The China Desk
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February 17, 2006
Directed by Ronny Yu
Produced by Bill Kong
Martial arts sequences directed by Yuen Woo Ping
Starring Jet Li, Betty Sun
Release Dates, in chronological order:
China [mainland]: January 25, 2006
China [Taiwan]: January 26, 2006
China [Hong Kong]: January 26, 2006
Malaysia: January 26, 2006
Singapore: January 26, 2006
Philippines: March 1, 2006
Thailand: March 2, 2006
United States: August 4, 2006
France: September 20, 2006
Germany: October 12, 2006
In Fearless ... Huo Yuanjia, a real-life fighter who energized China during the last dark days of the Qing dynasty ... is forced to learn that there's more to martial arts and life than just winning or losing, living or dying ... At the start of Fearless, Huo is a ball of highly skilled but undirected martial-arts aggression; his only goal is to become the top fighter in his hometown of Tianjin. He accomplishes this in rapid order, knocking off any and all contenders in a series of brutal one-on-one fights ... Huo cracks skulls, snaps fingers and shatters knees ... Surrounded by an entourage of drunken sycophants, squandering his money, ignoring the warnings of his wiser friends, Huo acts like a 19th-century Mike Tyson. He's clearly headed for a fall. It comes when Huo, for nothing more than vanity, takes on Master Qin ... The fighters go at each other with every available weapon, until a crazed Huo lands the killing blow. His victory comes at a terrible price -- one of Qin's students slaughters Huo's family in reprisal. Overcome by guilt and self-loathing, Huo drifts away, ending up in [a] rural village where a beautiful blind girl [helps] him understand that existence is about more than just beating people up ... Huo's ... gentler, more powerful form of kung fu ... serves him well when he departs for a Shanghai that's been drawn and quartered by foreigners. There, in a spurt of nationalism, he takes on Western and Japanese fighters, eager to prove that Chinese aren't the sick men of Asia.
-- Emotion in Motion, Time Asia Magazine, January 30, 2006
A Farewell to Arms
Fearless, according to the movie's official website, will be Chinese martial arts champion and international action star Jet Li's final martial arts flick. Li has told interviewers that he no longer has any desire to make martial arts films, but instead wants to dedicate his life to promoting his deeply-held metaphysical and spiritual beliefs. Whether Li's legions of fans will allow him to do so remains to be seen. In any event, Li has drawn a distinction between martial arts films and action films.
As Li explains:
I¡¦ll only be devoting 50% of my time and energy into making movies going forward. I¡¦ve reached a point where I feel I can do something else ... Making this film now I feel this is a concluding chapter to my martial arts movie career. Let me stress that martial arts movies and action movies are two separate things. Action could be modern times and set among city streets. What I term as martial arts movie would be the likes of Wong Fei Hung (Once Upon a Time in China) series. I just feel it¡¦s time to close this chapter in my life.
Revenge, Good and Bad
Fearless belongs to a tried and true movie genre, the Revenge Story.
Revenge Stories fall into two categories: Revenge is Good stories, and Revenge is Bad stories.
Revenge is Good stories, to be perfectly blunt, are psychologically primitive, even atavistic.
Revenge is Bad stories are psychologically more evolved. That said, some Revenge is Good stories are less primitive than other Revenge is Good stories.
Revenge is Good
The gut-wrenchingly violent 1974 urban crime drama Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson, is a classic Revenge is Good story, and ranks among my guilty pleasures. Death Wish is a movie in which the hero's acts of vengeance come across as morally justified. The hero's wife and daughter are brutally raped and assaulted by street thugs during a home invasion. The hero's wife dies from fatal kicks to her head. The daughter lives, but is so traumatized by the assault she retreats into catatonia. Bronson, a law-abiding white collar professional, is paralyzed by his loss, until one fateful night, when he fights off a mugger with a sock filled with quarters. He then acquires a handgun, and using himself as bait, blows away a series of muggers who mistake him for an easy mark.
As Roger Ebert wrote in 1974:
There's never any question of injustice, because the crimes are attempted right there before our eyes. And then Bronson becomes judge and jury --and executioner. That's what's scary about the film. It's propaganda for private gun ownership and a call to vigilante justice. Even the cops seem to see it that way; Bronson becomes a folk hero as the New York Vigilante, and the mugging rate drops fifty percent. So the police want to catch Bronson, not to prosecute him for murder, but to offer him a deal: Get out of town, stay out of town, and we'll forget this. Bronson accepts the deal, and in the movie's last scene we see him taking an imaginary bead on a couple of goons in Chicago.
Bronson defended Death Wish and its three sequels in 1987, saying "I think they provide satisfaction for people who are victimized by crime and look in vain for authorities to protect them."
For the record, I consider Death Wish justified in its advocacy of private gun ownership and the right to self-defense.
Steven Seagal's movies are also Revenge is Good stories. Seagal's movies, paradoxically, are movies in which the protagonist's vengeance is morally repugnant and indefensible. I say "paradoxically" because Seagal, a Tibetan Buddhist "tulku" or holy man, makes much ado about being "more enlightened than thou." In Seagal's movies the "hero" is an appalling bully, typically a law enforcement agent, who considers himself "Above the Law" and grossly abuses his mastery of Aikido, the "Way of the Peaceful Warrior" [ ! ] to beat anyone who dares defies him to a bloody pulp.
Never underestimate the accuracy of Hollywood movies as an indicator of American cultural trends. Transpersonal, aka "Integral" psychologists know that pop culture, especially popular films, are telling indicators of a society's collectively held values, both conscious and unconscious. Hollywood is not known as the Dream Factory for nothing. Hollywood reads America's psyche and projects America's dreams onto the silver screen for all the world to see, literally and figuratively.
