Bookend: Jet Li's Fearless
Jet Li is someone that I find immensely appealing and paradoxically cute at all times. It doesn't matter how stinky the movie is. It doesn't matter if his character is supposed to be the most villainy villain in all villaindom. It doesn't matter that the sheer force of the mildest of his gazes could grind me into a fine powder. I like him and crave a pocket-sized version of him to carry around with me.
Partly, this is because he gives unparalleled "This is mah kewt face" face. Partly, it's because his roles generally call for him to be the nameless, silent type and, not being Clint Eastwood, he carries that off with a zen-to-cheerful determination that makes one want to fix him some cocoa and insist that he put his deadly feet up. Ok, so possibly that's just me.
In any case, Fearless is something different for Jet Li and something different for me as a Jet Li fan. New is usually good on its own merits, and certainly if this is to be his "last martial arts epic," breaking new ground is appropriate. I'd be willing to wager that this role had him speaking lines in excess of all lines spoken in his previous films combined. If you don't like that figure coming direct to you from my ass, please consider my observation that he certainly is required to play a much wider range of emotion than is typical of his other movies, up to an including Hero: He is the silly, affectionate father in his absent-minded, desultory way; he is the fond son, determined both to restore the family's damaged (at least as he perceives it) reputation; he is the warrior who approaches his matches with careful nonchalance; and he is the self-deceiving drunk who willfully ignores the fact that his largesse buys him hangers-on, rather than true disciples; and ultimately, he is both the humble student and someone worthy of the title master.
He is remarkably good at all and heartbreakingly so at many. He's not an actor of, for example, Chow Yun Fat's subtlety, and to his credit he knows that. But be that as it may, he has a similar kind of stillness about him that he overcomes her, occasionally visibly as a facial expression or a passing moment of body language hits the "NOT JET LI!" buzzer. There are times when he overplays the macho and the bombast, but it's not a stretch to treat that as a deliberate choice that the character might make.
Narratively and thematically, Fearless has its issues. Some are endemic to history-based film (this is certainly not historical fiction, and it's not quite fictionalized history, either), and some are dear to historically based films set in China. In terms of the latter, Fearless probably suffers more from the propaganda-y goodness than does Hero. Hero takes place entirely on a canvas occupied by Great Men (Please excuse my inexcusable use of the masculine to include Mistress Flying Snow. If it's any consolation, I feel sure that she'll kick my ass for it.) doing Great Things. Fearless showcases the lives of everyday people, some of whom seize the historically contingent moment and attempt to make it their bitch. In the course of doing that, however, it shades to the Yang Ban Xi end of the spectrum, idealizing the peasant way of life, blaming inequality and want on foreign interests, oversimplifying questions of multicultural unity and equality, and so on.
And you know, it's a film based on a semi-mythic character living in a highly problematic, politically and culturally volatile time. For temporal framing, they arbitrarily choose most of the lifetime of Huo Yuanjia, which means we're looking at the period from about 1870-1910. That covers the Japanese conquest, rebellion against the Ching dynasty, the influx of European powers intent on getting a piece of the Chinese pie, the Boxer Rebellion and its aftermath, and the protacted death of Imperial China.
The film manages to capture much of the fractured feeling without ever pulling focus so far away from Huo Yuanjia that it feels forced. Notably, the degredation of Huo's home town and his people are manifest upon his return, but the sequence of images moves along at a good clip. Huo can't take it all in at once and the audience never feels like we're dwelling on the angst. Likewise, the circus setting for Huo's (entirely fictional, as it turns out) match-up with Hercules O'Brien is ideal for a rapid-fire look at the social, cultural, ethnic, and economic pluralism of the audience. Upon reflection, of course, the sheer number of consumers of the jingoistic contest is depressing, as is the diversity within it, but again, there's no sense getting visually bogged down in that when most people came to see a Jet Li/Ronnie Yu ass-kicking movie.
I've seen a handful of complaints that Yu's direction gets repetitive in trying to show off Li's moves to their best advantage. I refer such individuals to the pointedly-NOT-Master-of-the-Flying-Guillotine-Huo-is-the-champion-of-the-world montage. We see the highlights of the goofier fights (alas, no long-armed yogis, but twins!) and appropriately harrowing and extended versions of his grudge matches. Yu also seems to have made an intelligent directorial decision in having the first three fights of the penultimate match (those against Europeans) take place immediately, leaving the final (Chinese vs. Japanese) battle for the film's climax. It's a neat and appropriate visual framing, and it serves the quite necessary purpose of giving those who are there strictly for the martial arts a healthy appetizer before they'll be sitting through the girly character development and history parts of the movie.
Overall, I really enjoyed Fearless. It's not as visually appealing as Hero, but the comparison isn't really fair as the latter is more overtly mythic, which opens up more possibilities. In some ways it is more narratively satisfying, despite the ways in which both films are pat and overly simplistic, simply because Huo was a real person and Li carries that through. Likewise the supporting cast are real people, flawed and capable of grace, generosity, and following the difficult path. And the actors, notably Yong Dong (as Huo's childhood friend and adult ally, Nong Jinsun) and Shido Nakamura (as Anno Tanaka, the Japanese fighter with whom Huo reaches an understanding before their match), usually manage to inject that humanity into the interactions, even when the dialogue is heavy handed.
For selfish reasons having to do with Jet Li's cuteness and my love for martial arts movies, I hope this isn't his last epic. But if it is, it's a high note to go out on.