by Erin Salvi
For fans of the martial arts film, Jet Li’s “Fearless” will probably not disappoint. The film is packed with interesting, well-choreographed fight scenes that fit nicely into a decently fleshed out plot. If you are not, however, passionate about Wushu, this film has a number of problematic elements.
“Fearless” is a biopic tracing the life of Chinese martial arts master Huo Yuanjia (Li). As a young child, Yuanjia neglects his studies and responsibilities so he can secretly train to be a Wushu master like his father, who refuses to train Yuanjia himself due to a problem with asthma.
Yuanjia somehow gains great skill and knowledge of Wushu without his father’s help, and begins to build a reputation for himself as a great martial artist. Having never lost a fight, he takes on more and more challenges, expanding his fame and, to his detriment, his ego.
His good friend Jinsun tries to warn him of the empty consequences of fighting merely for fame and glory, but Yuanjia does not grasp his friend’s advice until it is too late. When his inflated sense of pride inevitably leads to disastrous repercussions, Yuanjia must rebuild his life in order to discover the true meaning of Wushu and become a hero to all of China.
One inherent problem with the making of a biopic is that a person’s entire lifetime presents a lot of ground to cover in a single film.
If the filmmakers are not careful with the material they select to include in the story, a film can become a convoluted mess. “Fearless” is not a mess, per se, but it tends to cut from one scene to the next with little or no transition or explanation of what occurred during the time between the two scenes.
The movie was edited down from 150 minutes to 104 minutes, which may explain the confusing and rapid changes in it. A 150 minute version of this film would have been far too long, but it may have cleared up the little issue of how Yuanjia magically ends up living in a farming community when moments before he was in his hometown.
In addition to problematic editing, “Fearless” has some trouble with historical accuracy. Without giving away key plot points, I’ll just say that a number of the events that occur in Huo Yuanjia’s life in the film either did not actually happen at all, or were significantly altered for the sake of the film.
It is true that there is always some level of creative reconstruction that must go into portraying someone’s life, but there is a fine line between imagining conversations that went on behind closed doors and inventing new historical facts for the sake of idealizing the character.
It calls the filmmakers’ integrity into question, and manipulates the viewers’ knowledge. Not only does the historical inaccuracy of “Fearless” manipulate the viewer, but the end of the film portrays an unambiguous moralistic message that gives the audience no choice but to submit to it.
You do find yourself rooting for Yuanjia by the end of the film, but is his defeat of four skilled martial artists from other countries really and truly enough to win honor for all of China? “Fearless” tells us that it is, but a viewer may feel conned into agreement.