This is the story of Huo Yuanjia - A fighter who represents Chinese martial arts to a nation; A man who fought his way out of darkness and into history.
Young Yuanjia was an arrogant fighter, always looking to be the best and prove it to others. As he grew up he kept his reputation going as one of the best fighters in his province, but on the day that he proves himself the best fighter in Tianjin, he also makes a dreadful mistake resulting in the loss of his mother and daughter. Crazed with grief he flees and finds himself in a peaceful mountain village where he begins to learn of peace and the things that were missing in his life before. With this new knowledge he starts to understand a greater purpose of martial arts, one that his father sought for but Yuanjia was too arrogant to see or understand.
Fearless has been widely touted as Jet Li's last martial arts film. When I first heard that statement I thought that is was tantamount to Jet Li going into retirement or him only accepting straight acting roles from now on. Don't get me wrong, Jet Li's acting ability has come on a long way over the years, but not seeing him kick butt every now and then in his films just wouldn't be the same and I don't know if I would be able to take him seriously. However, I was wrong to interpret as I did, as all the statement means is that this is his last film that is based on martial arts. He will not be playing a famed martial arts hero any more, so no more Fong Sai Yuk or Tai Chi Master type films, it is now just normal action, or films where the character can fight, so breathe easy, he still will kick butt in his roles.
One reason for Jet retiring from the martial arts roles is that he believes Fearless tells all his philosophies concerning martial arts and as such he has no more to achieve in martial arts films. So if you understand the meaning in this film, then you will understand Jet's views on martial arts. Having a great martial arts actor that I respect so much state that a certain film basically exhibits his entire philosophy on martial arts burdens that film to unreasonable levels of expectation in my view, so I'm just glad I didn't know all this before I watched the film!
The release of Fearless which I own is the Director's Cut. Unfortunately I have not seen the regular release so no comparison will be made. The only additional scenes that I am certain are in this cut and not in the regular cut are the scenes with Michelle Yeoh. Yes that's right, Michelle Yeoh is in this film! If you are anything like me, images of Michelle and Jet's collaboration in Tai Chi Master will be flying around in your head and you will be practically salivating at the thought of seeing them fighting on screen together. Well, I'm sorry to ruin those dreams, but Michelle is in a completely non-action role. Her scenes play at the very start and end of the film in the present day, where she is an Olympic committee member or something like that and she is delivering a presentation for Wu Shu to gain Olympic sport status. That's it unfortunately. No kicking, punching or weapons work from her - just her speaking. Whether Ronny Yu reinstated her section of the film in his cut because of the dreamy public demand to see Michelle Yeoh in a Jet Li film, I do not know, but of all the scenes in the film that could be considered unnecessary, Michelle's tops the list. They do nothing for the development of the story and only really serve to give a glimpse of how Wu Shu is misconceived in the modern day. But the absolute best thing concerning her scenes is that they are pretty much my only criticisms for Fearless.
Fighting aside, the great strength of the film is the character development of Huo Yuanjia. He starts as the cocky, arrogant fighter who truly believes the essence of martial arts is to train hard and be the absolute best you can be. In his case he wants to prove himself the best fighter in his district of Tianjin. Fairly oblivious to the fact that the respect of many of those around him largely comes out of fear, he continues on his violent path proving himself to be the best fighter time after time. It is once things take a drastic turn for the worse in his life that his character transformation begins and it is from this point on that the viewer is treated to viewing and learning about the true meaning of Wu Shu and happiness in life. It is a slow process for Huo Yuanjia, but that makes it all the better for the viewer. In his mountain life you are able to see all the little changes in his character take place, allowing you to appreciate and understand them. You see him go from planting rice as quickly as possible, with him regarding it as a competition to get the work done, to someone who takes his time to do it properly and stops to appreciate the small pleasures of life.
The beauty with which the mountain village scenes were filmed reminded me of the similar 'simple life' scenes from The Last Samurai, and indeed quite a few aspects of these films are similar. I'm a through-and-through city person and don't think I have the right character to be able to live in the country, but watching these scenes and the peace and happiness that is portrayed from all the characters, the simple enjoyment of life, it all made me very envious and think about the possibility of giving up all my material possessions and seeking this inner peace and content life that that sort of life could give. Then I snap back to reality and realise I probably could never do it, but the sheer fact that the film managed to stir up those emotions and dreams in me is a testament to the beauty of those scenes.
