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Original Title:
Huo Yuan Jia

China 2006

Martial Arts, Drama

Ronny Yu

Jet Li
Betty Sun
Dong Yong
Shido Nakamura
Paw Hee Ching
Collin Chou
Masato Harada
Qu Yun
Nathan Jones
Brandon Rhea
Jean Claude Leuyer
Anthony De Longis
Michelle Yeoh

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Story: Huo Yuan Jia (Jet Li) has practised Martial Arts since his early childhood, even though his father wanted him to become a scholar. However, after Huo's father (Collin Chou), a well-known martial artist, lost a fight intentionally, Huo Yuan Jia thinks of nothing else but to restore his school's reputation by becoming the best fighter in his home town Tianjin. Anyway, lust for power and arrogance corrupt Huo Yuan Jia from within, and even his best friend Nong Jinsun (Dong Yong) can't dissuade him from walking the road of self destruction he is taking. When Huo kills the master of another school in a combat, the dead master's son takes revenge and kills Huo's mother and daughter. Huo Yuan Jia becomes a broken individual and begins to travel the land to find a place to die...
Eventually, Huo somehow ends up in a small quiet village, which residents save him from drowning. The people he meets there teach him about the essential work of a farmer, and Huo becomes amazed by the degree with which the villagers live in harmony with one another. He finds his inner freedom to ask himself which purpose martial arts actually serve. The villagers and more than anyone else the blind girl Moon (Betty Sun) change him into a new and more mature man.
After years, Huo Yuan Jia returns to Tianjin. As a purged man he establishes the "Jingwu Sports Federation", a school that teaches Wushu as a way of self-discovery. Body and mind are trained to shape a humble and gentle self.
During a time when China's self esteem had been demolished almost entirely by the invasion of western powers, Huo Yuan Jia, because of his numerous honorable victories over western fighters in publicly held combats, eventually becomes a national hero, whose teachings are preserved until this very day...

Review: After waiting for a long time, we finally get another traditional Martial Arts movie with Jet Li, which sole aim isn't just to entertain, but which also tries to grasp the essential core of martial arts itself. Wushu is a way of finding to benevolence, modesty and inner freedom, a path the film's hero has to discover and walk, too. And that's not so easy since Huo Yuan Jia doesn't understand this path at first, because his pride and arrogance stand in his way. We accompany him on his journey of discovering his inner self, and with pleasure we have to find out that "Fearless" offers much more than your standard genre revenge plot. Under its surface Ronny Yu's ("The Bride with white Hair") movie actually proves to be more of a drama revolving around the martial arts in order to give as a picture of what it means to be humane.

"Fearless" is a Martial Arts Epic depicting the life of real-life legend Huo Yuan Jia. However, the story is only loosely based on true events, which means that this film is in no way a true biography, but is only supposed to sketch what Huo Yuan Jia, the founder of the "Jingwu Sports Federation", stands for. Anyway, in a sense the story still follows old and proven formulas, or let's just say that it won't surprise fans of the genre with its plot. Nonetheless, that's not a big deal, as the movie's strength lies in its message, which is effectively and credibly presented. Wushu (translated as: Martial Arts) may get our hero on the wrong path, leading him astray of what this art is really about, but when he finally understands the essence of this art, he becomes an honorable person, who is willing to do what it takes to make up for his earlier mistakes.

The transformation of the arrogant master, who sets himself no other goal but to become the best fighter in town, and when that is not enough anymore, to become the best fighter of the country, to a righteous master, is portrayed pretty well. However, this might be surprising for some people as most part of the film's credibility highly depends on Jet Li's acting talents. And what has been already clear to the keen eyes of many fans of Jet Li: He can actually act! And he delivers in this one. His aura of arrogance, the way with which brutality he knocks out his opponents and the fiery rage in his eyes, make us almost despise him at the beginning. Yes, we even start to develop hatred towards him, and still Li manages to regain our sympathies from midway onwards, until he has totally won us over at the end. For this, he deserves some special words of praise.

