Sunday, 13 July 2008

Huo Yuan Jia/Fearless (2006)

It was about time I watched this film. It is definitely one of the very best films with Jet Li, as its main, and very serious, point is not the fight scenes, but the spirit behind the martial arts, and how it should be a spirit of respect. Like Danny the Dog, this is an anti-violent martial arts film.

Fearless is also a piece of Kung Fu mythology and history. It tells the story of Huo Yuan Jia (1869-1910), the founder of the Jing Wu school. His father was a martial arts master who refused to teach his son any martial arts. The young bullied Yuan Jia couldn't understand why. He learned Kung Fu by himself and swore never to be beaten by anyone.

He keeps his oath, but the more opponents he defeats in his ruthless matches, the more empty he becomes.

Eventually he has beaten every man in his home region Tianjin, except one master Qin. One day he hears that this master Qin has beaten up one of his disciples for no reason, and goes off to fight him. The fight ends with Yuan Jia killing master Qin at a point when he is already barely conscious. As has always been their habit, Yuan Jia and his disciples celebrate the victory by drinking themselves to oblivion.

The next morning Yuan Jia returns to his home and finds his mother and daughter murdered. It is master Qin's stepson who has avenged his stepfather's death. Furthermore, it now comes to light that master Qin actually had a reson for beating up Yuan Jia's disciple - the disciple was having an affair with master Qin's daughter.

Devastated with guilt Yuan Jia wanders off without aim. He is ready to die, but on the verge of death he is saved by some villagers who nurse him back to health. As he gets better, he gets used to the peaceful and hard-working village life and spends a few years there.

At some point he feels the urge to go back to his home town and pay respect to his dead family members. The city surely has changed while he was gone - there are foreigners from colonial powers all over the place, Chinese dressed in Western attire, children in rags begging on the streets, and even camels ...

The times have become troubled. Yuan Jia is a changed man, as well. He no longer feels the need to defeat everyone and prove himself better than the rest. But still, the only thing he knows is to fight. How can he make a difference and call for peace, understanding and friendship among opponents - both individuals and nations - when China seems so weak in face of the increasing pressure from the great colonial powers?

Yuan Jia decides to participate in matches against foreign champions, promoting "friendship through competition". One day, representatives of the main colonial powers present in China plan a great match with Yuan Jia, alone, against four great fighters - one each from Britain, Germany, Japan and what appears to be Spain (though according to history, shouldn't that be France or Russia?) ... How will this end? How can Yuan Jia communicate his message of respect and compassion despite such an unfair set-up?

This is a good film in many ways. It has considerably more sense than any average kung fu flick, and Jet Li's acting is the best and most varied that I've ever seen. And he hasn't been known as a great actor, so this was quite unexpected, even after his performance in Danny the Dog.

One funny thing, though, is all the nationalism it, in a way, propagates. As in many other films depicting this period of foreign intervention in China, it deals with how the Chinese can tackle this problem. The premise is that the foreign interests come with bad intentions, and it's up to the Chinese hero to convince them that friendship and cooperation is the right way.

The foreigners are all - with the exception of Japan's Anno (Shido Nakamura) - depicted as either some kind of inarticulate brutes of raw power (they don't speak mandarin, so they communicate solely with growls and snarls ...), or cunning, evil scheming capitalists with no respect for human life and moral values.

The most extreme case of the former might be O'Brien from the USA:

The USA (Nathan Jones - not a very unsuitable impersonification of that nation, if you ask me ;o) ... vs. China (Jet Li).

While it is Yuan Jia's aim to advocate for friendship and respect, this is, from all I can see, not the kind of friendship where different nationalities adapt to each other and loosen up the boundaries between their nations, but the kind where they respect each others' nations and do not interfere with them, while taking great pride in their own nation. For instance, when Anno scolds his associate Mita (Masato Harada), he calls him "a disgrace to the Japanese" - not "to humankind" or something more universal like that.
(In Fist of Legend, however, this is the other way around. There, the message is that you should "be fluent and adapt".)

As mentioned, Anno's character is an interesting exception among the foreigners. He is the only one with whom Yuan Jia can actually communicate using words, since he does speak Mandarin. Anno is in China, and he respects Chinese culture and is open to what he can learn from it.
Considering what clashes there have been lately between China and Japan, and what atrocities towards Chinese the Japanese army has been responsible for in relatively recent history, I think it is a pretty soothing move in the film to have a Japanese character be the most sympathetic of all the foreigners.

On a more personal note, what touched me the most in the film was Yuan Jia's coming to terms with his heavy conscience regarding the deaths of his mother and daughter, whom he had been careless with while they were still alive, and whose deaths he had caused.

I watched the film on a day when I was having pangs of bad conscience for perhaps not having taken good enough care of a very special person when she was still alive, so I could understand all too well what he was feeling ...

Martial arts:

There are many fighting scenes in this film, but it's not like in those easy Kung Fu flicks where the plot is only there to tie the fighting scenes together. The fighting scenes in this film all bear meaning and each of them carries the plot forward.

Once again, Yuen Woo Ping has choreographed some truly amazing martial arts scenes. Yuan Jia's character is very much expressed by his Kung Fu, and this is shown quite well in the fighting scenes.

In Yuan Jia's defiant younger years, his fighting style is very angry, hard, ruthless and aggressive.

But when he is older and wiser, his martial arts have become soft, respectful, and 'flowing'. (Though it's kind of hard to catch on screencaps ...)

The main misogyny of this film seems to have occurred off the record, and the perpetrator was the actress Betty Sun, in the role of Moon, the blind girl Yuan Jia meets in the remote village. As told by the trivia section at
"Betty Sun was scared by the leeches in the rice paddy. She originally tried to wrap her feet in cellophane, but it showed on camera. Director had to order her to take it off."
Talk about disgrace to womanhood ...

And so do leeches.

Otherwise, the film isn't misogynous at all. One could object to how women and children in a way become symbols for the 'positive' values in life, in opposition to the harsh fighting world of men, but this isn't very obvious, and it could, actually, also be interpreted as depicting and even ciriticizing the society of the time.

Hunk factor:
Jet Li's character is one you (or, at least, I) would identify with, rather than wish you could be with. But there is one very hot guy in the film - the Japanese martial arts master Anno (Shido Nakamura, also known from the heart-wrenching doggie film Inu no eiga) ...

Anno Tanaka - the hottest kendo master on film 2006.

Yuan Jia's mum taught him that, but it's only now, long after she died, that he has understood what she meant.

Awww ... "tea appreciation" ...

Ooh, some chest ... These traditional Japanese V-neck jackets are definately teh hottest.

Great scene:
I just had to take this out. Yuan Jia and the German Hans (Brandon Rhea) are fighting with spears.

Yuan Jia has a bigger one than Hans!

Hans is not at all happy about this. He'd always thought Asians would have really small ones.

(Actually, Hans intentionally broke off his spear at one point. He wanted to be able to use it in combat of closer range, I think.)