It has been a little too long since I have written anything new here, a little “writer’s block” has struck your author. But films have been watched, and this is one that waited on the “too watch” pile for about 18 months – and with a lovely UK Blu-Ray, it seems churlish of me to have ignored it for so long. I’m a big fan of Jet Li, and this is directed by Ronny Yu (who directs so few films compared to his contemporaries), so this one really should be a shoo-in right? Let’s find out.
But first, it has to be said that this one has some complications. You see, the UK Blu-ray actually has 3 versions of the film on it (even though the back cover only mentions 2). We have the Theatrical Version, the Unrated Version and the Director’s Cut. Live is too short to watch all three in close succession, so I plumped with the latter. Anyway, let us continue…
“Fearless” is the somewhat fictionalised story of real life Martial Arts legend Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li). Initially we meet him as a young boy, afflicted by asthma, which stops his Father wanting to teach him the family school of Wushu, but eventually not only convinces him, but masters the skills to such an extent he becomes one of the top Martial Artists in the region. The problem is, although he is a genuinely nice guy, he does allow himself to be surrounded by and leeched upon by sycophants, and only see glory in becoming the best there is. This leads him to a conflict with the other great master of the area, which not only ends fatally, but causes him to lose his family. Drowning in depression he eventually finds himself in a small farming community, where he discovers a deeper meaning for life, along with a potential love in the blind Moon (Betty Sun). He then returns a new man, and starts a school for Martial Arts and repairs the bridges broken by his former behaviour. He is then inspired to act as a flag waver for the Chinese people against the various invading forces from around the world by taking part in bouts with their various champions. The problem is, there are other forces at work here which means things are somewhat rigged, and in the end, well let us just say, this is not a Happy Ever After story…
The Director’s Cut is very much a film of three parts, each actually rather good, but it isn’t terribly original, in fact, it is pretty much the exact same storyline as “True Legend” (and yes I know this one predates “True Legend”, and yes I know they are both based somewhat on true stories). The opening and closing sections are very much about the fighting set pieces, and they are extremely well conceived. But then with Li as the Star and Yuen Wo Ping as the Action Director, we should really take this as to be expected. Maybe they are a little too repetitive, and frankly some of the foreign champions are a bit comic book (yes, I mean you Mr Belgian Lancer). Luckily, we do get time with the Japanese contestant, Tanaka (Shidô Nakamura – who is always good), to add a little depth and balance (turns out there are some honourable Japanese people in Chinese films after all).
For me though the strongest part of the film is the middle section. His time amongst the faming community is well paced and affecting. The romance with Betty Sun is underplayed (although I was a bit sad to see it never quite played out), as was the regrowth of Li’s Character. Li is obviously an action star first and foremost – but the guy really can act. I adored the scene where he was just too slapdash at planting the rice crop, leading him to learn an important lesson about patience. Sun herself is also quite excellent, and makes me once again wonder why she acts in so few films.
And yet, as good as it is (and visually it is a spectacle), I’ll be honest, and admit it did not totally enthral me. There is a whole section of his life which is ignored – there is a wife who has been met, married to and died in the brief moments between acts one and two, and we only see the end result of the tragedy which drives him to despair. It never really quite manages to connect the idea that Wushu is not always about fighting – sometimes it is about avoiding escalating conflict – a lesson learned in the rice paddies, but then somewhat forgotten about in the popular fights with the Foreigners.
The other problem is with the way the film messes a bit with history. I have spoken about this before, about how film sometimes works hard to mythologise characters who are actually still in living memory. That in itself is fine, but for me this film did one thing that would have been stronger if they had stuck to the facts. Frankly, most of the events in the guts of the film just did not happen (He was survived by 5 children for example, and his later years he was actually terribly ill, hardly able to actually fight anyone). More concerning was the way that Huo Yuanjia’s actual death is tied into this final tournament. He did die by arsenic poisoning, but not as part of some dastardly plot – it was far more to do with some traditional Chinese Medicine – and almost certainly a terrible accident.
So it is a good film, and Highly recommended. It just is not terribly original – and in no way worthy as an historical document. But as a piece of great entertainment that can scratch both the itches of the hard core action fan, and provide a little bit of heart and sensitivity for people like me, I think it succeeds.