Monday, May 19, 2008

Zen lessons and Tiger Claws: Jet Li’s Fearless


In Fearless, Jet Li plays Chinese folk hero Huo Juan Jia, the man who singlehandedly defeated four of the best fighters from England, Spain, Belgium, and Japan to restore Chinese pride in their country back in one match in 1910. Built around the idea of trying to empower Chinese youth, who have a remarkably high suicide rate in recent years, Fearless is an oddly moral action flick, imparting lessons about why you should drink tea instead of alcohol, how you should not fight to the death, and how the Chinese should be unified in sporting organizations instead of senselessly competing against each other.

As Huo Juan Jia, Jet Li has a Zen calm about him and a movie star’s easy smile. Before most of the fights he looks serenely cheerful, as if he can’t wait to get punched, scratched by the “Tiger Claw,” and otherwise thrown around the ring. On one level the film is an elaborately produced extended fight sequence reminiscent of the video game Tekken, thus insuring success amongst martial arts freaks and gamers in the US. While the fight scenes are often delightful, I was mostly intrigued by the life lessons that writer Chris Chow managed to insert in the margins.

The film begins with one of its many set-piece swooping shots of fighting arenas—the climactic match between Huo and his four opponents--and then it cuts back some 30 years to his youth. As a kid, he neglects his studies in favor of learning martial arts techniques, known as wushu, taught by his dad. During his first fight, he gets beaten up on the stone parapet in his home town, and then vows never to lose again. As the bruises magically disappear on his face, his grandmother gives him some advice that he largely ignores. Not a character to dwell on the female perspective, Huo quickly grows up to fight the same guy who trounced him as a child, only this time they climb this elaborate construction mostly consisting of posts standing next to each other that lead up to a wooden stand about 40 feet off the ground without any guard rails. With the crowd cheering them on far below, much of the fun of the scene consists in watching the various ways Huo and his opponent keep from falling off, let alone fending off each other’s kicks or jabs. Later, as he gets more confident of his powers, we watch Huo humorously fight in the rain without disturbing his umbrella or take on 12 opponents at once because he’s getting bored with confronting them one by one.

While I realize that this film needs an excuse to tear up fancy restaurant sets with elaborately choreographed sword fights, it also includes a curiously anti-American scene when the wily and diminuitive Huo takes on a huge World Wrestling lunk named Hercules O’Brien as he grunts around in a circus ring with red, white, and blue shorts on. This kind of match has a surface resemblance to Popeye taking on Bluto. So many of these Hong Kong filmmakers and actors have long since sold out to Hollywood, but here they seem to mock American arrogance as a military power and then sell it back to us.

At one point, Huo Juan Jia sinks into a depression that leads him to wander around like a homeless man, eventually ending up in a little blue village in the country where the kids call him “Ox.” There, a blind peasant woman named Moon teaches him how to plant rice shoots in such a way that they “respect” each other. The farmers like to pause from their plantings and just feel the breeze of the countryside when it ripples through the trees, and director Ronny Yu shows the passing of the seasons with some ravishing visions of summer fields turning to August harvests and then to winter snow all in the same shot. In sequences like this, Fearless forgets that it’s an action film altogether. While one can critique the movie for being a bit cheesy in its desire to be a good influence, Jet Li still knows how to balance all that wisdom with a good flying kick in the teeth.

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