When Jet Li completed filming Fearless, he announced to the world it would be his last picture featuring traditional Chinese martial arts (wushu). He said this film shared with the audience everything he ever hoped to convey. “Everything I believe, the physical part, the mental part, I put everything in the film. That’s why I say this is my last wushu movie.” Its theatrical release in East Asia surpassed Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
However, the Western release was cut by 40 minutes, excising important moments of character development and story. The latest DVD release brings the director’s cut to North America.
Fearless is based on the life of real martial arts legend Huo Yuanjia (Li). He was the son of a great fighter (Collin Chou) that pushed him towards academics rather than the arena. Nonetheless, Yuanjia trains secretly and eventually becomes undefeated in the region of Tianjin. His success makes him arrogant and self-indulgent, which ultimately has tragic consequences. He then travels to Southeast Asia and finds humility among rice farmers and a young blind woman (Betty Sun). Yuanjia returns a changed man and opens the Jingwu Sports Federation, an honourable martial arts school. Gaining renewed success, Yuanjia also attracts the attention of the Foreign Chamber of Commerce, who machinates a Shanghai tournament pitting Yuanjia against four fighters, each representing the major foreign powers in China (Britain, Spain, Belgium and Japan). The story concludes with Yuanjia’s match against Japanese martial artist Tanaka (Shido Nakamura) – a formidable opponent.
The theatrical version of Fearless was followed by an unrated version of the film on DVD; however, the only significant variant was the realistic sound of bones crushing under the fighters’ blows. This director’s cut embraces the true essence of the film and defends Li’s decision and reasoning, as it restores the scenes of training and philosophy that were initially removed. In comparison, the edited version appears “Westernized” – presenting audiences with the type of Chinese film they are accustom to seeing. All three versions of the film are included in the two-disc release.
The renowned Yuen Wo-Ping choreographs the action. He expertly utilizes Li’s talents, particularly in the final tournament during which Li displays equal skill in traditional weaponry and hand-to-hand combat. On the other hand, the occasional use of wires and stylized editing appears inconsistent and superfluous.
Li’s abilities as a thespian are slightly strained in the beginning as the gregariousness of his character comes off noticeably unnatural (as opposed to his usual reserve in films). This problem is minimalized by director Ronny Yu’s utilization of a gifted supporting cast.
By the way: the school Yuanjia established is the same school Bruce Lee attended in the 1972 classic Fists of Fury and Li was a member of in the 1994 remake, Fist of Legend.