Fearless (Director's Cut) Review
The idea of Jet Li's final martial arts film being directed by Ronny Yu raised all kinds of hopes for me as Yu's Phantom Lover and Bride With White Hair are two of my favourite Hong Kong movies and even his recent efforts in the US have been guilty pleasures. For a non stop action fest combining Li's speed and Yu's mastery of visual trickery, I thought that the pairing would be made in heaven. Furthermore, a sizeable production courtesy of the team behind Hero and House of Flying Daggers and choreography from Yuen Woo-Ping raised my hopes even more. Fearless is a film biography of Huo Yuanjia which is framed around the modern day Chinese submission to the international Olympic committee for the sport of Wushu to be an official sport at the next Olympics. Back at the end of the 1800s, we join the young Huo in awe of his father's martial arts, and watch how he becomes distraught when he sees his father defeated when on the brink of becoming champion of their province. He makes an oath that he will avenge his father and achieve the fame that eluded him but his father refuses to teach the young Huo so he hatches a plan to copy his father's manuals. Some years later, the adult Huo is a father and on the brink of his ambitions with only Master Chin in the way of his victory. Rivalry between the two leads to one of Huo's disciples being injured so Huo challenges Chin to a blockbusting fight to the death. The fight over and revenge gained, Huo learns that he has merely caused more revenge to fall on him and a lesson in humility begins in earnest. A time in the paddy fields of the mainland teaches Huo some valuable lessons and he returns to his homeland to put matters right and to promulgate a martial art based on averting conflict, not one for vengeance and bullying.
This new director's cut of Fearless returns the modern day prologue and epilogue featuring Michelle Yeoh to the main film and it also includes a fight scene between Li and a Thai Boxer excluded from the shorter theatrical cut. This longer cut doesn't feel over-long or lose tempo through the additions, although the modern day epilogue with Yeoh doesn't seem terribly important anyway. The film as a whole is aimed at an audience of those who were charmed by the successful wu xia of Zhang Yimou which combined dramatic integrity with jaw-dropping wire fu and beautiful cinematography. Fearless is not another Jet Li action movie or the typical populist Ronny Yu film, it is an attempt to combine historical drama with mass market entertainment much as the biopics made by Hollywood in the forties and fifties did. It is a decided change of pace for director Yu whose films up to now have enjoyed great action, terrific pacing, and a preponderance of pop emotion. It is also another chance, after Hero, for Jet Li to act in a piece of more dramatic quality than that of the films he became famous for.
The film can be pared down to the simple journey of a man learning that becoming strong isn't about being vengeful, proud or better than the rest, but through learning compassion, practising conciliation and showing respect. Huo Yuanjia endures the trials of Job in this education but his eventual reformation becomes an allegory for national identity and an inspiration for the Chinese. In this respect Fearless is like Hero in its strong nationalistic message and promotes a similar moral which is a co-operative and communalist statement. The film is an affirmation of the coming power of the Chinese nation and an effort to reach out and establish a consciousness for the country that places it amongst the major film making industries on the planet. This is a sizeable production with extensive choreography, digital effects, and cast, and the comparison with the early Hong Kong films that Li made his name with is one that makes this message clear. Fearless isn't reliant on small scale studio sets and impossible risk taking by stuntmen and doesn't want to be compared with films like Fong Sai Yuk or Fist of Legend. It wants to be compared with recent Hollywood epics like Gladiator or Alexander and in the same ways that those films become flag-waving statements touching the chauvinism of the audience so does Fearless. In short Fearless, like Yimou's epics before it, screams out that the Chinese are coming.
