Fearless (UK - DVD R2)
Chris Gould checks out Universal's new release of the recent Jet Li feature film...
Ronny Yu’s Fearless is a fictionalised account of the life of legendary Chinese martial artist, Huo Yuanjia (as portrayed by Jet Li). As a boy, Yuanjia longs to learn the secrets of Huo Wushu from his father, Endi (Collin Chou), the greatest fighter in all of Tianjin. However, because of Yuanjia’s ill-health, his father refuses to teach him, prompting the boy to steal the family wushu manual and begin his training in secret. As the years pass, Yuanjia’s skill and reputation as a fighter grow, matched only by his arrogance and pride. He succeeds in beating all-comers and eventually takes on a number of disciples, and when one of them is injured by a rival master named Chin, Yuanjia challenges him to a duel.
Although the battle is hard-fought, Yuanjia emerges victorious, killing Chin in the process. Weary, he returns home to find his mother and daughter dead, slain in revenge for Chin’s death. It is then that his disciple confesses to provoking Chin, sending Yuanjia mad with grief and shame. No longer caring whether he lives or dies, Yuanjia flees Tianjin and ends up in a remote village where he is cared for by an old woman and her blind granddaughter, Moon. As time passes, Yuanjia learns to come to terms with his turbulent past, and finds peace with the world once more.
However, upon his return to Tianjin, Yuanjia learns that an American strongman named Hercules O’Brien has been defeating China’s best fighters, labelling them ‘Weak Men of the East’. Yuanjia challenges O’Brien and beats him, prompting the Foreign Chamber of Commerce to hatch a plan to humiliate Yuanjia by pitting him against fighters from the four major foreign powers in China. After defeating three of the four challengers with relative ease Yuanjia faces the formidable Tanaka of Japan, but in this contest not everything is as it seems.
All of this should sound familiar to anyone remotely interested in martial arts movies, because the plot could have been plucked from any number of them: an arrogant young fighter rises through the ranks, suffers a personal tragedy and, after taking time off for some much-needed reflection, returns home an enlightened man. That’s basically what happens in Fearless. The first half of the film does a great job of showing Huo Yuanjia’s rise and fall, and Li puts in a genuinely convincing performance as a man whose pride has gotten the better of him.
However, it is when things begin to go horribly wrong for the character that the film also starts to falter, as Huo's self-destructive trip is underplayed and his subsequent rescue and rehabilitation by the villagers is underdeveloped. Before you know it, Yuanjia’s tormented soul is at peace and he’s back in Tianjin forming the Jingwu Sports Federation (which seemingly springs up overnight). In once scene transition we literally leap forward two years in time, which makes absolutely no sense when you consider that all the character had to do was travel from Tianjin to Beijing.
There are rumours that a great deal of footage was deleted from the film before it found its way into cinemas, including a number of pivotal fight scenes and an entire subplot involving a character portrayed by Michelle Yeoh (who is apparently still listed in the credits in some versions). This would go some way towards explaining the apparent gaps in the proceedings, and indeed the film does feel like large chunks were removed to make it more attractive to a wider International audience. Ultimately I was left feeling short-changed, and I would certainly be very interested in seeing the longer cut should it ever emerge.
Even with all of that said, Fearless is still extremely entertaining. While the fight choreography from Yuen Woo-ping is more wuxia than wushu—with the characters performing many superhuman manoeuvres and surviving injuries that would kill an ordinary person—there can be no denying the cinematic virtue of such exaggerated martial arts. Many, if not all, of the fight sequences are breathtaking, with my personal favourite being the confrontation between Huo Yuanjia and Master Chin, in which the two lay waste to an entire restaurant as they fight for survival. Time will tell if this really is Li’s final martial arts epic, but if it is, at least he’s going out on a high note.
Universal Pictures’ release of Fearless arrives with an anamorphically enhanced transfer, framed at approximately 2.40:1. For the most part this is a very presentable effort, with strong, naturalistic colour rendition that is very faithful to the theatrical presentation. Flesh tones are especially pleasing, but the transfer handles everything from the colourful markets of Tianjin to the lush greens of Yuanjia’s village retreat with aplomb. The image has a ‘film like’ quality that is sometimes lacking from the big-budget Hollywood blockbusters shot on green screen soundstages, but that carries with it its own set of problems. Things are a little softer than the very best transfers out there, and while contrast and black levels are fairly solid throughout, they are not perfect. I also noticed a single instance of excessive grain near the beginning and a little posterisation towards the end, but nothing that would spoil any reasonable person’s enjoyment. All-in-all this is a respectable, if unremarkable, transfer.
The film includes Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks in the original Mandarin, as well as dubbed French and Castellano. The quality of the 5.1 track is actually pretty good, with a strong presence from the frontal array and clear, concise dialogue. The rears are used sparingly, mostly for the score and the occasional roar of the crowd during the livelier scenes, but they bring a respectable amount of ambience to the proceedings. The track is able to bring to life the subtleties of the wind whispering in the trees during Yuanjia’s exile, but perhaps the most impressive use of all of the channels working in tandem is during Yuanjia’s duel with Master Chin, in which swords clash, furniture breaks and thunder travels around the soundstage. If I had one complaint about the track it would be that that bass is a little on the weak side, which is perhaps a side effect of the 384Kbps encoding, but other than that it is a solid effort.
There was some concern that the subtitles on this disc would be of the ‘SDH’ variety, but that is not the case. While all dialogue (even English) is subtitled, there are no subs for effects like cheering crowds or thunderstorms. It’s slightly annoying that the English dialogue is needlessly subtitled, but it only affects around a half dozen lines so it’s not too much of a problem. Universal should really have included separate English and English SDH subtitles on the disc though. I was also somewhat disappointed with what appeared to be loose translations of the original dialogue, unless of course the word ‘wuss’ was commonplace in19th century China. At least one of the characters is also given a more ‘Western’ name (as Yueci becomes Moon).
Well this is going to be remarkably easy. The disc doesn’t actually include any extra content—not a sausage. I know the film wasn’t exactly a huge box-office draw in the UK, but the lack of any bonus material at all really is unforgivable. With any number of inferior films treated to Special Editions these days, was it really too much to ask that Universal show Fearless a little more respect?
Fearless is an enjoyable film that tries to do a little more than the average martial arts beat-‘em-up. Sure it has its flaws, chief among them the host of historical inaccuracies, but no one is claiming that this is a serious biopic of Huo Yuanjia. If you take it for what it is, an entertaining martial arts picture inspired by a legend, you’ll have a lot more fun than if you go in expecting to see a faithful retelling of the man’s life. As it stands, Universal’s release is the only legitimate English subtitled version available. Solid A/V aside, it’s definitely overpriced and under-speced, but if you want the film and you don’t understand Mandarin it’s currently your only option. Of course that could change in the near future, so I guess the decision whether to buy this disc or not is largely dependant on your desire to see the film.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 23rd October 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Mandarin, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 5.1 Castellano
Subtitles: English, French, Castellano
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ronny Yu
Cast: Jet Li, Collin Chou, Shido Nakamura, Betty Sun, Yong Dong, Nathan Jones
Genre: Action and Drama
Length: 99 minutes
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