Fearless (Huo Yuanjia)

dir: Ronny Yu
They’re selling this as Jet Li’s last action film. We can only hope and pray…

Jet Li, god love him, has had a very variable career. It started off all right, performing gymnastics in front of Richard Nixon as a child prodigy, but mostly it’s been downhill from there. Sure, he was in a bunch of cool martial arts flicks, but who really cares? As the philosopher Janet Jackson once rightly pointed out: What Have You Done For Me Lately?

Okay, so he was in Hero, which was good, and gets better with every viewing, but does that make up for all the awful American crap with his grimy fingerprints all over them? The One, Cradle 2 the Grave, Kiss of the Dragon, Romeo Must Die: the list drags ever on.

There’s just not that much to the guy. He’s too well known for his past exploits to be considered much of anything other than a fighter, and he’s considered too wooden to be considered much of an actor. Saying Fearless is his last action role is akin to announcing his retirement. I can’t exactly see him taking the lead in the next Robert Altman film or taking the stage to play Uncle Vanya or Richard the Third.

So I personally think this announcement is bullshit. Man’s gotta eat. Man’s got to work to eat. No-one’s going to pay the man to quote Shakespeare or debate Dostoevsky or play the lead in a light-hearted romantic comedy alongside Jennifer Aniston and Russell Crowe.

But taken as a given, Fearless is meant to be a salutary love letter to the genre, the films and the country that made him a star. It’s like someone leaving you a note when you supported them financially and emotionally for years as they studied to finish a law degree at uni, and once graduation comes along, they decide they can do better and tell you so in the break-up letter.

So he’s breaking up with us, but he’s doing it in fine style. To compensate for years of wooden acting, Jet pulls out all the stops and runs the full gamut of emotions from A to B in his role as Huo Yuan Jia. Based on a real person who lived and died at the start of the 1900s, Jet uses acting muscles in his face that I’d forgotten he possessed. As such, it’s a welcome surprise to see him doing a bit more than just kick several shades of shit out of all and sundry.

Huo Yuan Jia, as previously stated, was a real person. As such, he is famous for two primary things: being really good at kicking several shades of shit out of people, and for starting the style of modern martial arts schools that emphasise a person’s overall character and wellbeing. You know, ones that teach that bullshit about only using violence as a last resort.

As a child, he watches his highly skilled father fight in a tournament. Though he understands that his father deliberately shows restraint to avoid killing an opponent, all he sees is that his father was bested in a fight without understanding the reasons why.

Look, no-one, not even Chopper Read’s kids or John Howard’s spawn want to see their fathers bested in competition with another dad. And it takes a long time before they can grasp other, more important realities than the drive to blind competition and the irrelevance of whether their dad is tougher than other dads, or not.

It follows Yuan Jia through his early life where the world tries to teach him this lesson of restraint and humility, but he is too arrogant and selfish to hear it yet.

Renowned for his fighting ability, he relishes the opportunity to get into tournaments and fights with people to keep proving to himself and those around him that he’s just The Greatest. Like, at everything. Although it seems like he’s fighting for noble, honourable reasons, it’s anything but. He makes the cardinal mistake of starting to believe his own hype.

The fame goes to his head, and his pride leads to several horrible, unnecessary deaths. It remains to be seen whether the harsh lessons life likes to torment people with make him a better person, or whether, like most of us shlubs, he just persists in being the same self-centred arsehole that he always was.

This is probably the best flick Ronny Yu has been connected to since The Bride With White Hair. Like Jet, he crossed the pond to Hollywood, lured by the bags of cash and teenage hookers. Like Jet again, his reach also exceeded his grasp. He was responsible for, at best forgettable, at worst unwatchable crap like Freddy Versus Jason and Seed of Chucky. At least Chucky has someone murdering cult film director John Waters in it. Other than that both those flicks make our entire species look bad.

With a bigger budget than the old days, and more competent technical staff, he and the whole production crew have crafted a very impressive film. It looks amazing, the cinematography is excellent, the production values are top notch, and they’ve married all that to a decent script. Which goes against the laws that dictate Chinese action cinema, but no matter.

This isn’t the usual generic martial arts script. And it’s not because it’s based on a true story. Apart from the name of the main character, the fact that he was Chinese, and that he lived on Earth, very little of the actual true story remains in the script as represented on the screen. But I have to say, it’s the better for it.

By changing substantial elements of his history, they’ve crafted a far more enjoyable film than I would have thought possible. And because of that, and the redemptive / growth aspect for the main character, the flick stands for something more than just watching someone whack other people around for 90 minutes.

As a long time fan of both martial arts flicks and action films in general, I have to admit that just watching people smack each other around leaves me pretty jaded these days. It’s not because I’ve matured or grown as a person. Far fucking from it. It’s just that I have seen it all before, many times, done better and worse.
I need a little more than that. Fearless, surprising the hell out of me, had that modest thematic grace. Something for the heart and mind to latch on to as the eyes watched the excellent visuals and choreography.

The fights, all the same, are uniformly excellent. There’s a concerted effort to avoid the extremes of wire-work and CGI that have rendered the martial arts genre something of a fantasy genre, at least in Western eyes. But they’re very good, and pretty brutal, and they have a point. They don’t just happen for the sake of it.

CGI is used sparingly, in bits where it’s cheaper and faster to represent something minor digitally rather than do it all for real. It’s barely noticeable as such, and it doesn’t detract or distract.

Of course, there are some worrying aspects to the film. There is much made of the era in which the flick is set, which is around the time where countries like the US, Japan, Britain, Germany and Russia were looking at China like they were sleazy perverts on a P&O cruise and China was a passed-out drunk girl in their cabin.

Labelling China the ‘sick old man of the East’, these countries want to humiliate and carve up China, and it’s Yuan Jia’s job to defend China’s honour by fighting against the foreigner best and brightest. I won’t spoil the outcome (which surprised even me) but there’s a word for this kind of stuff: cheap nationalism. I’m not too interested in a film about Australia saying it’s better than every other country at something, so why would I want to hear it from any other country?

Still, it’s not too egregious, so I’m not going to cry about it. I guess the lesson learned by Yuan Jia translates over to the national sphere as well, as to the pointlessness of arrogant competitiveness.

Jet Li does get to act, a lot, in his genre farewell. If you weren’t very familiar with legendary and mostly dead punk band The Ramones, and heard a song of theirs that used more than three chords, you’d be pretty surprised. Expecting only about two or three facial expressions from Jet, I was surprised to see the range of emotions he ends up conveying. It was like an orchestra performing a Ramones’ song.

I’m used to him having one facial expression and one tone of voice for a whole film. Look at Hero. As much as I love the film, I don’t think he changed face once for its entire duration. Not bloody once!

This is a decent send-off, a tribute and a salute to himself and to the films that made him known around the world. This flick easily sits next to his best flicks (Tai Chi Master, Shaolin Temple, Fong Sai Yuk, the first two Once Upon a Time in China’s, Hero), and easily towers over most of his others. I wish him good health and good fortune in whatever else he hopes to do.

8 times extending mercy to one’s enemies is a show of strength, not weakness, out of 10
“He’ll fight, out of pride, honour; it doesn’t matter. He’ll fight and lose.” – smarmy bastards, Fearless.