Simply put, this movie is great. For many reasons, really. But my favorite are the storytelling and the cultural exposure. It is also worth crediting Jet Li with a fantastic performance as Hou Yuanjia, which allowed the audience to even buy into the story in the first place. But the story itself and the message that story carried are the film’s most intriguing aspects.
This film is derived from a true story. I say ‘derived from’ because ‘based on’ seems a bit too strong for how loose the movie was in regards to history. But I do not count this as a fault or criticism for two reasons. First, there is little historical fact when it comes to both the life and death of Hou Yuanjia. All I could manage to find for certain is that he did have a childhood ailment, his father tried to keep him from fighting, he was an exceptional fighter despite this, and he has a family that survived him. Second, a story does not have to be historically ‘factual’ to portray truth. We will come back to this. The film does a good job of establishing the circumstances around the time period that Hou Yuanjia lived, both within the small context of Huo Yuanjia’s life and the larger context of the world. Huo Yuanjia was a young boy from the Huo clan with a physical ailment that prevented him from training in wushu. Through determination and discipline, he still became an extremely adept fighter, likely one of the best in China (if not even better). He dedicated a large portion of his life to demonstrating his superiority in combat by fighting other Chinese clans. Chinese history is full of Chinese clans fighting other Chinese clans for various reasons. There are even video games about it, so it must be true. Thanks for the fun times Dynasty Warriors! As the world started to become smaller with the expansion (intrusion?) of different western cultures, Huo Yuanjia seemed to change his focus. He no longer valued fighting for the Huo clan above all else. Instead, he saw the importance of fighting for China. He went from being the hero of the Huo clan to being a hero of China.
The individual circumstances surrounding Huo Yuanjia’s life both vary from and duplicate what we can ascertain as having actually happened. However, as I said before, this is not important. The individual parts of the story are not as important as the story as a whole. For example, Hou Yuanjia still has descendants alive to this day. Clearly, his entire family was not murdered by a vengeful son as they were in the movie. However, his family’s murder has an important function. In the movie, it is this tragic act that allows Huo Yuanjia to extricate himself from the mindset that establishing his clan’s dominance was most important. We don’t truly know how a dead man once thought, but we can look at patterns and life decisions to try to get close. It is reasonable to say that Huo Yuanjia did have a change of heart. While his family’s murder is not what caused this change in the real Huo Yuanjia, it provides the audience with a tangible reason as to why he began to change. It is also just insanely sad, which causes us to truly invest in him as a character. However, here is also where my only complaint of the movie comes into play. I don’t think Huo Yuanjia’s relationship with his mother and daughter was established well enough. I was ridiculously sad when his daughter and mother were killed. But I think their deaths could have been even more effective if more time were taken to establish these relationships.
Back to our original topic…another example of the semi irrelevance of historical ‘facts’ is shown with Hercules O’Brien. In the movie, Huo Yuanjia boldly accepted the challenge of the man who repeatedly called the Chinese weak. Huo Yuanjia then clearly beat O’Brien in a rather thrilling fight scene. Huo Yuanjia even went so far as to save the life of O’Brien at the end of the fight. Historically, we have a hard time knowing what happened. It is quite likely that O’Brien, who was possibly just putting on a show, backed down after Huo Yuanjia accepted the challenge and a fight never occurred. Whether there was a fight or not is largely irrelevant. The same outcome was accomplished either way. The Chinese were no longer insulted by O’Brien, the country as a whole likely gained a bit of morale, and Huo Yuanjia started to become a national hero. I do place high importance on historical fact, but I value the essence of the story much more than I do the specific circumstances. Fearless did a remarkable job of using creative license to capture the essence of the original story in a cinematic setting. And, for a man fairly well-traveled, I know comparatively little of Chinese culture. It was good to spend a movie from the perspective of a culture that was much different from mine.
My name is Chuck, and these are my thoughts. Did you enjoy the more “realistic” stunts compared to the over the top stunts of other similar movies? Or do you much prefer the high-flying endeavors? Do you mind that Fearless took liberties with what history tells us in order to create the narrative we see in the movie? Leave a comment down below, and we’ll talk. Enjoy the day!
Much of what I learned about the real Huo Yuanjia was found from Jeremiah Jenne. This is his site: http://granitestudio.org/. The title of the article is “A Historian’s Review of Jet Li’s Fearless: Who was the real Huo Yuanjia?”
Next week: Logan