Jet Li's Fearless
Huo Yuanjia is a legendary Chinese martial arts hero who rose to attention in the early 1900s through challenge matches with foreign fighters. At a time when some in the West looked at the East as uncivil and backward, Huo stood up to the mockery. He accepted fights with Western strongmen, wrestlers and swordsmen who openly insulted the Chinese by calling them "Asian weaklings" and "sick men of the East." His victories provided the Chinese a source of pride. He also provided a source of unity for Chinese fighters by co-founding a martial arts federation so they could influence one another through cooperation—not intimidation.
Jet Li's Fearless, the final martial arts movie for screen legend Jet Li, tells the story of Huo Yuanjia. Or to be more accurate, it tells a story sort of about Huo Yuanjia. Fearless takes Huo's defense of his culture and the formation of his athletic federation and pretty much makes up everything else. In fact, Huo's descendents have demanded an apology from Jet Li and the studio for the liberties—especially for suggesting that Huo Yuanjia had no descendents.
Whether true or not, the story Fearless actually tells is a moving and effective tale of a man who overcomes his greatest enemy—himself. The movie's Huo Yuanjia learns from his mistakes, reevaluates priorities and works to become a better man. Beautifully shot and well choreographed, Fearless has the feel of an old-fashioned martial arts journey film. While it may not have quite the universal themes and crossover appeal as grand epics like Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this may be Jet Li's finest film and a fitting finale.
Huo (Jet Li) grows up in the late 1800s with a father who is a well-known fighter and teacher in the Wushu style of fighting. When his father will not teach him, he teaches himself and becomes a fearsome fighter. Arrogant and self-centered, he fights only to build his name and reputation. Wanting to be feared and famous, he will fight anyone and win at any cost. He demands respect and seeks revenge on any one who does not show it.
Time and time again, the reckless fighter is warned both by his mother and his Jiminy Cricket-like friend Nong Jinsun (Yong Dong) that he's on a dangerous path. Wushu, he is told, is about self-discipline and restraint. When the warnings are not heeded, Huo finds himself crashing hard. His life is turned upside down.
This may be the most fascinating part of Fearless' journey for Christian viewers. When Huo finds himself at the very lowest point, he runs from his native town of Tianjin to the countryside. There, he regains innocence. He is humbled and learns from his mistakes. He learns to respect others and to enjoy the little things in life—like the cool breeze. During this sequence, there are several scenes of Huo being submerged in water. He is washed anew. A humble servant girl named Moon (Betty Sun) tells him, "Cleanliness brings purity." And this is precisely what Huo regains.
After his new self-discovery, Huo returns to Tianjin. Upon his return, he no longer fights for self-glorification or reputation. He instead fights for self-growth. He tells a competitor, "Competitions help us see weaknesses and become better people. Our only real enemy is ourselves." Soon, he fights for a greater purpose—to give pride to his countrymen and unite them in sport.