Huo Yian-Jia is arguably Jet Li’s greatest role. While Once Upon a Time in China is considered one of his best martial arts movies – with his classic Wong Fei-Hung character – here are the reasons for my statement.
Fearless, the film directed by Ronny Yu and action-choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, (the same choreographer as Iron Monkey, released when I was born: 1993, and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, released in 2000) is based on a real-life person. His name was Huo Yian-Jia, known in China as one of the founding fathers of modern Wushu and its sport exponents, and one of the greatest Gong Fu masters who ever lived. Jet Li’s character as portrayed in the film is unique in the martial arts film pantheon, however, which makes me love the movie so much.
Huo Yian Jia isn’t simply on a quest to take revenge on an evil emperor or warlord for some betrayal or dishonor- and he isn’t simply beating the shit out of anyone who offends him. In fact, the whole movie’s moral is basically to not take revenge on the person who would commit such a crime.
Yes, the fight scenes are cool. Nathan Jones’s character, the American wrestler known as Hercules O’Brian – his match with the transformed Huo Yian-Jia is dynamic and uplifting as well as simply pleasing to the eye of one who appreciates great fight scenes. And the opening scene where Yian-Jia fights the three European champions of boxing, fencing and spear-play respectively is a masterly one in my mind.
However…what makes this movie the coolest for me is the characters and how they tranform throughout the movie. Especially, of course, the Huo character who is the roundest of them all, the most multi-dimensional. Being the main character in a martial art movie historically meant not so much that they will transform throughout the movie or learn something, but that, by the end of the film that will have either suffered a noble and cathartic death or finally have smitten their foe who did them wrong in the beginning of the movie. Granted, this is a very Western sort if mindset, that a movie must have multi-facted characters and a plotline that has emphasis. Chinese martial arts movies are very much focused on the action and the characters and plot are secondary.
The themes touched upon in the various scenes are dynamic and personal, and metaphorically rich and beautiful. There is a scene with Anno Tanaka’s character (the Japanese karate master whom Yian-Jia fights at the end of the movie) in which Huo Yian Jia and Tanaka sit at a table drinking tea, simply to greet and get to know each other before their big fight at the tournament. Tanaka chides Huo for not knowing his various teas, the difference between the higher quality and the lower quality ones, and the different flavors’ merits and weaknesses. Yian-Jia politely retorts that he does, but simply chooses not to care about the various differences. He explains to the Karate master that tea is tea, and that the differences depend on the mood of the drinker of the tea. They then mutually analogize this topic to the differences in martial arts.
“The way I see it is…they are no high or low martial arts, there are only good and bad martial arts practioners,” Yian-Jia says to Tanaka.
“…I’ve never really looked at it that way,” Tanaka reflects back.
There are other scenes that are arguably more important than this one in the larger frame of life-context. The one I speak of takes place in the countryside, wherein the drifter Huo Yian-Jia, after his entire family – his mother and his daughter- is killed by the godson of the man Huo Yian-Jia killed, the reknowned puglist master Qin – over something as petty as adultery with Qin’s concubine and one of Huo’s “students”. Huo becomes disillusioned after all of this about life and martial arts, and walks from the province of Tianjin to the countryside. He becomes swallowed and mired in his despair and desparing nostalgia, and almost drowns in his sadness. He is saved from a literal drowing in the river by some villagers. Of course, this is where the love interest must come in, as per usual. Though, even this love interest is pretty unique in many ways. For one thing, Yuechi, or Moon in the American release, and Huo Yian-Jia don’t even make any moves on each other, which I appreciate for aesthetic reasons. Yuechi has been blind since she was a child, but she claims to see “everything beside her heart.” Whether this is truwe or not, my reading into this whole section of the movie is that Yuechi and by extension, the whole village is the second teacher of Huo Yian-Jia and he learns how to love and be compassionate to others. He then extends this love and compassion to Tianjin and his Jin Wu martial arts federation later on, when he unties the different clans of martial arts together.
Oh man, but back to the village! This is the good stuff, right here. The scene when Yian-Jia is doing farm work, planting seedlings in neat rows with the other farmhands, is beautiful. He makes the farmwork a competition by racing the others, but when the cool summer wind blows, lo! the villagers have learned to enjoy life. Their hands outstretch and in unison, they are all feeling that wind, enjoying the breeze’s coolness. The virile Yian-Jia continues to plant his seedlings so he can win.
Later on, Yuechi dutifully redoes his sloppy fieldwork in the evening. He then learns the first lesson of his new life: There is more to life than being the best. Then, when he joins Yuechi out of guilt to help redo his work, she says wih a smile:
“Seedlings are living things too. Like people. If they’re planted to close, they won’t have room to grow healthy and strong. People need their space and to be treated with respect.”
“…I’ll keep that in mind,” Huo reflects back.
When Huo Yian-Jia decides that he is ready to leave, Yuechi already knows.
“I need to discuss something wih you, Yuechi,” says Yian-Jia.
“You’re leaving the village?” she resonds plainly.
She understands and packs some clothes and food for him. He tells her that he didn’t ever tell her his real name, and she responds with a smile, I will always know you as piggy. (His nickname is Piggy in the village because he slept a lot while he convalesced in the house. A child gave him this name because he slpet as much as the swine he fed everyday.)
“My name is Huo Yian-Jia”.
When he fianlly leaves, she sheds tears. He says he would be back to visit, but at the end of the movie, he is poisoned by Tanaka’s dilomat Mr. Mita, and he dies after he wins the tournament.
This movie is more than Enter the Dragon or Fists of Fury. While Bruce Lee, to me, is basically Huo Yian-Jia ( the actual one) for America’s late 20th century – he is that important and that good of a martial artist – and his greatest and most important movies were necessary and important for the time period, Fearless takes it a step further. Fists of Fury and Enter the Dragon are tales of catharic revenge and justice, and Bruce Lee’s charisma shines blindingly into the eyes of all those who say “Asian men are the eastern sickmen”; still, I like Fearless more because of its many-layered characters, themes of pride vs.humilty, nationalism and compassion for yourself and others, and actually now as I’m writing this, it could have even been better if longer, if the story of Yuechi and Yian-Jia was fleshed out even more. In my opinion, Ronny Yu was too eager to show scenes of nationalistic pride and probably does not share my views on the importance of that relationship between Yian-Jia and the blind but all-seeing woman who is Betty Sun’s character, Yuechi.
I mean, this movie takes a step towards Wong Kar Wai’s concept, and takes a step towards the Westernization of Chinese films which the Shaw brothers did not forsee or try out, but doesn’t quite make it. It didn’t capitalize on the themes it flirted with. But I commend the step. Verily, it is a going under, an overture to commend the higher man, as Nietzche would say – the higher man being the transformed Huo Yian- Jia, and the going under a literal drowning in a river, and the innermost struggle to find himself in a peaceful village.