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September 20-26, 2006

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Jet Propulsion Laboratory

'Jet Li's Fearless': Martial arts fiesta, plus a public service message from the People's Republic of China reminding you that dissent leads to weakness

By Richard von Busack

I WAS no keen fan of Suzhou River, but the five-year ban inflicted on Lou Ye that prevented him from directing movies in China is a lesson to directors there who don't submit their work to the censors. Ye's troubles can be contrasted with an example of a government-approved film, Jet Li's Fearless. Despite an uncustomary seeking of depth by director Ronny Yu, Jet Li's Fearless has a distinct totalitarian aftertaste. The film tells a heavily fictionalized version of the life of Huo Yuanjia (Jet Li), a martial artist of the early 1900s who created the Jin Wu Sports Federation and worked to end the squabbling between martial arts schools that made Chinese history so fractious—and martial arts movies so diverting.

The first half provides the most fun. Defying his father's wishes, Hou becomes a battler, taking on all challengers in a scaffold fight, in which stray punches spindle the boards around the combatants. The victory proves so rousing that it goes to his head. Hou becomes a dumb pug, a big shot with an entourage of thirsty disciples. His arrogance leads to a break with his best friend from childhood (Jinson). And this swaggering leads to the film's central fight scene between Huo and Chin (Chen Zhihui), a big Bluto with a fringe beard. I was sorry we get so little of him. Chin dresses up in regally in gold satin and has a booming voice like Howard Keel in the old musicals. When the two clash in a cleared-out bar, wielding a pair of swords the size of canoes, the film strays into pure-pleasure territory, before it strays out again.

Having lost his honor, Huo heads to the mountainous Chinese countryside, where Moon, a pure-hearted blind girl (Sun Li), adopts him. She lives in a farm that looks like the Shire from The Lord of the Rings movies; the peasants even all stop their work whenever the divine wind blows in from the bamboos, that's just how much in touch with nature they are. Last week, writing about Buffalo Boy, I said no one would ever make rice planting picturesque, but I hadn't reckoned with Ronny Yu. Strengthened by the timeless rituals of stoop labor, Huo comes back and represents for China in a martial arts competition, which saves his country's honor.

Westerners are used to seeing Caucasians portrayed as scheming villains in martial arts movies, and God knows it is fair payback for all those decades of sinister Chinese from Fu Manchu to Dr. No. At his comeback bout, Huo battles a pink version of the Incredible Hulk, called "Hercules O'Brien" (Nathan Jones, the colossus from Troy), who is bald, eyebrowless, roaring, dressed in red-white-and-blue trunks—are they trying to tell us something?

It seems that over time, movies ought to get more sophisticated rather than less, and Jet Li's Fearless offers an example of a far-less-cosmopolitan cinema than Hong Kong delivered before the takeover. Significantly, Yu chose to tell the story of pre-Revolutionary China as a problem of encirclement, rather than of the weakness of its government. The repeated message of the film is that seamless cooperation is the only force against scheming foreigners who want to humiliate China. A question: Is lack of unity China's problem today, or is it rather a lack of dissent?

Movie Times Jet Li's Fearless (PG-13; 104 min.), directed by Ronny Yu, written by Chris Chow and Christine To, photographed by Hang-Sang Poon and starring Jet Li, plays valleywide.

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