This is not “Hero”, or “House of Flying Daggers”, and if you go into this flick expecting such you may be disappointed. It feels much more intrinsic to Chinese culture and I for one was moved by the films’ touching finale
Jet Li, Shido Nakamura, Masato Harada, Betty Sun, Nathan Jone
Chinese cinema has been kind to Jet Li, or has Jet Li has been kind to Chinese cinema? Whatever the case, his last ever acting role in a movie (we’ll see), Fearless, comes across as mixed bag to begin with, but is pleasantly rewarding by the time the lights power up and curtains are drawn.
To set the scene, the year is 1910, and the west is dominating global affairs. America, England and France are the economic super powers and China is currently being inundated by foreign merchants and traders and as a result many locals are losing their sense of identity and pride.
The film begins quickly, dropping us right into the middle of a number of dazzling fight sequences – most of which are just incredible to watch – and just as the final fight is about to occur, we flash back 30 years and don’t return to 1910 until the very climax of the film.
This style of storytelling worked well in “Fearless”, as the director initially slams audiences with these high impact scenes and then cuts away, gracefully telling the story that led the these events in an absorbing fashion.
During the first act of the film, it seems as though Ronny Yu has undersold Jet Li. I’m not saying the guy can’t fight – he’s a tremendous martial artists – it’s just that the film has a somewhat comical tone in the opening act. Though the sets and camera work are as good as anything Hollywood can produce, the film’s first third is nothing but fight scene after fight scene, interspersed with sometimes corny, almost anime-inspired interactions, seemingly with no direction. Example: lots of boosing, fighting, laughing and strange retorts are commonplace in the film’s first third.
For people like myself, this was absolute heaven, as the Master of martial arts choreography Yeun Wo Ping developed the fight scenes in conjunction with Li (Wo Ping is also known for his work on The Matrix films among others). But for my partner, well, she wasn’t too keen on the snapping of bones, spitting of blood and crushing of skulls.
The reason for fight after fights is to let Jet Li’s character, Huo Yuan Jia, gets his arse kicked as a 10 year old and henceforth vows never to be defeated again. Though the first half of the film centres on Yuan Jia’s desire to be the undefeated regional martial arts champion, kicking several shades of hurt through challenger after challenger and becoming an conceited bragster in the process, tradegy eventually strikes his family and he ends up becoming a vagabond, losing all dignity and winding up malnourished and fevered, wandering the great provinces of China. He winds up in a rural farming community in China, and barely says a word for many years, simply working hard in the rice fields and rekindling his appreciation of the simpler things in life, and learning of kindness and acceptance, where once he was arrogant and boastful.
The cinematography changes dramatically at this point in the film when we are taken away from the Chinese cities and into the picturesque hills, and the the photography is just stunning. I’ve really got to get myself to China! As well as the stunning visuals of rural China in the early 20th century, director Ronny Yu deals with the romantic interest in way that was quite stirring, yet completely refreshing. Not one embrace is witnessed, yet the compassion shared between Yuan Jia and Moon is acute.
Despite having burnt his bridges with his old friends, Yuan Jia eventually returns to his home town, only to discover that the Americans and the British have quite an influence. To cut a long story short, Yuan Jia attempts to win back some of China’s dignity by belting several shades of pain through the world’s best fighters.
While the acting in this film isn’t always brilliant, it suits the film’s tone well, and following the first third of the film – what with its intense fight scenes that just keep coming one after another – Yuan Jia’s spritual kick to the head and rural lifestyle adds a much needed change of pace to the film. His arrogance gone, Yuan Jia applies his Wushu philosophy to help others rather than smash them to smithereens, and by films ends his redemption is complete.
This is not “Hero”, or “House of Flying Daggers”, and if you go into this flick expecting such you may be disappointed. It feels much more intrinsic to Chinese culture and I for one was moved by the films’ touching finale.
Reviewer : Will Barker