Film Review - 'Fearless'
'Fearless', available from Amazon
(Note: This is a review of the original theatrical release of the film - since it seems that there is a longer Director's Cut available, too.)
Fearless seems fairly determined to present itself as something of a historical biopic. Its focus is on the life of the well-known martial arts master, Huo Yuanjia, who lived from 1868 to 1910, and was believed to have played an important part in the creation of the Jingwu Athletics Association - the organization responsible for turning martial arts into a nationally recognized sport. One thing to bear in mind, though, is that it is a biography of a very fictionalized sort - one that mixes known fact with rumor and speculation, and maybe even outright fiction. Though, that doesn't mean it's not an entertaining film.
It has the feel of an intensely patriotic film, too, in its own way. One that argues for a sense of national pride, and for the ideals of Chinese tradition - as well as the traits commonly believed to be instilled by study of the martial arts. You could even argue that it's a film intended to represent the China that once existed, and not necessarily the China that exists today - though, let's not go getting political in a review of a martial arts movie. Huo Yuanjia has the feel of a folk hero about him - someone to be admired by the Chinese people in the same way that we admire our own historical figures.
At the heart of the film is Huo Yuanjia's desire to resist what he sees as the slow erosion of his culture by foreign influence. Naturally, he does this in the only way that a martial arts master can - by accepting challenges from foreign fighters, and proving the value of Chinese martial arts. This leads to him being presented with an even greater challenge by being asked to take on four foreign masters of different styles of combat in a single night. Despite this clearly being an attempt to set Huo Yuanjia up for failure, he comes to see it as a way to reignite national pride in his people, so he accepts (this was the late 19th and early 20th Century here, remember. At the time, Chinese people had it tough, even in parts of their own country). Of course, while the challenge forms the heart of the film, it is also used as a framing device for an overview of Huo Yuanjia's early life - showing his growth from a frail child whose father is reluctant to teach him martial arts, to an arrogant young master and, finally, to the wise and humble man who is willingly to accept an unfair challenge for the sake of his country.
It makes for a fascinating look at a fascinating character (and, I call him a 'character' since it's really up for debate on how close any of this is to the life of the real Huo Yuanjia). It's really just a shame that, in the end, it all begins to feel vague and more than a little rushed.
Huo Yuanjia is a fascinating character - there is no question of that. And, Jet Li almost always makes for an impressive figure on screen - again, there is no real question. But, while some aspects of his life and identity are adequately explored (the few scenes between Huo and his young daughter, for example, are more than enough to sell that relationship to the viewer), other details feel glossed over. One moment, he is a skilled, but stubbornly arrogant, martial arts master whose pride wont allow him to back down from any insult - even if it were simply an imagined one. His unrelenting pride leads to the death of a rival, and the violent retaliation of his rival's family - and, in the end, Huo's overpowering sense of guilt and grief lead him to abandon his old life. It's an important sequence which marks an important point in the young Huo Yuanjia's life, and it plays out with all the drama you would expect. But, then, with little more than an awkward transition scene, we have Huo Yuanjia as a lost wanderer, taken in by a kindly old woman, and her blind grand-daughter, in a distant rural community.
Then, it happens again a short time later when, after an unspecified period of time passes in which Huo Yuanjia is able to come to terms with himself, a wiser and more humble Huo comes to the sudden decision that he needs to return home. And, from there, we are lead into the contest which forms the heart of the film.
It may seem that I am being unfair, here - and, to be honest, I have written much more about this particular issue than I ever really intended to. Afterall, each section of the story is easily able to stand on its own merit - it is just the point of transition from one to the other that comes across as awkward to me. At times, Huo Yuanjia's development over the course of the film begins to come across more like a rough summary of a much longer story.
The one odd thought that occurred to me while watching was that, if each of these very distinct and separate phases of the story had been extended, it could easily have been broken into a couple of films - or, maybe even a full trilogy. And, once that thought came to me, I really couldn't shake it. I found myself thinking of how much I would have enjoyed this imaginary trilogy.
But, a single film is what we were given, so we simply have to make the best of it - and, thankfully, there is still a lot to like. For one thing, given who the star of the film is, it should come as no surprise to know that the martial arts scenes are all very impressive - and, that the film may be worth your time simply for that alone. Also, if you put aside my frustration with the abrupt cuts, then, as I've mentioned already, stands well on its own. Jet Li is more than capable of carrying the weight of the film - both in terms of his well-proven skill as a martial artist, and in his ability to show the gradual growth of the character. The same can also be said of every other performance given. Well, most of them, anyway. Sure, some of the 'foreigner' characters may come across as odd caricatures - but, that's hardly a huge problem for the film as a whole. It's not like 'foreigners' tend to fair too well in our films, anyway - so, fair's fair.
© 2013 Dallas Matier
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