The full-length version of Jet Li’s defining wuxia epic, based on the real-life Chinese hero Huo Yuanjia. Directed by Ronny Yu with martial arts choreography by Yuen Woo-Ping.
Four years on from Zhang Yimou’s worldwide box office hit Hero, martial arts superstar Jet Li returned to the world of the Chinese wuxia movie genre for what he claimed would be the final time in 2006. Here he plays the real-life Chinese national hero and renowned martial arts champion “Huo Yuanjia”, whose name translates as “Fearless”.
Popular Chinese television actor Dong Yong stars as “Nong Jinsun”, a businessman and childhood friend of the real Huo Yuanjia. Actor Nakamura Shidō II plays “Anno Tanaka”, a Japanese martial arts champion who is sent to Shanghai to defeat Huo Yuanjia. Hailed as China’s “Queen of Television”, actress Betty Sun Li plays “Moon/ Yueci”, a blind country girl who takes care of Huo Yuanjia.
Actor and practitioner of Shao Bei Quan, Chen Zhihui stars as “Master Qin Lei”, a rival martial arts master of Huo Yuanjia. He will be familiar to martial arts movie fans from his roles in “Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon”, “Ip Man”, “14 Blades”, “The Legend is Born: Ip Man”, and “Shaolin”.
Action star Collin Chou plays “Huo Endi”, a famous master of Mizongyi, or “Lost Track Fist”, who was Huo Yuanjia’s father. Chou has appeared to great acclaim in The Matrix films as well as villainous roles in “Flashpoint”, “The Forbidden Kingdom” and “Special ID”.
The gigantic, 7-foot tall Australian wrestling star Nathan Jones appears as “Hercules O’Brien”, a strongman opponent whose fight with Huo Yuanjia made national headlines. He has also played giant fighters in Tony Jaa’s “The Warrior King/Tom Yum Goong”, Michael Jai White’s “Never Back Down: No Surrender”, and Jackie Chan’s “First Strike”.
Playing Huo Yuanjia’s European opponents in the main tournament are Anthony De Longis (“Road House”, “Batman Returns”) as “Anthony Garcia” a Spanish sword fencer, Brandon Rhea (“Ultimate Justice”) as “Colonel Han Herzon” a Belgian lancer, and Jean-Claude Leuyer (Logan, “Kickboxer: Vengeance”) as “Peter Smith”, a British boxer.
There are cameos in the extended version of the film from Michelle Yeoh (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Yes Madam/Police Assassins”, “Tai Chi Master”, “Police Story 3: Supercop”, “Reign of Assassins”) as “Ms. Yang”, who tells Huo Yuanjia’s story to the Olympic Committee and also real-life Olympic boxing champion Somluck Kamsing (Thai: Somrak Khamsing); as “Beicha”, a Muay Thai kickboxer who encounters Huo Yuanjia. In the documentary series “Behind Closed Doors”, Kamsing had been due to fight Jean-Claude Van Damme, although the bout never came to fruition.
In Tianjin, China in the late Qing Dynasty, Huo Endi is a renowned martial arts master, known for his great skill in challenge matches on the raised “Lei Tei” platforms. His young son Huo Yuanjia wants to be a great master too, but his father is concerned about his asthma and refuses to teach him martial arts, insisting he concentrate on his academic studies instead.
Yuanjia sees his father in a lei tai match with Master Zhao, who wins the fight dishonourably by retaliating when Huo Endi held back what would have been a potentially fatal blow. Humiliated by his father’s defeat, Huo Yuanjia vows to regain the Huo family’s honour and pride by practicing martial arts behind his father’s back. The years pass and Huo Yuanjia defeats several opponents in lei tai matches to become a famous martial artist in Tianjin in his own right. The more matches he wins, the more arrogant he becomes. Goaded into fighting his great rival Master Qin Lei, and lacking the restraint of his father, Huo Yuanjia’s arrogance has tragic consequences for all concerned.
Fleeing Tianjin, Huo Yuanjia wanders aimlessly until some kind villagers teach him the value of compassion and humility, making him realise he has something better to offer. Returning to Tianjin in 1907, Huo Yuanjia responds to a challenge from a foreign strongman called Hercules O’Brien, who claims the Chinese are so weak none of them can defeat him in a match. The growing dominance of foreign powers in China, encourages Huo Yuanjia to establish the Chin Woo Athletic Association in Shanghai. Backed by his lifelong friend and wealthy businessman Nong Jinsun, they want to show the Chinese people and their foreign oppressors that they are not the “weak men of the East”.
Members of the foreign chamber of commerce fear that Huo’s notorious victories might encourage anti-foreign sentiments among the Chinese people. They propose a match between Huo Yuanjia and four champions, one from each of their home countries. Although he knows it is not a fair fight, Huo Yuanjia accepts the challenge to fight for the pride of a nation.
Opening in present day Shanghai, Michelle Yeoh explains what the spirit of wushu means and why it should be included as a sport in the Olympics. To make her point we are taken back a hundred years to learn the story of a man called Huo Yuanjia, or “Fearless”.
The initial martial arts forms and training featured are a mix of traditional-style longfist techniques occasionally interspersed with some modern wushu movements. The challenge matches follow suit with the addition of some wirework, as you would expect in a film of this nature. It still requires considerable physical skill to perform the choreography and every actor involved is very adept. Each fight has excellent pacing and demonstrates nearly all aspects of Chinese martial arts, including punching, kicking, throwing, grappling, “Chin na” (seizing and trapping), Southern and Northern styles, long and short weapons.
