Fearless (2006)

October 11, 2006

I promise that reviews more apropos of the Halloween season are forthcoming. However, some tedious fearless.jpgNetflix drama has currently set that schedule back a little. Instead, you’ll get the rare treat of a relatively new foreign release (rare because our local theater does not seem so keen on films with subtitles).  H and I went this past weekend to see Fearless, the Chinese film starring Jet Li. The film depicts the life of Huo Yuanjia, an influential martial arts master from the turn of the twentieth century. It was a time of turbulent change for China, which had come under the influence of many foreign powers. Yuanjia’s willingness to challenge foreign fighters in highly publicized matches made him a national hero. Fearless is based upon a true story, but apparently Huo Yuanjia’s legendary status in China has made it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction (Wikipedia isn’t always a reliable source, but it’s page on Yuanjia seems to give a fairly good intro to what we do and don’t know about his life). Regardless, the film does seem to do a good job of capturing the spirit of Yuanjia’s life, and, even more importantly, it shows why he is held in such high esteem by the Chinese.

It’s important to note that Fearless is not a wuxia film, like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or House of the Flying Daggers. Personally, I love those films and find their blending of the real and the fantastic works wonderfully with their aesthetic objectives (I think I wrote a little about this in my review of Hero), but I know many people feel quite differently. I think such people might want to give Fearless a try. While it still has many of the elements present in the wuxia films – beautiful scenery, exciting fight scenes, etc. – the story is much more accessible to Western audiences. In fact, the basic storyline will likely seem quite familiar – a young person with limitless potential rapidly rises in the world, subsequently loses everything due to his/her arrogance, and must then go back to basics and learn that talent is meaningless without some higher purpose. fearless3.jpg(I know there are many American movies that follow this basic plot, but for some reason the only one I can think of right now is Rocky III. So if you imagine Rocky III without Mr. T, without “Eye of the Tiger,” without the Philadelphia accents. . . – aw, forget it, they’re nothing alike, just believe me when I say the basic plot will seem familiar.) Although this skeleton plot might seem common, the various subplots are actually quite sophisticated, dealing skillfully with many difficult subjects such as imperialism, patriotism, love, and friendship. As a result, what could easily have been just a straightforward martial arts movie becomes a moving film that effectively delivers many important life lessons.

Overall, I really enjoyed Fearless. It is a martial arts film, so of course there’s a lot of fighting. However, it’s a very mature film with many poignant themes, so even people who don’t typically enjoy a lot of action might still very well get something out of it. 

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Hero (2002)

August 30, 2006

hero.jpgI also had a chance this past weekend to revisit Hero. This was the second time I had seen the film – the first being when it was initially released in American theaters in 2004. My reaction now was virtually identical to what it was then. It’s a great film, beautiful and complex; however, when compared to 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which, it seems, is the inevitable comparison), Hero falls short of its esteemed predecessor. (Perhaps I should break in with a brief caveat at this point: Crouching Tiger is one of my favorite films. I feel it blends narrative and style perfectly, and that it has a whole lot of everything cinema aspires to be. Needless to say, the bar is set pretty high when I start comparing other films to it.) The film has an impressive cast, not only starring the two Chinese actors most recognized by American audiences – Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi – but also Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai, two of China’s stars who came to the world’s attention in In the Mood for Love and 2046. Hero follows Nameless (Li), a prefect whose slayings of the King of Qin’s greatest enemies permit him to hold royal audience within ten paces of the ruler. The king, however, begins to suspect that the supposed slayings never actually occured but rather were faked in order to bring Nameless within striking distance for a potential assassination attempt. A series of conflicting narratives unfold, and the film keeps you guessing until the very end as to what really happened.

Like both Crouching Tiger and House of the Flying Daggers, Hero is a modern-day wuxia film (a Chinese genre blending martial arts, chivalry, and philosophy) that utilizes wire technology for its impressive and beautiful action scenes. Though used all over the world now, the wire technology and its aesthetics seem particularly appropriate in these Asian films, where there is no definitive boundary between art and the martial arts (Hero, not coincidentally, compares swordplay to both music and calligraphy). The use of this wire technology, the breezy cinematography, and the colorful scenery are all hallmarks of these films, which use them to brilliant effect. Unlike Crouching Tiger, however, Hero has a tendency to overuse these elements. hero2.jpgDirector Yimou Zhang occasionally becomes so enamored with the colors and landscapes that they seem to preempt the story – which is the real heart of the film. As transfixing as the visuals are, their excess threatens to transform the film into one of those cases of “too much of a good thing.” This really is the only problem I have with Hero, and I certainly intend it as only a minor complaint.

On the other hand, the script is undeniably good. As Nameless gets closer to the king, not only are the viewers coming closer to the truth of the story, but as it turns out, they are getting closer to understanding the heart of the king himself. The complexity and texture of the narrative make Hero one of those films you can watch over and over again and still discover something new with each viewing. Not only that, but the quality of the acting and the film’s overall aesthetic appeal (though, as I said, it can be a bit much at times) mean that repeat viewings are hardly tedious. Overall, Hero is just another fine example of why China’s contemporary wuxia films have gathered such a following worldwide. I highly recommend it.