Meditation has many forms. Silent introspection of one’s inner self, sitting on top a hill for hours, as rewarding as it might personally be, really doesn’t translate into great cinema. Martial arts in its purest form, is another form of meditation. It is the painstaking pursuit of a singular goal, of mastery over a form, with great dedication and sacrifice. There are few subjects in this world that are so steeped in spirituality and yet have such an exuberant, entertaining form of expression.
Jet Li’s “Fearless” (if you are not already aware, Jet Li is planning to quit making martial arts movies, and this is apparently his last one), tells the story of the real life martial arts guru Huo Yuanjia at the turn of 20th century China. Growing up in a martial arts household, Huo has a natural predisposition to street fighting and bravado, and great disinclination towards academic learning. Growing up, his only ambition is to be the unchallenged champion of the Tianjin province. Of course, graver things happen to Huo and the ones around him, pushing him into a dark phase of his life. When he emerges out of this, his talent is co-opted by wisdom, and bravado is replaced by responsibility.
The story follows the predictable arc of martial arts flicks. And all these issues have been dealt with much more skill and depth in previous films (one example is “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). But, unhindered by a weak screenplay, this film holds together remarkably well. The early parts of the film have a more authentic approach, reminiscent of the early films in this genre - by employing a more in-your-face approach, exaggerated emotions, melodrama, and caricaturish characters (compared to a more irony-infused approach in recent films).
There are some wonderfully crafted fight sequences along the way. One that needs mention is the sequence staged on a wooden platform 200 ft above the ground, with stand alone wooden bars serving as steps- a vertigo inducing thrill ride. These fights, while excellent in their own respect, suffer from the huge shadow cast by films like “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger…”, and fail to measure up their exacting standard.
The film explores the idea of competitive sports with great wisdom. The practitioners of martial arts use competition as more of a stock-taking exercise, than as an end in itself. In a way, worthy competitors are our greatest companions. They are among the few people who fully understand the toil and courage needed to achieve a level of excellence (in any field), leading to an un-spelt camaraderie and respect for each other. Our fiercest competitors might be our greatest motivators and closest collaborators (more than we might care to realize or admit). But the characters in “Fearless” realize this, admit to this realization, and celebrate it.