Jet Li’s Fearless (2006)
Huo Yuan Jia – China
Dir: Ronny Yu
Chinese with English subtitles
This film has been billed as Jet Li’s final martial arts film and I don’t think he could have picked a better project. Jet’s portrayal of Huo Yuanja, the real life founder of the Jin Wu Sports Federation, transcends the action on screen and the loosely assembled fight sequences of the film to become a film about vengeance, excess, honor, and discipline as do many other films of the genre. In the context of a rigged contest, Fearless brings to the table issues of the western intervention into Chinese culture and the negative impact the intrusion brings with it. Still there is even more to the film that is played out not in the expertly choreographed fight sequences or the story but in how the film is actually made and how it tells yet another story not in words but the native language of the cinema, the image.
The film begins as it ends with a challenge to defend the honor not only of his sporting federation but of his fellow countrymen. We then go back several years in time to see how he got to the place where he is, a journey that takes us through his relentless quest for power and fame and the final collapse of his entire world. It is here that the film makes a drastic change that is one of the most brilliant aspects of the film. Up to now, the film completely lacks the quiet contemplation and cinematic language of Chinese cinema. The fight sequences are built with the short shot, quick edit tactics that we as western audience have become inundated with in our cinema.
Hou is a man obsessed with vengeance and the excessive lifestyle that seems to run in conflict with what we should be seeing in this type of cinema. The acting is incredibly western as well as the dialogue to the point that it felt unnatural to be watching the film in the original Chinese. It seemed like an American facsimile of a Chinese film and was almost physically uncomfortable to watch. Then it suddenly changes.
Huo has hit rock bottom and his lifestyle has cost him everything, his western excessive lifestyle. In that moment, the film transforms itself into a totally new film. The camera slows down, the acting more subtle, pace deliberate and dialogue much more meaningful. Huo runs from his life and reestablishes his connections to not only his lost self but his lost culture as well. Eventually, he leaves the country and returns to his life in the city to find it totally changed and polluted with Westerners.
Here the two worlds collide and the tension builds until it is played out on the ring and the final battle. Ultimately, he gives his life for the great of the people and they cheer his name as their victor. The film is a fascinating view of the changes the people of China face with continued pressure for westernization and the change and loss of their traditional culture. Ronny Yu manages to take the conflict between West and East and put it in the context of a film that more than talks about the differences between the worlds, he shows us in the very way the film is made.