ethnic minorities in major releases (see Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, among others), as China seeks to strengthen ties and dissuade secessionist movements that are often spearheaded by disgruntled minorities.
The film’s portrayal of Japanese people is also a departure from that of most films in Chinese cinema, particularly those in the martial arts genres. In the final battle, it is the Japanese politician, not the Japanese warrior, who is the villain. Prior to the battle, Huo and the Japanese fighter, Anno Tanaka (played by Japanese actor Shido Nakamura), develop mutual respect toward each other. The film even goes further to show a split between Tanaka and the Japanese representative (Masato Harada) to the International settlement government. This reflects increasingly conflicted Chinese views on Japan as World War II issues still have not yet been resolved. While there is still distrust between many Chinese and Japanese, there is a careful distinction here made between the Japanese government (as represented by the politician) versus the Japanese people (Tanaka). A major release in Asia, Fearless suggests amicable spaces for contact through these portrayals.
Messages aside, the film is also very enjoyable, with many big names involved. Aside from bi-coastal director Ronny Yu, the film was also produced by the same financiers of Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and has action choreography by Hong Kong and Hollywood legend Yuen Woo-ping. Yuen's pairing of Chinese martial arts against other forms of fighting makes for an exciting juxtaposition of action styles.
With all its financial success, Fearless has not been without controversy. Despite the advertising stating that Fearless is Jet Li’s “final martial arts epic,” Li has already finished Rogue, an action film co-starring Jason Statham. When asked about the issue of declaring Fearless his final martial arts film, and then going on to star in another action film, Li responded that he considers action films to be different from martial arts films. He views martial arts films as a vehicle for social messages like non-violence, as evident in Fearless and other recent films. In another dispute, one of Huo Yuanjia’s descendants is reportedly suing the filmmakers because of their inaccurate portrayal of Huo as having no heirs. But as the saying goes, “when legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And Fearless is a beautiful legend to print.
Official Fearless site: http://www.fearlessthemovie.com/
Date Posted: 10/9/2006