With such intentions it is hardly surprising that the history Fearless tells is a little one-eyed and the characters come over either as role models rather than real, or, in the case of the villains, as summaries of national stereotypes. This simplicity of the film's moral universe means that the film is really successful on the level it pretends to be above, that of the mere fable of good and evil that conventional martial arts films treat as their stock and trade. Li's intentions in making the film were to put the record straight and to say that martial arts are not for vengeance and have a higher purpose, and this attempt to raise the story above simple fable is committed to by cast and crew alike. Ronny Yu has never been so restrained in his camera angles and in the cutting room, indeed the only place he seems to have enjoyed tinkering is in the extensive digital effects. Similarly the cast work very hard and Li is surprisingly expressive in his role. In previous outings as an actor Li has been most successful when he has been a blank canvas or deadpan but here he is asked to do debauchery, be a braggart, feel shame, and display nobility. He copes with this character arc quite well and although he doesn't convince as a drunken fool or prepare his character's development like a proper Thespian, he is a consistent point of interest. The rest of the cast orbit around Li and there are no sub-plots or opportunity for much depth in their roles as their interaction is wholly expositional and the screenplay is more concerned with telling the audience how everyone feels through their dialogue rather than letting the actors suggest it. Again, the settings of the film are caricatured and owe more to legend than history. These faults are the principle criticisms that you could make of any martial arts films from Golden Harvest or Shaw and it is ironic that this is a film that sets itself higher than those productions but only really succeeds on the same terms as them.
The film's success as mere genre piece should not be decried though as all of the action is terrific and the 2-D characterisation creates for simple stand-offs of principle and good drama. It is only in the action sequences that Yu rids himself of his dramatic sobriety and lets loose, the fight with master Chin is mesmerising in its viciousness and wholly successful in the emotion of disgust it wishes to leave the audience with. The digital effects that occur throughout this face-off add to the free-falling motion of the fight and add verity to the fantastic rhythm created through clever editing. There isn't a poor fight in the film and conventional kung fu fans will love every one of them. The simplified drama involves the malign influence of foreigners and the film shows the British as haughty, the Japanese as corrupt, and some composite Europeans as arrogant. This means that the fights of the righteous Huo are made even more compelling even if the simple politics are less edifying. The magnificent Li is swifter and more awe-inspiring than he has been for some time, and he leaves the genre with echoes of what he achieved in the films I mentioned earlier. This means that the superior intentions of Fearless become irrelevant as the film becomes a good genre piece despite itself with cartoon morality, stereotypes, ropey expositional script, fights aplenty, and a simple tale of a man restoring pride. Overall, Fearless is rather good entertainment and as long as no one takes it seriously as politics or drama it is a lot of fun. Jet Li has left the game with a suitable last display of his skills and Ronny Yu has made his best film in ages.
Edko's release comes with a slight cardboard dust sleeve which is a simple reprise of the disc inlay cover. The dual layer disc is about 75% used. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen at the original aspect ratio and it looks marvellous. It is pinpoint sharp with a perfect print, and the beautiful baked looking cinematography is represented well. Contrast and colour look ideal to me and edge enhancement is no issue. There are two Mandarin surround tracks and, of them, I preferred slightly the DTS track for greater clarity, though both are superb with excellent distribution across all the speakers. The surround incorporates foreground and background sound well with nothing sounding forced or out of place in the mix so whether you are in the centre of a fight or in the middle of the countryside the effect is very natural. The English subtitles are not perfect and I understand that some people with a better knowledge of Mandarin than mine feel that some lines are translated out of order and with a change of meaning, but I felt the standard was good for an R3 disc with occasional mis-types and poor grammar.
The feature is complemented with a trailer, photo gallery, filmographies and a featurette which is subtitled. The featurette runs for about 16 minutes and features contributions from the director, the producer, and the star. Ronny Yu talks about just giving Li space to work in, and Li puts the record straight on his retirement from martial arts films and the purpose of Wushu as he sees it.
A fine action movie with excellent production and Li's goodbye to the genre Fearless is very much a film for genre fans to own and the quality of this disc in terms of the transfer is very good. Whether other editions of this director's cut with better English options come out will probably decide whether you pick this version up now, but in my view there is little to lose in buying this.