For a lot of Jet Li fans, the beauty of the filming, the drama and development in the story are not the main things to consider in one of his films. It's the action and fighting that takes the top spot. In Fearless the fights were choreographed by the infamous Yuen Wo Ping - the man who, in the eyes of most, sets the standard for martial arts film choreography. There are plenty of fights throughout the entire film, and if there was any chance you may have got bored of seeing so many fights, the master stroke is that the fighting styles are widely varied. We see many different Wu Shu styles fighting against each other, but as the film progresses into its latter third different foreign opponents come onto the scene. As a result we see Jet's Wu Shu pitted against wrestling, boxing, French swordplay, a Belgian spear and lance expert and Japanese Karate. Each of the fights is different to the last and the viewer is nothing less than treated to seeing it all take place on screen. Save for one thing, I loved the fighting in Fearless and am still jealously in awe of what Jet can do, after all he's now over 40! That one thing is an instance or two of unnecessary use of CG or unrealistic use of wires. Which it was I can't tell but when Huo Yuanjia is fighting Zhao on top of the wooden tower flashbacks of Jet's anti-gravity ability as seen in Romeo Must Die came into my head. How he is able to break certain laws of physics when almost the entire rest of the film is played realistically (albeit with a little martial arts artistic license) is beyond me, and is distracting. In the scene in question Huo somehow manages to completely change direction mid-jump. It isn't even a small jump that could be overlooked, it is a huge legs-swinging-around above head height jump and his superman movement in midair detract from the realism of the fight.
I don't really have much more to say on Fearless other than it is a fantastic film. With the exception of the aspects I've already highlighted, the film delivers on all levels. The martial arts fans will love the fighting, those who like a little more than just fighting will be engrossed and captivated in the journey Huo Yuanjia's life takes and will probably see a new outlook on life that they can greatly respect. My final thought is mainly for those who have seen the film and something to reflect on after you've seen for those who haven't - how much wiser and better off would the world be if it was full of really old women. A lot of the insights that Huo has are all due to with things an old woman in the mountain village says. Maybe everyone should find their own little old woman who can be their very own character purifier or something like that... Anyway, I'm talking crap now.
Audio & Subtitles
This Edko release comes with the Mandarin soundtrack in both DTS ES and DD 5.1 EX formats. To be honest, I don't know what the ES or EX things mean. I've got a 5.1 system and I chose to watch the film in DTS mode. While not receiving a heavy workout, the surrounds are used to good effect, with cheers from the crowd and the like being effects frequently played around the speakers. There are many discrete effects from all speakers making me feel nicely immersed in the experience. I'm not an audiophile, but I'd still say that the DTS sound here was certainly more than acceptable.
The subtitles, while good, were not quite as good as the sound. There were only infrequent spelling errors, but there were a few fatal grammar or missing word errors. One instance is in the mountains while Jet is involved in a fight. The old woman tells him something that makes him realise that he can still defend himself without hurting anyone else. The line of text was something like "I know you don't want to hurt others, but you should let others hurt you!" I'm 100% certain that really should have been "...you shouldn't let others hurt you!" There was also an instance where a sentence was split over two lines mid-word. Generally everything was completely understandable, despite the few spelling and grammar errors, but that one instance of changing the entire meaning of the sentence was quite bad.
The film print in this release is very good. Colours look great throughout, with dark tones looking nice and deep. There are few speckles every now and then, but nothing much to really get worked up about. A little grain is present in the transfer, but again not enough to detract from the viewing experience.
DVD & Extras
This Director's Cut release of Fearless comes with an outer slipcase. Extras wise there isn't a lot to choose from. There is the standard cast and crew filmographies and a photo gallery, both of which are unremarkable. But then there is the featurette "A Fearless Journey", which quite surprisingly is filmed in English. This is the sort of thing that makes extras worth while. From seeing various scenes being filmed and the techniques used, there are also plenty of interviews with Jet Li, Ronny Yu and other actors from the film. All are enlightening and the highlights are definitely Jet Li's segments. It is this featurette that I got my info on the interpretation on this being Jet's last martial arts film. It is very interesting to watch and worth it too!
To conclude Fearless is an excellent manner with which to bow out of the martial arts film scene. After so many years of such good films, I am relieved that he has finished on such a high note. The fights are excellent, the story is substantial and not just there for padding and the film looks beautiful. I just hope that his future films are not along the MTV action drivel lines like Cradle 2 The Grave etc!