01/11/2006. Contributed by Frank Ochieng
Supposedly, says Frank, Fearless is the celebrated swan song for 43 year-old Chinese martial arts action star Jet Li. As the aging and agile butt-kicking human weapon, the jack rabbit-sized Li carries the load on his shifty shoulders in a nostalgic wushu period piece that is philosophically solemn yet kinetically impish in its reflective spirit.
As Li willingly waves goodbye to the high-voltage chop-socky genre that has made him a domestic and international star, audiences will be treated to a frenzied farewell fable that thrills effectively despite some minor reservations (clunky sequences, indistinguishable dialogue, tedious flashback usage, simplistic redemptive themes, etc.).
Although Ronny Yu's ("Freddy vs. Jason") crisp direction and Yuen Po-Ping's dazzling fight choreography registers with the hungry senses, Jet Li's Fearless is a polished costumed biopic that never really quite escapes its conventional realm of symbolism. Screenwriter Chris Chow approaches the material rather enthusiastically but the movie fails to overcome its intermittent bout with sluggishness. Still, Li is to be commended for participating in a thought-provoking vehicle that doesn't necessarily delve into the flashy semantics of a modern-day martial arts merry-go-round of roundhouse kicks and jolting jabs. Interestingly, Fearless is Li's first Chinese language film since his participation in the revered 2002 majestic melodrama Hero.
Jet Li's Fearless is a high-minded narrative that feels very traditional in its skin. Basically, this is another collaborative emotional showcase where the strands of violence are silenced by one man's quest for tranquillity following the wake of personalized life-long tragedies. Li dutifully assumes the role of legendary turn-of-the-century wushu master Huo Yuanjia, a champion fighter that reigned supreme in the echoes of disenfranchised China. As the Western world imposed its competitive will on Yuanjia's vulnerable homeland, the crusading master would perfect his craft of combat thus sealing his deserved status as China's most inspirational martial artist.
Long before Yuanjia would prevail over countless international champion fighters in the 1920's as well as become the founder of the prestigious martial arts school Jingwu Sports Federation, the film's protagonist had to confront a complicated childhood that ultimately shaped his perspective as a prominent fighting machine. As a youth, Yuanjia was constantly harassed and being tested by the resident bullies. Furthermore, he looked up to his heroic fighting champion father (Colin Chou) for guidance.
But Daddy Dearest wanted something more stable and noble for young Huo-mainly that his son tend to the studies and ignore the fury inside the fighting ring. Plus, the peer pressure of Yuanjia's old man wanting him to conquer the academic world like his best buddy Nong (Dong Yong) is a burning reminder as to how inferior he feels about his mental malaise.
Yuanjia vows to never bow his head to a hasty confrontation ever again. As a result, he becomes an undefeated warrior as a young adult while finding the direction of his so-called "calling". Feeling indestructible and self-assured in his new role as a premiere fighter as he cuts through an assortment of capable European contenders left and right Yuanjia would soon face an ugly obstacle that will clearly render him humbled and helpless.
After accidentally killing a man in what perhaps is a deadliest mishap for Yuanjia, the sudden self-adoration for our hero means immediate emptiness. Understandably, Yuanjia is devastated by this life-changing incident. But matters escalate even more harshly as the deceased's associates decide to take revenge and savagely eradicate Yuanjia's entire family with a drop of a dime. This, of course, leaves Yuanjia hopelessly disillusioned therefore provoking him to aimlessly wander about as he tries to figure out the complex meaning of life, love and loss.
After experiencing such a psychological letdown, Yuanjia comes to the realization that he needs to settle down and contemplate the serenity that encourages peace and prosperity. The despondent Yuanjia seeks refuge in a quaint Chinese village where the influence of the scenic countryside and its mellow residents (particularly a blind gal named Snow played by Sun Li) has a lasting effect on Huo's indelible psyche. As the film approaches its climatic fight scene where "the newly reformed" Huo Yuanjia is faced with forceful opposition, he'll be armed with the meditative aura that hopefully resonates from the rural utopia that literally saved his soul.
Overall, Jet Li's Fearless is a reasonable outing where despair and dignity swing gracefully together like a pair of carefree noonchucks. This is a sweeping epic that has its share of eye-popping elegance that pronounces the feisty action scenes with noted panache. The scripting is saccharine coated, as the conception of spirituality feels overly sentimental for an old-school action yarn. Nevertheless, the contrast in storytelling is conveyed harmoniously through the irony of its kick-and-chop flourishes. It's refreshing to see that Li's energetic project goes beyond the one-dimensional, hyper-fuelled revenge fantasies. Politically, Fearless is uncompromising when it comes to the pride and prestige of China's cultural embrace against intrusive Western invaders.
Li's Fearless doesn't make for an exceptional departure from the rumble and tumble nuances of acrobatic martial arts mayhem but it is still a sophisticated joyride that packs an introspective punch.
© Frank Ochieng 2006