Huo Yuanjia’s fight with the grown-up son of Master Zhao pays distinct attention to the difference in the application of Northern and Southern fist techniques. The epic restaurant fight with Master Qin initiates with a sublime sword duel applying many traditional sword skills, before evolving into an equivalent open-hand contest. For the bout with real-life wrestler Nathan Jones, Jet Li employs Shuai Jiao (Chinese wrestling) skills to negate the giant’s more modern WWE-style techniques.
The film crescendos with the famous challenge match allowing Jet Li to fight with the spear, straight sword and three-section staff. It is some of the finest weapons work of his movie career and a real treat for fans. I don’t think Jet Li has shown such versatility in a single film since the original “Shaolin Temple” movies at the start of his career. It’s all captured beautifully with tracking camera work, slow motion filming and close up attention to the detail of the moves, such as the footwork or the twist of a fist for example.
The only additional action scenes in The Director’s Cut feature Huo Yuanjia as a child fighting the son of Master Zhao and a tense stand off with a Muay Thai boxer. Much of the extra running time is taken up by scenes in the middle act that depict Huo Yuanjia learning from the mistakes of his arrogance, recognising the value of humility and how wushu can be a vessel for bettering oneself.
The film was originally 140 minutes long. To meet “market demands”, it was cut to 105 minutes and the scenes with Michelle Yeoh and the fight between Jet Li and the Thai boxer portrayed by Somluck Kamsing, were removed. In December 2008, Universal released the Blu-ray version of the film, which contains three versions; Theatrical, Unrated and the Director’s Cut.
Additionally, the Blu-ray release features a behind-the-scenes documentary called “A Fearless Journey”. It is a revealing insight into how director Ronny Yu and choreographer Yuen Woo-ping interpreted Jet Li’s philosophical beliefs about wushu through the drama and the action depicted onscreen.
I have something of a personal investment in the film’s lead character, having researched his life and the history of the Chin Woo/Jingwu Association extensively for a book. Whilst there are some scenes inspired by actual events, much of it is pure fiction. I can completely understand why some of Huo Yuanjia’s descendants were unhappy with aspects of the story and the characterisation of their famous ancestor.
However, judging this purely on its merits as a fictional movie, Jet Li delivers one of his best acting performances and this was arguably his last great onscreen martial arts performance. The slight re-editing of events and extended scenes of the Director’s Cut give the story a much deeper emotional core. Using Huo Yuanjia’s journey as a morality tale, it allows Jet Li to deliver his personal philosophy on the meaning of martial arts much more effectively. It rarely comes across as too “preachy”, which is often the case in other movies. Although occasionally a little wire-heavy, the versatility and range of martial arts choreography by Yuen Woo-ping is among the best work that he has ever done in the wuxia film genre.
On a technical level, the high definition version looks and sounds beautiful. The period costumes and sets are all very impressive with just the very occasional intrusion of CGI to recreate early 20th century Tianjin and Shanghai. Composer Shigeru Umebayashi’s music score perfectly compliments both the action and the more emotionally-driven scenes. If you have a big screen and decent sound system, the Blu-ray is unquestionably the version to get.
When “Fearless” was first released, Jet Li announced it would be his final martial arts movie. Although he has since performed martial arts in subsequent films, I would consider this to be his final “pure” martial arts movie. It is a fitting high point to top off his extraordinary contribution to martial arts cinema. “Fearless” -The Director’s Cut isn’t just one of the greatest martial arts movies, it’s a great movie full stop.
- Jet Li was aged 42 when he made “Fearless”. The real Huo Yuanjia died from suspected arsenic poisoning aged 42.
- Out of 100 shooting days, 60 were spent on the action scenes.
- “Fearless” is the seventh most successful foreign language film of all time in the USA.
- The title of the film was originally going to be “Legend Of A Fighter”, until Casting Director and Hong Kong film expert Mike Leeder informed the producers that a 1982 film about Huo Yuanjia already existed with that name. Coincidentally, not only would the films have shared the same Chinese and English titles, they were action-directed by Yuen Woo-Ping (also directing the 1982 film). Yuen had previously been unaware of the 1982 film’s English title.
- Jet Li’s acclaimed film “Fist of Legend” is a fictional tale in which Li plays a student called Chen Zhen, who seeks revenge for the poisoning of Huo Yuanjia. It is a remake of the Bruce Lee classic “Fist of Fury”.
- Jet Li’s stunt double Ju Kun was tragically lost when Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared in 2014.
- Jet Li has played all of the “big three” amongst the historical martial artists in Qing Dynasty (1645-1911) China. They are Fong Sai Yuk (c.1700s) in the “Fong Sai Yuk” series, Huo Yuanjia (1868-1910) in “Fearless”, and Wong Fei Hung (1847-1924) in the “Once Upon a Time in China” series.
- At the 26th Hong Kong Film Awards, Yuen Woo-Ping won for Best Action Choreography. Jet Li won the Best Actor gong at the 13th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards, which also awarded “Fearless” the prize for “Film of Merit”.
- Although Huo Yuanjia is shown to have no descendants in the movie, he was actually survived by his wife, three sons, two daughters, seven grandchildren and eleven great-grandchildren.
- Huo Shoujin, an 81-year-old grandson of Huo Yuanjia was so upset by how his ancestor was portrayed in “Fearless”, as well as by the historical inaccuracies in the film, that he and other descendants launched a lawsuit against Jet Li and the film’s producers and distributors in March 2006. In December 2006, a court in Beijing dismissed the case, saying “Fearless” was an exaggerated and fictitious portrait of Huo Yuanjia but it “contained no defamatory or libellous depictions”.
- Popular Taiwanese singer Jay Chou wrote and sang the theme song, also named “Huo Yuanjia”.
- Dong Yong and Betty Sun Li also appeared in Donnie Yen’s The Lost Bladesman.
- Hong Kong film expert and the movie’s Casting Director, Mike Leeder has a cameo as the referee in the final tournament.