Jet Li’s first film, 1982’s Shaolin Temple, showcased his remarkable martial arts skills. Today, 25 years later, he’s retiring from the genre he helped to popularize in the West, with a film that looks both forward and back. Fearless incorporates the digital and wirework effects that characterize recent films like House of Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it also keeps focus on Li’s particular skills. And so the film bridges old and new traditions in the martial arts film.
Based on the life of Hua Yuan Jia, Fearless is set in the early 20th century, when China was the called “sick man of Europe.” It begins and ends with a fight staged by the Foreign Chambers of Commerce, in which Hua Yuan Jia (Li) is pitted in turn against four foreign champions: a British boxer (Jean Claude Leuyer), a German spear fighter (Anthony De Longis), a Spanish fencer (Brandon Rhea), and a Japanese martial artist named Tanaka (Nakamura Shidou). This tournament is designed by the Westerners (with Japan) to humiliate the Chinese, and Jia accepts in order to demonstrate his nation’s superiority to its occupiers.
Jet Li practices the same martial arts discipline as Hua Yuan Jia, and here he performs with other actual martial arts experts. Fearless‘s explicit connection to several generations of martial arts contests, in arenas and on screen, is largely absent in the new wuxia epics. At the same time, the movie draws on the new films’ dramatic color aesthetic. When Hua Yuan Jia fights his rival Master Chin (Chen Zhihui), the sickly green palette reflects the shameful nature of the duel (the fight arises out of a misunderstanding and Jia’s unhealthy ambition to become the “Champion of Tianjin”). Another fight, on a small, wooden platform towering high above the eager crowd below, uses special effects and wirework familiar to viewers of the new wuxia; similarly, a stunning CGI shot of Hua Yuan Jia reflected in the eye of his younger opponent Tanaka recalls the sorts of special effects that make the new films both spectacular and poetic.
As much as Fearless respects the new, it is clearly invested in revering the old. The effects serve to support†the fighters’ skills, not grant seeming prowess to non-specialists. This makes Fearless‘ point more nuanced than simply a repetition of urge to restore Chinese national pride. After Jia calmly dispatches his first three opponents in 1910, the film flashes back to his youth in Tianjin, where he watches his father (Collin Chou) lose a fight after he holds back from delivering a fatal final blow. Humiliated by this defeat, as well as his own subsequent defeat in the ring by the son of his fatherís vanquisher, little Jia — who is self-taught in wushu, as his father refused to teach him — vows never to lose a fight again.
Jia’s quest inspires him to become a great wushu fighter, but it eventually leads to tragedy. After he kills Master Chin in combat, the older man’s disciples kill Jia’s mother (Hee Ching Paw) and daughter Jade (Xu Ailing) in retaliation. Driven nearly insane by his grief, he wanders away from Tianjin, until he is saved from drowning by a villager called “Grandma” (Yun Qu) in the film’s U.S. version, and her beautiful, blind granddaughter Moon (Betty Sun). They nurse him back to health, and under their patient guidance, he comes at last to understand the “truth” about wushu. As his mother once told him, it’s not about superiority or winning fights. It’s a means to develop “inner strength and to help the weak.”
And so he first returns to Tianjin and then moves on to Shanghai with the intention of using his skill as a fighter to help the weakened population of China discover its “inner strength.” As he tells his childhood friend Nong Jinsun (Yong Dong), the citizens are so downtrodden by invaders and seduced by Western material comforts, they do not realize “how sick they are.” Huan Yuan Jia’s story — he and Nong Jinsun help to establish the Chin Woo Athletic Association in Shanghai — anticipates China’s own growth into an economic super power during the last 50 years, and perhaps its future cultural impacts.
Promoted as Jet Li’s last martial arts film, Fearless is a fitting end to an extraordinary and much respected career. Framing his skills and persona as part of an honored tradition, it posits him as a sort of ambassador for martial arts. His work in films has certainly allowed him to reach audiences and inspire young fighters in ways Huan Yuan Jia could never have imagined.