Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Jet Li's Fearless...starring Jet Li

This is Jet Li's final martial arts picture -- he will continue as an actor -- so seems to me that he can call the film, directed by Ronny Yu, anything he wants to call it. Fearless is a fit ending to this phase of Li's career, since it's essential a biopic of Master Huo Yuan Jia, a wushu master who founded the still-extant Jin Wu Sports Federation, the significance of which was to establish martial arts competitions as displays of skill, rather than battles to the death.

In Fearless, Huo Yuan Jia learns the hard way, growing up as a hothead who will leap into battle with an opponent at the slightest slight. His hubris brings tragedy (and shame) on his family, and his story is subsequently one of initiation into what constitutes true heroism. The historical context is made clear: in a China pockmarked with foreign concessions, there is little national pride, another achievement of the Federation.

This is not the easiest film to sell to the unconverted, although it would be an excellent place to start, for those who are eager to dive in. Although it does have touching character development, plot, and historical context, the wushu competitions are the recurring high points. But there are tender moments and subtle humor, as well. As a child, Huo Yuan Jia's friend Nong Jinsun does his calligraphy homework for him; when we see Huo Yuan Jia's calligraphed signature, the strokes are broad and artless. He's a fighter, not a writer, is probably what he'd say, but we are shown that in a low-key way, not told.

The film ends with a transcendent scene in which Jet Li practices his wushu moves, dressed in white, against a clear night sky. Although the scene figures in the story, it is also a fitting coda to the enduring career of a great martial arts star.

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