Over here in America, martial arts films don’t tend to be well received. While there are a few exceptions to that statement, you typically don’t hear people bringing up the films of Jackie Chan aside from Legend of Drunken Master or any of his Hollywood productions. Jet Li, as well, is primarily known for his work in The Expendables and his early 00’s output rather than anything he produced over in China.
Having an interest in martial arts from a young age, I quickly took to Hong Kong cinema when I was introduced to it in high school. A friend of mine let me borrow the legendary Master of the Flying Guillotine and I became hooked. There was something about the raw display of physicality and the philosophy behind those movements that intrigued me to no end.
While I’ll readily admit that most martial arts films have C- plotlines, there are quite a few that attempt to be something more. While I could pull any number of classics to discuss, one of the first things that came to my mind was Jet Li’s 2006 biopic Fearless. Based on the life of Chinese folk hero Huo Yuanjia, Fearless is an action film with ambitions beyond pure spectacle that attempts to explain the life of its protagonist with more depth than the usual kung fu fare.
While its lack of historical accuracy undoes a lot of the good there is, Fearless is still a film well worth watching for anyone with an interest in Eastern philosophy and tightly choreographed action.
Fearless begins with some on-screen text explaining what Yuanjia means to China. During an era where the country was being inundated with Western influences, Yuanjia stood up against the oppressive force of Westernization to show that China wasn’t full of pushovers. Winning a bout against the English boxer Hercules O’Brien, Yuanjia eventually agrees to a battle against four fighters to prove that martial arts can lead to a better life. Not everything was peaceful in Yunajia’s life though…
The film then flashes back to sometime in 1870 to show a young Yuanjia in the village of Tianjin, China. Convinced his father’s martial art of Wushu is superior to all others, Yuanjia trains in secret to eventually inherit the style and pass on its prowess to the world. As the young boy has asthma, his father refuses to train him, so Yuanjia bribes his close friend Nong Jinsun to do his homework while he runs off to hone his martial arts skills.
One day, Yuanjia catches wind of a contest that his father will be participating in. Taking Jinsun with him, they run into a bully that has been picking on Yuanjia for a while. Coincidentally, Yuanjia’s father is fighting against the bully’s father, so he takes it as an opportunity to gloat about how much better Wushu is. After a close contest, Yuanjia’s father stops himself from delivering a final blow after he realizes how unrestrained he was being. Not content to lose, the bully’s father dishonorably strikes at Yuanjia’s father and causes him to fall out of the ring, forfeiting the match.
Yuanjia is, understandably, distraught at his father’s failure. When the bully comes around to rub it in Yuanjia’s face, the two wind up clashing. Yuanjia suffers defeat at the hands of the older boy, which pours salt in his existing wounds. When returning home, his father starts to scold him before Yuanjia’s mother steps in. While patching up her son, Yuanjia swears to his mother that he’ll never lose another fight as long as he lives.
From these moments, it’s clear that Fearless is positioning itself as a tale of redemption. A common theme throughout Chinese folklore, many heroes suffer some fall from grace before learning about inner peace through martial arts. Fearless does nothing to buck that trend but goes to great lengths to show the inner turmoil that Yuanjia’s reckless ways caused him. That depth is what sets it apart from its inspirations.
Main star Jet Li is no stranger to playing historical figures. In the 1991 masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in China, Li would portray folk hero Wong Fei-hong (a popular hero among Hong Kong cinema). A few years after in 1993, he would star as legend Fong Sai-Yuk in a movie of the same name. For Li, embodying the aspects of China’s greatest heroes is something he has expertise in, so it comes as no surprise that his turn as Yuanjia in Fearless is possibly the best performance of his career.
The cockiness that Yuanjia displays during the first hour of the film paints a picture of a very headstrong individual. The bravado, selfishness, and rash decisions that he makes are captured with a sincerity from Li that almost feels like a reflection of his own life. From a young age, Li had a gift for martial arts and would go on to become a multi-Gold medal-winning Wushu champion. He even performed for President Richard Nixon in the United States, which resulted in him turning down a position to be the President’s bodyguard. It’s easy to imagine that Li had quite the big head because of those experiences.
There’s no evidence to support that theory, but I think any youngster that is given the world would likely falter a bit. It’s a common story to see child stars rise and fall in Hollywood and I’d wager that Li even had a tiny bit of that. Even if he didn’t, the performance given in Fearless suggests an understanding of what causes people to stray from a moral path. Yuanjia is portrayed as an impetuous child that is always looking to prove his strength to the world. For roughly half of the film, he is constantly showing off and strutting around like he owns Tianjin.