The first 45 minutes are fully packed with action and stand out with many different fights that have that special powerful impact. This means that taverns get totally devasted, or combatants are thrown at walls, pulled several metres by wires and so on. This is high-impact action and there's also more wire-fu to be seen than you might have expected. Sometimes they are even enhanced by some CGI-effects. Fortunately, they take up a subordinate role to the more traditional style of the fights. Only some of the somewhat slightly jumpy cuts are irritating. There is also quite some violence depicted in this movie. Bones get broken, arms disjointed etc. However, since not just anybody, but Yuen Woo Ping himself is responsible for the fight choreographies, the many combats also don't lack that certain kind of gracefulness and diversity. Later on, there are also different kinds of weapons used, which make the fights against the europeans especially interesting. A true highlight is the fight against the Japanese Tanaka, grandiosely played by Shido Nakamura ("Letters from Iwo Jima") in a small supportive role, who has to face Jet Li and his special weapon, the "Sanjiegun", a three-joint-nunchaku. Tanaka himself has to painfully experience that it's not that easy to handle this kind of weapon, but Jet Li demonstrates once again, that he is a master of this complex weapon.

From a certain point in the movie's middle onward, the pacing drops. Huo Yuan Jia finds the peaceful idyll he needs to reflect about himself and his life in order to become a better person. Nevertheless, that's also where one of the film's sore points becomes apparent, as there is a sudden jump in the story, which takes place one more time when Huo leaves the village. Movies that more or less try to be a bio-pic, often have to face this problem and "Fearless" is no exception. The story is full of sudden jumps and isn't presented as a whole, since it tries to depict the whole life of an individual. Why Huo Yuan Jia has to go to Tianjin again in order to take part in various fights is also questionable or at least fleshed out too careless.
Despite these problems, the tranquil episode at the village is especially well done, as we get to see here, with what kind of a keen eye for details the director approached his movie. The wonderful landscape shots are carried by the polished looks of the pictures. Eventually, the viewer can also take home some of the peacefulness in the village.

It's just a shame, that there is only little space for any of the characters besides Huo Yuan Jia. Betty Sun, who is playing Moon, manages to bestow a certain wisdom and humanity upon her character, but that's also what makes her look a bit too artificial and idealized. Dong Yong, embodying Huo's best friend, also serves as nothing more than another landmark, that leads Huo on the right path again. It would have been nice to see more of these characters, but they still manage to reserve a place in your heart as the movie unfolds.
In the movie's Director's Cut version, Michelle Yeoh finally gets her appearance, too, even though it is solely in a framework episode of the plot that is trying to make us understand what the heart of "Wushu" is. This very short episode, which takes place in the present, however, just doesn't fit into the film and somewhat destroys the overall picture of the movie. Still, the DC-version, which is 30 minutes longer, is still superior to the cinematic version as we get to see more of Huo Yuan Jia and the development of his character, which is why certain scenes just seem more coherent in the DC-Cut version.

"Fearless" is, according to his own words, Jet Li's last old school Wushu movie (don't worry, he will still do action movies) and he proves very impressively that he can also convince as an actor if he gets a chance. He plays Huo Yuan Jia, whose disciple Chen Zhen he played in "Fist of Legend", the remake of Bruce Lee's "Fist of Fury". A national hero, who is of great importance for China. Why? Because he was able to give the Chinese back their national pride during a time when it was shattered to pieces as the western powers started their colonization and forced the nation to sign unequal agreements. Naturally, there is also some pathos involved in this, but it is within the boundaries of what's acceptable and actually serves the movie. Even the Japanese aren't generalized as despicable villians, as they often are in Chinese films. Of course, some of them are evil, but Anno Tanaka for example displays an honorable Japanese, who eventually becomes friends with Yuan Jia and his idea of Wushu. The dialogue between him and Huo about the art of Wushu is one of the most central parts of the movie.

"Fearless" isn't perfect, but it is by far the best we have seen out of this genre for a long time. The great pictures, Jet Li's very well done portrayal of the life of Huo Yuan Jia (which as already said is fictive for most part), as well as the movie's message make you forgive the jumpy script. Moreover, you just can't get enough of the beautifully choreographed fights, which are accompanied by a great soundtrack from Shigeru Umebayashi ("House of Flying Daggers").
Bottom line: Fans of Martial Arts Epics need to get their hands on this. However, if you are new to the genre this is also a good way of making yourself familiar with the genre, and is a chance to understand what it really means to learn martial arts.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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