Released internationally with forty minutes removed and sold as just another chopsocky action-fest, in its director’s cut Fearless marks a major return to form for Ronny Yu and martial arts star Jet Li. The film is a biopic of Huo Yuanjia, a turn-of-the-century wushu champion whose exploits restored national pride to the Chinese at a time when European and Japanese imperialists were eroding their country. More importantly, Huo sought to embody the true spirit of wushu, not as an outlet for violence, vengeance and hatred but as a source of pacifism and spiritual enlightenment.
It is those qualities Miss Yang (Michelle Yeoh) stresses, during wraparound sequences found only in the Chinese cut, as she endeavours to convince the International Olympic Committee to make wushu an Olympic event. To better illustrate her point, she recounts the tale of Huo Yuanjia, whom we first glimpse a hollow shell of a man aboard a barge leaving home. A flashback shows the young Huo (an impressive Lu Yu-Hao) watch as his father (Collin Chou, from The Matrix Revolutions (2003)) deliberately loses a battle to an inferior martial artist. After losing his own fight against the rival’s son, Huo swears never to be beaten again and trains using a kung fu manual stolen from his disapproving dad.
Years later, the adult Huo (Jet Li) has an adoring daughter (Ngai Sing) and a string of bone-crunching victories to his name. But his growing arrogance and ruthless need to be number one lose him the respect of his best friend Nong Jingsun (Dong Yong). When Huo brutally slays his rival Master Chin (Chen Zhi-Hui), the dead man’s supporters murder his beloved mother (Pau Hei-Ching) and child. At this point, your average kung fu movie would have Huo take revenge. Here he takes up the sword, only for the guilty party to immediately confess all and commit suicide, leaving Chin’s wife and daughter cowering before the shell-shocked Huo. With nothing left of his life, Huo flees his hometown to live life as a bedraggled vagabond. Hallucinating that he sees his mother and daughter beckoning from a nearby river, he attempts suicide, but is rescued and nursed back to health by blind village girl Moon (Betty Sun Li) and her wise grandmother (Qu Yun). Living the next few years amidst their peaceful farming community, Huo rediscovers the gentle altruistic philosophy at the heart of wushu.
He returns to Tianjian in 1909, where foreign powers now rule the roost and the downtrodden Chinese are abused as “the sick men of Asia”, a phrase familiar to Fist of Fury (1972) fans. Making peace with Nong Jingsun and Chin’s family, Huo Yuanjia establishes a wushu sports team, proving that competing heroically is a nobler endeavour than fighting to the death. When foreign powers arrange a one-against-four martial arts bout to test his mettle, Huo rises to the challenge, but shifty Japanese statesman Mr. Mita (Masato Harada, better known as the director of such films as Gunhed (1989)) has other ideas.
This film’s whole reason for being is to chart the spiritual journey that led Huo Yuanjia to steer martial arts away from the vicious cycle of vengeance and hatred towards the betterment of body, mind and soul. Which makes it especially galling that the international version is missing so many scenes that illustrate this point, such as when Huo takes a redemptive beating on behalf of a young boy or when he saves one opponent’s life in the ring. Put simply, if you want to take something more substantial away from this film other than the spectacle of Jet Li hitting people, then track down the Director’s Cut on region 3 DVD.
Although lacking the abstract flourishes of his earlier classics, Ronny Yu’s storytelling has a classical elegance. Time and again it stresses the idea that revenge is an empty pursuit and to challenge yourself, to pit your skill against a worthy opponent can be spiritually uplifting, life-changing experience. Like Jet Li’s earlier Fist of Legend (1995), this shuns xenophobia to show there is valour (or duplicity) on both sides, as with Tanaka (Shidou Nakamura) the philosophically-inclined karate fighter who becomes Huo’s final opponent. Yuen Woo Ping - who directed his own Huo Yuanjia biopic, Legend of a Fighter (1982) - delivers some wire-fu and CG assisted fight choreography that annoyed curmudgeonly kung fu purists, but demonstrate a range of fighting styles familiar from classic martial arts films in a ways that are exciting, visceral and inventive.
Aside from Betty Sun Li’s gentle and affecting turn, performances are pitched broad but remain engaging. Jet Li in particular gets a chance to display a greater range beyond his usual straight-laced stoicism, going from cocky, self-centred clown, to sagely martial arts philosopher. A big-budget epic, this boasts extravagant sets and locations and Ronny Yu’s fluid camerawork has a poetry missing from his movies for far too long. Note the simple scene where Moon washes Huo’s hair, which imparts a life lesson about cleansing, purity and starting life anew.
As a biopic, this omit a few facts such as that Huo sired other children beyond the little daughter mentioned here, and his wife is barely acknowledged at all. However, the drama is often profound and insightful with a finale that does bring a tear your eye.
Hong Kong-born director of action and fantasy. Began directing in the early 80s, and made films such as the historical actioner Postman Strikes Back (with Chow Yun-Fat), Chase Ghost Seven Powers and the heroic bloodshed flick China White. The two Bride with White Hair films – both released in 1993 – were hugely popular fantasy adventures, which helped Yu secure his first American film, the kids film Warriors of Virtue. Yu then helmed Bride of Chucky, the fourth and best Child's Play movie, the Brit action film The 51st State and the horror face-off Freddy Vs Jason. He later returned to Asia to helm the likes of Saving General Yang.