Hee Ching Paw
Anthony De Longis
104 mins plus a few extra minu
Epic martial arts
Trivia Did you know that Huo Yuan Jia is, in actual fact, the famous master of one Chen Zhen, who both Jet Li and Bruce Lee have portrayed in Fist of Legend and Fist of Fury respectively?
Huo Yuan Jia was, in real life, a 6ft 3in, 200lb beast of a man, not 5' 6" like Jet Li.
Many different reports speculate the truth about much of this story, mainly about whether it was poison or disease that finished him off. Others debate the truth of the Hercules O’Brien encounter with many stating the fight never took place due to O’Brien’s supposed cowardice.
A longer Thai version is available with extra scenes of Yuan Jia's exile in to Thailand.
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10th Jan 07
When an ill-advised fight destroys the reputation of a renowned martial artist and his family are slain in revenge, his difficult path to redemption will bring him face-to-face with the most famous fighters in the world.
Time catches up with you fast these days, and no faster than for someone who involved in the martial arts industry, I’d wager. It seems like only yesterday that us fight fans we indulging in the heady pleasures of the Shaolin Temple movies, or Tsui Hark’s stunning Once Upon a Time in China films, or the slightly silly but still very good Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk flicks (proving finally that even a martial arts master needs his mother). But then, before you know it, Jet Li, like the rest of us, has gotten old and is now retiring from the world of period martial arts epic.
What, you mean we’re never going to get to see a Jet Li movie where he shaves off the front of his head and grows the back bit in to a really long pig-tail? Well yes, that would apparently be so. At the ripe old age of 43, Jet Li has decided to give us a commanding performance at what has to be the end of his physical peak, and not only that but he’s made damned sure this time to follow up the critical acting acclaim he received for the previous years Danny the Dog (wisely renamed Unleashed in the UK market) with another strong portrayal, this time of what can only be described as a legendary figure in Chinese history.
The story of Huo Yuan Jia, or so Jet Li would have us believed, is something of a tortured one. Born in Tian Jin to a local martial arts master, Juan Jia was never allowed to train like his brother due to his asthma, and was forced instead against his will to learn to learn calligraphy, why was obviously something he despised. But, practicing in secret and refusing to accept his father’s oppression, Yuan Jia went on to prove them all wrong, not only becoming an accomplished martial artist but becoming the champion of his local province.
However, the fame and success of such a position comes with a cost. I guess it was then the modern day equivalent of being a successful sportsmen now, there is great money to be made but soon everyone wants to be your friend, and soon Yuan Jia acquires himself a school of followers, many of whom turn out to be just leeches, telling him he’s brilliant and essentially getting drunk on his winnings constantly. And then things come to a head one day when one of his so-called pupils falsely accuses a rival master of beating him up, so Yuan Jia takes a harsh drunken revenge killing the rival in cold blood and, in retaliation, his family are killed. Yes, while he’s away partying.
Disgraced and now a broken man Yuan Jia flees to the countryside, where he slowly rebuilds his life in what we all now know as ‘the middle of the movie’. All good martial arts movies need a ‘middle of the movie’ where the hero goes and licks his own wounds in preparation for the final fight, and this is no different. In the country Yuan Jia is saved from drowning by a blind girl and her grandmother and they take him in, teach him to love again and give him a purpose. Although it doesn’t actually say it in the film (this section is apparently heavily cut from original version, by some 20 minutes in fact) he actually spent 7 years there in real life, before returning to the big city and re-establishing his legacy.
While he was away a great many things had changed, most notably the slow but deliberate influx of foreigners. From the outside, China does look like a large and ununited country, with a great many religions, beliefs and traditions spread over a large area. Many of the foreign traders and investors took advantage of this straight away, labelling the Chinese the ‘sick men of Asia’, a phrase which gets banded around a lot in the film. It is ironic then that a character who started so brash and arrogant returns to Shanghai to fight for his country’s honour, and in the process inspires all around him. He quickly establishes the Jin Wu Sports Federation and, keen to prove the ‘sick men’ jibe untrue, takes on all international fighters in a bid to prove the value of the wushu way, to the point where he accepts the challenge of facing four masters of their chosen martial arts back to back in what is a grossly unfair contest. This is ultimately his undoing.
Hailed by many as one of the greatest films of the genre, and with the famous martial arts choreography of the legendary Yuen Wo Ping (the guy behind the fights of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Matrix trilogy, to name but a few) it seems little could go wrong. The martial arts sequences are indeed seamlessly smooth, stunningly fought, excellently directed and quite frankly just look great. Plus, the variation in fights both in terms of weapons, locations and opponents is excellent (the highlight for many will be the crowd pleasing appearance of the humongous Nathan Jones, last seen eating elephant bone at the hands of Tony Jaa in last years brilliant Warrior King) and proves that, certainly in Jet Li’s case, age isn’t much of an issue. The general acting performances, especially Jet Li’s and Shidu Nakamura's as his final Japanese opponent Tanaka, also have to be commended – this is one period martial arts piece that is solidly delivered and doesn’t resort to cheap slap stick like many of it’s kind do to keep the viewers interested, with the story of one man’s personal retribution being more than enough. To go from glorified bully to national hero, and to do it convincingly, is something that you don’t expect. Mind you, after seeing Danny the Dog last year and taking in quite how vulnerable Jet Li can look when he wants to, perhaps it’s not much of a leap of faith.
Where perhaps Fearless is let down however is in its pacing. As with all films of this type, there’s a general flurry of activity near the beginning and end, but the middle sags. And, considering the fact that this the theatrical version of the film comes in at 105 minutes and the extended at approximately 111 minutes, a lot has been cut from director Ronny Yu’s original 143 minute opus, so how the middle can still slow it down I don’t know. His time in exile, his healing and his relationship with the blind girl and her family are confusing, and it’s hard to judge what actually happened there, and how long he stayed with them at all. As I said, it’s apparently 7 years, but that’s not made clear. Neither is it made clear quite how he had time to found his famous martial arts school if he spent all those years in exile. All I can say is perhaps one day (soon if I know how DVD distributors think) we’ll get a full English subtitled print and be able to judge more for ourselves Yu’s original vision.
Still, what we’re left with is one of the better martial arts films of the last decade. Not as lush as Hero, not as born crunching as Fist of Legend, not as action packed as Once Upon a Time in China, Fearless is still no doubt a fantastic spectacle of martial arts and, as such, we can’t help but recommend it thoroughly. It features honour, redemption, high morals and has the fight action to match, and you can’t say that about a lot of films any more. Whether or not you wanted to hold out for the restored version or not is another story.
Versions Available on UK and US discs, but the US disc is better as it has the unrated cut. There's also apparently a Thai disc with a few minutes extra, but it has no Englsih subtitles.
Stop The Press! Since writing the above review I've been informed that the super long version (labelled as the 'Director's Cut') has now been released on Region 3 DVD, containing all the previously exorcised footage. It's available from CDWOW.com, and you can go there directly by clicking the link in the Available From box to the right here.
Whether or not reinstating this footage helps or not, I'll let you guys decide. Drop us a line if you have any thoughts on this matter.