After many defeated opponents and a successful rise to prominence, Fearless shifts to the early 1900’s to show an older Yuanjia. Now with a young man, Yuanjia has cultivated a ragtag group of followers and has his sights set on becoming the greatest warrior in Tianjin. Eventually, he encounters a rival martial arts master named Qin Lei. While the two butt heads a bit when Lei arrives in Tianjin, Yuanjia doesn’t regard him as any real threat to his superiority. That suddenly gets turned around when one of Yuanjia’s disciples shows up bruised and beaten and claims Lei ravaged him.
In a fit of rage, Yuanjia finds Lei at his friend Jinsun’s restaurant and demands he pay respects for the student he harmed. While Lei has no idea what Yuanjia is talking about, the conflict escalates into a duel that sees Yuanjia taking Lei’s life. It’s a thrilling battle scene filmed with a real flair for the dramatic by director Ronny Yu (most recognized for his work on Freddy Vs. Jason). It helps that all of the fight scenes were choreographed by the legendary Yuen Woo-ping, a name that is likely recognized by those unfamiliar with martial arts films.
Shortly after exacting his vengeance, Yuanjia returns home to find that his mother and daughter have been killed. Lei’s godson, who was present at the restaurant, sought his own revenge after seeing his godfather lying lifeless on the ground. When Yuanjia confronts him, the man admits to murdering Yuanjia’s family before killing himself. Unable to process what happened, Yuanjia stumbles back home to sulk in his misery. As if that weren’t enough, Yuanjia’s disciples finally admit the truth that master Lei was only defending himself after one of them provoked him. Completely dumbfounded, Yuanjia ends up wandering for months before stumbling upon a hidden village in the mountains of China.
From here on out, it should be mentioned that two versions of Fearless exist. There is a domestic US cut that runs at around 104 minutes and an international “Director’s Cut” that is 140 minutes long. While some of the added scenes do little for this retelling of Yuanjia’s life, the moments where he lives in reflection at the hidden village are sadly stripped back in the US release.
When prepping for this analysis, I decided to watch the extended edition and was completely blown away at how much more attention the characters receive during these scenes. I previously only had experience with the US version but purchased a Chinese DVD a few years back for my personal collection. While the international version features an extended scene of an ox dying that feels entirely out of place, the philosophy behind Wushu is explained in much greater detail through Yuanjia’s interactions with the village natives.
In the US cut, it’s unclear how long of a time Yuanjia spends here, not to mention his relationship with the character Yueci (called Moon overseas) feels rushed. In the Chinese version, you get a real sense of progression for Yuanjia’s character. Jet Li’s performance deserves mention, again, for how gripping it is. His despondent stare when first entering the village gives way to some of his expected cockiness before being humbled by Yueci’s kind nature. That the film focuses more time on the village in the extended cut gives you a better idea of the lengths that Yuanjia went to growing through inner reflection.
Through his time in the village, Yuanjia learns to let go of his anger, relax his mind, and take in the beauty of nature at every step. This is shown wonderfully in a scene where Yuanjia is planting rice stalks with some of the other villagers. Since he only thinks of winning, he races to empty his bucket of stalks before everyone else. Later in the day, a young villager points out to Yuanjia that Yueci is redoing his work because he’s an idiot. It probably came as a shock to Yuanjia that someone was better than him.
That scene helps feed into the central theme that Fearless portrays: The biggest enemy to a person is themselves. As seen numerous times before in the film, Yuanjia is convinced he is right at every turn. Wushu is the greatest, he cannot be beaten, and his disciples are the greatest around. Yuanjia is so convinced of his superiority that it blinds him to the dangers of his attitude. Because he can’t see that his actions are pushing people away, it results in him dishonoring his family by taking an innocent life and losing those that were closest to him.
The director’s cut reinforces this further with a cut action sequence. At one point during his stay at the village, one of the youngsters is kidnapped by some Thai bandits. Claiming the boy was trying to steal an ox, the bandits seek to punish him when Yuanjia and the villagers show up. Seeing the cruelty on display, Yuanjia offers to take the physical punishment in place of the child to make amends for his transgressions. Eventually, Yuanjia decides to defend himself, though without laying a finger on the bandits.
While its absence from the US cut isn’t a huge detractor, this moment does a lot for showing the transformation that Yuanjia undergoes. While hesitant to hurt those around him, Yuanjia comes to see that martial arts can be used in self-defense without being destructive. This is one of the core tenets of Wushu, but something Yuanjia could never see.
