by guest contributor Volcan Kacar
This brilliant martial arts film not only loosely tells the story of Huo Yuanjia, the marital artist who not only saved China from Western foreign imperialism and the Empire of Japan but protected the nation’s honour. In the final years of the Qing Dynasty at their weakest moment our Wushu hero put pride and nationalism back into the hearts of the people. This stepping stone formed the birth of The Republic of China.
Our favourite 1982 Shaolin Temple hero Jet Li, portrays the Wushu martial artist and spiritual guru Huo Yuanjia with his long-time childhood friend and restaurant businessman, Dong Yong, as Nong Jinsun. The Japanese competitor Anno Tanaka is portrayed by Clint Eastwood’s 2006 Letters from Iwo Jima’s Shidô Nakamura. Masato Harada plays the role of the villain Mr. Mita, a businessman who desires to westernize Japan removing the old ways under the Meiji Restoration.
At a very young age, young Huo Yuanjia always dreamt of being the greatest fighter of China giving him respect and honour not only to his family name but to his clan which represent the art of Wushu. Huo’s father is a respected and influential Wushu teacher, however, to his son he is strict and never wants him to follow in his footsteps and keeps him distant from Wushu. The young fighter’s ambition to become a great fighter remained and he trained himself. Years went by and we see a much older Huo Yuanjia. Training himself for years allowed him to become victorious in every match. With each victory his pride and fame grew to the rank of master marital artist, which eventually made him arrogant and volatile. His pride was challenged when a fellow student of his clan had been severely beaten by clan rival Qin Lei. Huo challenges Qin on the day of his birthday at his fellow friend’s restaurant. An intense and violent fight breaks-out in the restaurant destroying everything. Huo emerges victorious with a devastating fatal blow to the chest killing Qin. However much feeling like his pride had been restored, Huo discovers that his student had actually insulted Qin and thus was only defending his honour. Huo returning to his home he discovers that his entire family had been slain by Qin’s godson in a serious act of revenge.
Grieving and in total disarray Huo wanders the country like a ghost. Unable to escape the dishonour on his family he tries to drown himself but is rescued by a villager. Upon waking up he finds himself in a peaceful and generous village and is welcome to live the simple life with them. Over the years Huo finds himself in a state of equilibrium. Living the peaceful and gentle life, Huo has an epiphany moment and realizes that the true foundations of Wushu are of a spiritual nature, involving self-discovery and sportsmanship, not viciousness. Huo returns back home and makes peace with the Qin family and restores his family honour. With his new found grace and spiritual guidance Huo teaches the art of Wushu at his newly opened Jingwu Sports Federation. However realizing that foreign invaders are slowly tearing apart his country with western ideals, Huo fights at international tournaments representing China. With each victory Huo’s fame and popularity grows and his good friend Nong Jinsun funds the Chin Woo Athletic Association in Shanghai in 1909. Fearing that this string of victories would spark off anti-foreign investments, cultures and ideals which would then create nationalism within the Chinese people making it near impossible to invest into China. So the Foreign Chamber of Commerce stage a tournament in Shanghai with Huo up against each representative of the Chamber; a British boxer, Belgian lancer, Spanish fencer and a Japanese samurai martial artist. After defeating the British, Belgian and Spanish all that is left is Japan, who is represented by the respectful competitor Anno Tanaka. The first round is a tie, however in the second round Huo’s tea was poisoned, nevertheless Huo is reluctant to step down knowing he will die anyway so he carries on! Though weak and knocking on death’s door, Tanaka seems to have the upper hand when Huo manages to deliver a devastating blow to Tanaka’s chest. The same blow he used on Qin. However, Huo refrains from taking another life again, so doesn’t deliver the punch and collapses. Tanaka flabbergasted by such a respectful act he declares Huo the winner. Huo slowly passes with the cheer of his people roaring his name.
The difference between Huo and his father is that Huo shows no mercy and his brutal attitude toward martial arts showed in his fighting style being more aggressive. His father’s style was more elegant and peaceful, never needing to strike with every blow being deadly but rather a single devastating blow that can split a stone in half. He advocated that the art of Wushu be merciful rather than vengeful. The two characters are a contrasting parallel example of how one fighter can use his martial arts solely for self-interest and his self-righteous ego to advocate violence rather than inner peace. Though Huo trained himself how to fight, Huo never taught himself how to become a part of Wushu in the truest sense. The true meaning of Wushu is a formation of three stages; one is not to fight, second is to use knowledge and personal restraint and third is to show your honour and equanimity.
Not only does Fearless contain an absorbing story, but it truly does pay homage to the art of Wushu and other martial arts with classy and stunning choreography. From stone made stages to high wooden towers, Fearless not only shows Wushu, but we see first-hand, other martial arts and different styles like kung fu in self-defence and Japanese fighting styles, a fantastic visual of different cultures fighting one another. One of the most daringly impressive among these is the sequence with Huo and Zhao on the high wooden obstacle tower. Both fighters use the same martial arts platform, being Wushu. However at the end of the fight when Zhao begins to lose going on the defensive, he uses one of the most traditional defence fighting styles which is Tiger Claw. Usually this defence technique is used in kung fu, and Wushu, has a similar style which is called Praying Mantis and Tiger Style. The art of Tiger Claw is to become a tiger when this animal attacks! Tiger Claw is a striking style of emphasizing your movements with fierceness, elegance and power with the steps of your movements designed to lunge at your opponent instilling overwhelming fear! When we see Zhao use this technique he visually becomes a tiger and we no longer see a man but an animal…! Zhao lunges towards Huo and, with his powerful wrist and hand actions, demonstrates a claw ripping through Huo’s shirt. Zhao’s transgression from man to beast is a memorable visual of how techniques of footwork, strong posture and fearless force can easily alter Zhao’s (or a real-life practitioner’s) image!
What is so brilliantly fantastic about Fearless is how, where in most martial arts films, the protagonist’s defining moment is when he or she discovers martial arts or uses their martial arts to defend, seek revenge etc. Instead, here, Huo mastered the art of Wushu and yes at the beginning of the film he was defeating every contender that challenged him. Constantly looking for the greatest contender, he never realized that his greatest enemy was in fact himself and because of his pride and hostility, his family ended up paying the price.
- Though a massive success, this film was subject to many controversies from the portrayal of Huo Yuanjia which lead to a law suit against Jet Li on the ground of misinterpretation and image. Huo Yuanjia’s great grandson was very unhappy with the film representing his great grandfather as a very violent man.
- The same choreographer (Yuen Woo-Ping) that did The Matrix (1999) choreographed Fearless.
- During filming Jet Li was involved in an accident that resulted in him falling 12 feet.
Film Rating: 8/10