The constantly changing storylines of Hollywood films closely reflect America's constantly changing values. Consider for example the 1987 comedy The Secret of My Succe$s, which reflected the "Winning is Everything" values of the Reagan Era. A mere four years separate the film from the 1991 comedy Doc Hollywood, which reflected the "Small is Beautiful" values of the post-Reagan Era. What makes the contrast even more remarkable is the fact that both films were Michael J. Fox star vehicles.
Steven Seagal's films are an uncanny reflection of Charles Krauthammer's "Unipolar Moment" triumphalism that guided Bush II regime foreign policy during Bush II's first term, but is now hopefully on the wane. Steven Seagal's tough cop protagonists, as they enforce domestic "law and order," behave remarkably like Neoconservative "World Policemen" as they "defend democracy" in Bush's New World Order.
Revenge is Bad
Revenge is Bad stories fall into two categories: Phony Revenge is Bad stories, and Genuine Revenge is Bad stories.
As you can probably guess, Phony Revenge is Bad stories far outnumber Genuine Revenge is Bad stories. Stories that pay facile pro forma lip service to the premise that Revenge is Bad far outnumber stories that conscientiously integrate the Revenge is Bad premise into the story structure.
Phony Revenge is Bad stories pander shamelessly to audiences' atavistic desire to "kick ass," then hastily cover up the pandering with a "Violence is not the solution" fig leaf that no one leaving the theater believes for one minute. The hero in Phony Revenge is Bad movies wreaks bloody havoc for two hours, then just before the end titles roll, mumbles some hypocritical platitude about how "Violence only begets more violence."
Fearless is a rare example of a Genuine Revenge is Bad story. Fearless suggests that Revenge is Bad, and earnestly strives to convert audiences to that premise. Fearless conscientiously integrates the premise that Revenge is Bad into the story structure. In Fearless, the hero's impulsive act of vengeance leads to such catastrophic consequences and to such deep remorse that the hero experiences a genuine epiphany and undergoes a genuine transformation.
According to Newsweek magazine:
Fearless went through ten screenwriters to ensure a seamless plotline. Perhaps most compelling are the movie's emotional action scenes, which propel the story forward rather than serve as visual breaks from the real action ... "One notable thing with this movie is that there are no villains," says "Fearless" director Ronny Yu. "The good guy and the villain both reside in Huo himself."
Fearless, like Spiderman 2, displays far more emotional depth than the run of the mill action movie, and transcends the genre's usual limits. That Spiderman 2 was so deeply moving had a lot to do with its screenwriter, Alvin Sargent, author of the Oscar winning 1980 domestic drama, Ordinary People. Fearless' official website fails to list the writers responsible for Fearless' script, but whoever they are, they deserve similar credit.
A Larger Lesson
In any event, the final product reflects Jet Li's personal convictions. As Li confided on his official website:
Time and again over the years I've stressed that violence is not the only means of solving problems. Western reporters also grilled me about why I keep professing my belief in this, yet keep on doing movies that are violent. I think it's not possible to have every one of my movies represent what I truly believe. It just has to be the right subject matter, and now I think I found the right project that could help me achieve this.
If someone learns martial arts solely to pick fights on the street, to lean on it as a keystone weapon in conflicts, to use it to bully and intimidate others -- then that person, in my opinion, cannot be considered a true martial artist. Sure, he may have mastered the physical aspect of the art - know all the forms to the point of creative second nature. Sure, he may win all the fights, beat up all his opponents, leaving them bleeding, and claim some outside applause. But while physically he may have won - in other respects, he has lost. Badly. For one can never win another person's heart through fighting, through hostile force. The defeated, the one who had to bear the brunt of your physical force will only walk away with a wounded heart, with anger. As a Buddhist, I believe strongly in the concept of karma. What you do will come back to you eventually, as is the universal balance. You can win today, but tomorrow, your choice to use violence will return to you, perhaps in a form ten times stronger.
Jet Li could easily have been talking about right wing Japanese political leaders such as Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso, and Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara..
Jet Li could easily have been talking about Neoconservative foreign policymakers Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Lewis Libby, John Bolton, Elliott Abrams, Robert Kagan, Michael Ledeen, William Kristol, and Frank Gaffney Jr.
The "triumph" of Pearl Harbor led to the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The "triumph" of Desert Storm led to the tragedy of 9/11. What will the "triumph" of Infinite Justice/Enduring Freedom lead to?
Junichiro Koizumi, are you listening?
George Bush Jr., are you listening?
Fighting, or seeking revenge, is a self-defeating process and the escalation of retaliatory violence can have very bitter consequences ... When you learn martial arts, it's not just a physical endeavor -- it is also internal -- and your actions show an understanding of some of the highest levels of martial arts ... one day those people who beat you up will have regrets that they hurt you -- they will feel guilty. So perhaps their outcome, even though they won in the short term, is not so kind in the long term. The goal with any conflict isn't to kill the other person. The goal is to win their heart. Turning one from enemy to friend is the highest level of martial arts. You win the battle without throwing a single punch.
Steven Seagal, are you listening?
Fearless not only depicts an individual's awakening, it offers a thoughtful answer to the troubling question of how nations that have fought bloody wars with each other might resolve their differences and face the future. That Chinese film makers would produce a movie like Fearless at this moment in history, when China is undergoing a peaceful renaissance, is highly encouraging. It suggests that China's much publicized "peaceful rise" will indeed be peaceful, as long as China isn't deliberately backed into a corner by China baiters in Japan and the US so consumed with jealousy they cannot countenance the prospect of "uppity Chinamen" successfully competing with them in the emerging global marketplace.
Fearless is what Japanese and US political leaders need to be in the face of inevitable change. As a now deceased US president once admonished: "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."
Fearless : : The Movie
The Official Jet Li Website