Wednesday, January 25, 2006

FEARLESS: Jet Li's Lunar Year treat

(kungfu biography)
Time: 103 mins
Rating: * * *
Jet Li (centre) as novice farmer
FEARLESS is a stylised biography of Chinese martial arts legend Huo Yuanjia (1869-1910), the founder and spiritual guru of the Jin Wu Sports Federation which has branches all over the world. In Malaysia, its branches nationwide are known as the Chin Woo Athletic Associations. Huo’s exploits had been featured in many kungfu movies before, the most famous of which was Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury where he was shown to have been poisoned by the Japanese.

This version by director Ronny Yu, however, is not to glorify him but to show how he transformed from an arrogant kungfu master to become the champion of martial arts exponents in Shanghai. As a young boy, Yuanjia is forbidden from learning kungfu because he suffers from asthma. His father (Colin Chou), a famous martial arts teacher, does not want Yuanjia following in his footsteps. However, the boy is so determined to learn the art that he practised it secretly with the help of his best friend Nong Jinsun (Dong Yong).

By the time Yuanjia (Jet Li) reaches adulthood, he has pulverised the school bully and won several street contests. His fame as the top kungfu fighter spreads all over Tianjin — and so does his pride. Yuanjia celebrates his victories with his students and admirers at Nong’s restaurant and chalks up a huge bill. However, when a student’s skirmish with a rival martial arts school results in the death of Yuanjia’s mother (Bao Qijing) and daughter, Yuanjia is devastated.

He flees Tianjin, wanders for hundreds of miles, and nearly dies before he is rescued by an old woman and her blind grand-daughter Yue-Ci (Betty Sun). Yuanjia is taken to an idyllic mountain village where he learns humility and how to live in harmony with nature. When he returns to Tianjin, he finds the town overrun by foreigners who consider the Chinese as the ‘sick men of Asia’.

To boost the confidence and morale of the citizens, Yuanjia forms the Chin Woo school and teaches his disciples the Missing Fist technique. Again, Yuanjia’s fame and popularity grows and this time around, it attracts the attention of the Foreign Chamber of Commerce who plots his downfall.

Sure, we have a seat-gripping duel at the climax but the outcome is not what we usually get in such Jet Li movies.The fighting scenes, choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, are realistic and stunning. Yuen avoids using special effects and this makes the duels look more challenging. Yuanjia’s mountain sojourn offers a respite from the fighting sequences but his relationship with the blind Yue-Ci is undeveloped. We suspect it is more of an added distraction than a piece of history.

Also, Jet Li appears more comfortable in his role and he has us eating out of his hand even when he plays the arrogant youngster.It should make a fitting entertainment for the new lunar year holiday in lieu of a Jackie Chan offering.


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