It also explains why later fight scenes show him in a more controlled, confident manner than the violent youth seen in the beginning. Instead of expecting dominance over everyone, Yuanjia wants to show that martial arts are more than simply for violence. There is a finesse to his movements and strikes that is missing from his competition, which helps him emerge victorious against people that seek glory. To Yuanjia, the fight isn’t a means to proving you’re better, but to help others grow in their own skills.
This all comes to a head in the battle with Hercules O’Brien. The only fight in the movie that is based on historical events, Yuanjia returns to Tianjin and finds a newspaper with a headline of, “Sick Men of the East.” Hercules O’Brien, a famous English boxer, is proclaiming he can defeat anyone in the world and that the Chinese are pushovers compared to him. Wishing to set him straight, Yuanjia reacquaints himself with his old friend Jinsun and they head to Shanghai for a competition. You can see the conflicting points of view come out in battle as Yuanjia is graceful whereas O’Brien is a brute.
After defeating O’Brien, Yuanjia bows and walks away. Not willing to accept his loss, O’Brien makes a run for Yuanjia who then defends himself with a quick movement. O’Brien begins to fall over the ring and nearly gets impaled on some of the spikes outside. Yuanjia makes a lunge to grab him and prevents an untimely death from happening. Despite O’Brien’s hatred nearly getting the best of him, Yuanjia is able to see the humanity in his heart and save him.
That message is what carries the film to its finale. As the movie transitions back to its opening montage of battles, we learn that the bout against four martial arts masters was concocted by the Foreign Chamber of Commerce as a way to eliminate Yuanjia. They seek to divide China and usher in the rule of Western trade, which is counter to the message that Yuanjia has been spreading. Having defeated three of the four challengers, the final bout with Japanese champion Tanaka begins.
An earlier scene showed the two debating the merits of their chosen martial arts styles and becoming friends. To them, this competition isn’t about winning, but showing the audience that each form has merit. The Chamber of Commerce doesn’t want that, though, so they end up poisoning Yuanjia in secret during a break in the fight. Tanaka wishes to halt the fight, but Yuanjia realizes he is already past the point of recovery. With the last of his strength, Yuanjia fights with Tanaka to prove that even in death, one need not seek vengeance.
While it’s a very powerful ending to a well-shot film, the only thing that betrays its message is how inaccurate the story is. The real Huo Yuanjia was not a man seeking a constant challenge. He never killed anyone and caused no harm to the town he was born in. While he did have asthma and was initially not trained by his father, Yuanjia overcame his disability to become a master of an early form of Wushu. He was one of four children and left behind a family when he eventually passed away. He is famous for combating foreign fighters in an era when China’s national pride was threatened by the encroachment of Western and Japanese influences.
One could make the statement that biopics need to fudge the truth to create an exciting film, but Fearless almost invents a brand new character with its depiction of Yuanjia. In the film, he basically goes through the “Hero’s Journey” to become a respectable individual by the end. It’s a classic character arc, but it has little in common with the life it was inspired by.
In fact, the descendants of Yuanjia actually attempted to sue the filmmakers for the historical inaccuracies in the film. While the case was dismissed from the court on the grounds of being an exaggerated account, it goes to show you how serious some people take their biopics. For years, I wasn’t even aware of that fact, but it is something I’ve had to begrudgingly accept when dealing with “Inspired by a True Story” movies.
You could call it a case of missing the forest for the trees. Fearless isn’t so much a historical document as it is a tribute to the man that heightened Wushu in the public consciousness. As the director’s cut shows, China has been trying for years to get the International Olympic Committee to recognize Wushu as an Olympic sport. Fearless can almost be seen as an attempt to show the importance that this martial art holds for the country.
Maybe it’s got some goofy slow motion bits, some bad make-up, and an abundance of fight scenes, but Fearless’ ultimate message is that compassion conquers all. As is common with a lot of Eastern philosophy, martial arts are a key component of discovering oneself. While self-defense happens to be a byproduct of learning these styles, you’re seeking betterment through physical exertion that brings you one step closer to nature and nirvana.
Fearless certainly creates story from nothing, but it’s all in service of a message that too many modern citizens have forgotten. We could all do well to follow the principles that Yuanjia left for us, whether they be from the real man or his fictional counterpart. Thankfully, seeing the Director’s Cut is no longer an issue. American watchers can buy a Blu-Ray with the full 140-minute cut from Amazon. Still, even if you end up with the shorter version, the message remains as clear as ever.
Conquer yourself and you’ll become Fearless.