Fearless (Huo Yuanjia)

This is a Jet Li martial arts movie based around the turn of the 20th century, some time after the Opium Wars. Like others of the genre, this film it is nationalistic, promoting the unity of Chinese against foreign powers keen to humiliate the people and exploit the country. There is a little bit of shading here, with an honorable Japanese fighter and an eventually respectful American wrestler, but for the most part the European (and one Japanese) characters are moustache-twirling villains (and indeed they have impressive moustaches).

Spoilers follow.

The character Huo Yuanjia is based on a historical character who has become wrapped in tall tales and legend, and this film depicts his growing up, hubris, time in the wilderness, and his return to found the Jingwu school of martial arts and fight in a tournament against foreign imperialist powers.

The plot is presented very plainly, with a bare modicum of characterisation; no one is more than their roles, and pugilists are extremely poor friends and family members. Morality and human relations are also depicted very crudely: the young Yuanjia mains, kills, and destroys a lot of property, but is quickly forgiven after he reappears in a more mature state. His disciples are brainless idiots quick to get him into trouble and then prostrate themselves in apology. There are elements of a more modern attitude towards injury and death: Huo Yuanjia forsakes fights to the death as “cruel and barbaric Chinese practices”, but for the earlier part of the film, might makes right. The nature of Yuanjia’s relationship with the woman he lives with for years is completely unclear, and he leaves her for a considerable length of time.

Fearless is an interesting movie for the semi-historical angle; the fight choreography was good, but I found it difficult to cheer for an arrogant, invincible idiot (as Yuanjia is in the first half).

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