When is the truth the whole truth and not some fictionalised version of it? When it's a film.
There has always been fierce debate amongst the artist and the biographer about how to interpret life. Traditionally film is an entertainment medium, thus when telling the story of someone, be they real or fiction, license can be employed to dramatise that life. In recent years the docudrama has become more prevalent as film makers have come to realise what a powerful tool the film medium actually is. And as such should there be stricter guidelines enforced when dramatising a real person's life? When phrased like that the obvious answer is no, because to dramatise a persons life, real or otherwise, is to fictionalise it. When sticking to fact there should be no dramatisation, but unfortunately, as we all know, real life just ain't that interesting. So to what extent should filmmakers 'stick to the truth'? Add to that, the actual medium, should as much accuracy be levied on Disney for Hercules, as Oliver Stone for JFK? Where then do the Cohen Brothers stand on Fargo, a totally factious story that gleefully informs viewers before the start of the film that all the events are true? Ultimately the burden must rest with the director to strike the balance between truth and a good story; dramatic license will always be employed whatever the medium, books, film or canvas.
This is my third time looking at Jet Li's 'final' martial arts film Fearless, back in April 2006 I was given the chance to review a DVD, of particular challenge since the disc had no English subtitles and I was left to try to decipher what was going on. Next time was in February of 2007 and the HD DVD this time with subtitles! However both these were the cut (unrated) international versions it is only now with this Blu-ray release that we can appreciate the full, uncut, director's vision which adds what the previous versions so lacked - a sense of time and some much needed focus.
The Story is a fictionalised account of one of the most celebrated characters in Chinese lore, one Huo Yuan Jia, a martial arts expert and founder of the Jing Wu Sports Federation and widely recognised as an inspiration to the Chinese way of life.
Hou suffered from asthma as a child and his father refused to teach him his martial arts because of it, but this only served to strengthen his resolve to be a master. After a humiliating beating in public by a street bully, Hou together with his close childhood friend, teaches himself the art and as his skill grows so does his arrogance; victory and after victory follows, no challenge is left unanswered until he feels invincible. However, one fateful day, after finding one of his students beaten, Hou, splits with his childhood friend over his behaviour, then humiliates the offending master into fighting him and in his fury actually kills him. This cost him dear as in retaliation both his daughter and mother are slain, stricken by grief and rage Hou descends upon the master's abode to seek vengeance, but after seeing the horror he has created throws down his sword and walks away not caring if he lives or dies; worse still, he finds out that the student deserved the beating he took and thus the fight was all in vein. During this self inflicted exile he is cared for by an aged mother and her blind daughter in a sleepy mountain village. Over the next seven years Hou forgets all about fighting and learns to appreciate a simple life, to care for oneself and others. When it comes time to pay his respects to his parents he leaves the village after first telling them his real name (he was called Ox) and returns to his home town only to discover it very changed. The year is now 1910 and many foreign powers are vying for control over China as increasing internal turmoil sees the Chinese referred to as the “Sick men of Asia”. Incensed, Hou wishes to takes on, in a highly publicised fight, an American marine, but lacks the money to get there, so offering humility and regaining the trust of his former childhood friend accepts a loan and beats the marine easily. Seeing this as an opportunity to break the Chinese spirit being raised by his victory, the four vying powers organise a series of fights; each fighter championing their own country against Hou for the sake of Chinese honour, a fight with as much political intrigue and underhanded dealing as the politicians can muster.
The film's plot could be from one of a thousand different martial arts films; arrogant upstart ignoring all advice suffers greatly, learns humility and returns to triumph. However, since this film has a basis in reality there is a lot of credence to the story. Li plays Hou with conviction; there is a greater demand on his acting skills in this film than I've seen in any other. The suffering he endures at the loss of his family is very well played. His journey through the wilderness conveys genuine despair, a broken man with nothing to live for. During his recuperation the director's version adds many more scenes, which the film desperately needed since the swift montage always felt like there was something missing. Hou learns through experience patience and understanding up to the point where he takes a beating (in a wholly new scene) for a child, and with a few words of wisdom, that to turn the other cheek does not mean to be trodden into the dirt; something completely missing in previous versions.
As with all biographical films, there are some liberties taken with the truth, never let the truth get in the way of a good story, and plenty of his early life is simply washed over in the name of pace. Thankfully, again, this director's version does address this and adds more intimate moments that further shape Hou's character during the early part of the film. Of course, it is in the action sequences that the film really shines. Employing action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (of Matrix fame) alongside Lee's own talents the fights have never looked slicker and more professional. The making of featurette describe CG and wire work as minimal, I'm not sure I'd agree with that since there are some huge liberties taken with physics, however, much like the plot, never let reality get in the way of a good fight scene. The final fight sequences are breathtaking in their speed. And the fateful battle with the master is bone crushingly ferocious but at the same time beautiful to watch. As the two battle it out in the water the clarity of the image coupled with the visual splendour are magnificent.
There is much to admire in Fearless, a strong story with amazing fight routines that while an integral part never seem forced into the script. Li is at his very best here both emotionally and physically and, with this cut, managed to make his 'last' martial arts film his most memorable. The rushed feel I had with the previous version has been fully addressed with this director's cut, told very much as a parable starting as it does, very differently, with the Chinese (Michelle Yeoh) vying to get Wushu into the Olympics. Gone are the opening fight scenes and in doing so shifts the focus from a martial arts film to an understanding of the focus of martial arts, something that the previous cuts failed to achieve, even though that was the spirit in which they were made. As such I have no hesitation in recommending this cut of the film over all of the others I've seen, because if you haven't seen this one, then you haven't seen Fearless.