Wednesday, 3 May 2006

Fearless 霍元甲 (2006) DVD

Isn't it time Jet Li thinks of another fight pose?

In an example of cultural misunderstanding, the English language trailer for Fearless claims that this will be Jet Li’s final martial arts movie. The Mandarin titles state that this is his most best performance and most representative work to date, but after watching this travesty of a martial arts flick, one might end up wishing this is indeed Jet Li’s final martial arts movie.

Let’s get the plot safely out of the way first, though. Fearless is the fictional account of nationalist Huo Yuan Jia, whose series of exhibition matches against international fighters captured the heart of a nation experiencing daily humiliations from superior and more developed superpowers. In real life, the fighter founded the Jin Wu Men pugilistic society and died shortly after a match from tuberculosis, and has since been immortalised as a patriot. In popular culture, though, his fictitious disciple Chen Zhen (played by Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury) takes the limelight as he avenges the master’s poisoning by the evil Japanese judo team.

Fearless focuses not on Chen Zhen, but on the development of Huo Yuan Jia from an arrogant and scrappy fighter (in the mode of Mike Tyson) surrounded by lackeys and flatterers to a mellow warrior-philosopher. The transformation begins with a fatal duel with an opponent that results in reprisals that claim the lives of Huo’s family and drive him insane, and completed by the gentle care of a blind girl in a village that takes him in.

The plot is serviceable, even though the international exhibition matches bear more than a superficial resemblance to Jean Claude Van Damme’s The Quest. The action sequences, however, go against all that is natural and good in martial arts movies, and show that Jet Li is indeed an aging athlete standing on his last legs.

The Rules

No wire work – this is a martial arts movie, not a wuxia fantasy
No slow motion or mixed speeds in camera work
No cuts in fighting scenes – fighting moves should be shot in one continuous sequence, and no single move should be filmed in 2 discontinuous cuts.

No matter how good it looks, once you break these rules, you are no longer shooting a real martial arts movie. These tried and tested rules were worked out by Bruce Lee and Raymond Chow when their newly established Golden Harvest supplanted Shaw Brothers as the premier martial arts movie studio in the 1970s. When a martial artist resorts to breaking these rules, it’s a sure sign of reduced athleticism due to the aging process. Jet Li breaks not just one but all of them, a sure sign that his time as a leading martial arts actor has come and gone. To add insult to injury, Jet Li’s “killing blow” in the penultimate scene of Fearless is broken with a flashback to an earlier scene in the movie. A flashback.

True fans of martial arts movies will realise that Tony Jaa is the real deal now, and until Jean Claude Van Damme returns to the big screen in 2007 with Bloodsport: The New Beginning, Jaa is the only martial artist worth watching.

DVD Extras
One would’ve thought that English subtitles would be an automatic feature to include in any Region 3 release. Not here, though. Furthermore, the extras have only Mandarin subtitles. The paucity of language options suggest an indifferent release.

The most interesting extra on the disc would be “Jet Li’s world of Wushu”, where the actor expounds on the self-defense and moral philosophy of martial arts. “Searching for the world’s top martial artists” is entertaining, especially since a bevy of pro wrestlers and muay thai boxers ham it up for the camera for their casting trials. The Asia Pacific trailer is way too dark and appears as though someone filmed it with a handycam in a cinema hall.

If you pay attention to the extras, you’ll realise the casting of muay thai boxers. The fight scene between Jet and the Thai boxer were deleted from the theatrical release, although the scene was reinserted for Thai cinema audiences. Michelle Yeoh’s role also got cut on the editing floor. My impression is the extras on this DVD offer very little in terms of deleted scenes (the original cut of Fearless ran 150 minutes) or extras. Buy this DVD if you are unable to wait for a special edition, but this is worth renting.

First published at incinemas on 3 May 2006

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