"After a great war, foreign powers ruled China. But our traditions still gave us hope. To break our will, they staged the tournament to prove the superiority of their warriors against our own. Only one rose to challenge them. He carried our pride on his shoulders and brought the nation to its feet."
"This man was fearless."
This is a movie with a very high charge, a dual charge - it is the expression of a certain ideology and, at the same time, it carries the story of extreme transformation through extreme challenges of destiny. Click below to read the full review.
WARNING - some spoilers pertaining the broad turns of the plot (but no particular details; the true story of Huo Yuanjia, upon which the movie is based, is included).
It is hard to underestimate the ideology that drives part of this movie. At the time it was released (the year 2006), China is gearing up to become an innovation and technological powerhouse, to match and perhaps overtake the Western achievements in science and technology. It is the fastest-growing economy in the world, deeply entagled with the West which, in some aspects, has become dependent on it.
In fact, most asian nations experience, at this point in time, an upheaval, a time of rapid growth and unprecedented achievements. South Korea is one of the most "connected" nations in the world, with one of the highest percentages of people with Internet access and one of the fastest Internet infrastructures. India goes full throttle for the first place in the computer software market. Singapore is pouring back huge percentages of the GDP into science and technology. And the examples could continue.
And here comes Jet Li with this movie where the main character, a chinese martial arts champion, enters a tournament against 4 competitors and rapidly dispatches 3 of them - all 3 "white men", and the story really begins when he prepares to fight the fourth oponent, a japanese, an asian. The ideological punchline is delivered in the first 5 minutes of the movie. And it doesn't stop there.
The movie is based on the true story of Huo Yuanjia...
...a chinese martial artist who became famous at the beginning of the 20th century. His time was one of defeat and foreign rule for China. He became involved in highly politicised martial arts tournaments, which were staged to demonstrate the superiority of the foreign fighters, yet he defeated all his oponents.
He was allegedly poisoned before his final match against the japanese Tanaka yet still decided to fight. The match ended inconclusively, but it is said that Tanaka declared that he lost against the chinese fighter. Huo Yuanjia died shortly afterwards.
I could only marvel at the density of political statements, generously sprinkled throughout the movie. The centuries-long rivalry between China and Japan is well known, yet this is a movie where a chinese and a japanese sit together at the table, drink tea peacefully, exchange ideas and essentially accept each other as partners, not enemies. The confrontation is not with the japanese, it's with someone else.
The hero, after tremenduous personal loss, lives for a few years far from civilization. When he returns, China is a vassal country, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 has just been defeated by the joint armies of the Eight-Nation Alliance (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States). The signs of occupation by the Western powers (and Japan) are portrayed in harsh colors.
Essentially, what Jet Li did was to translate Huo Yuanjia's story 100 years into the future and use it as a symbol to energize the 21st century asian renaissance. I expect this movie to be hugely successful in China, although it may sneak along unnoticed in the West which, I feel, may quite contentedly choose to ignore the message.
The thing is, this doesn't look like a message to ignore.
Anyway, moving forward to the other side of the movie - the story of personal transformation.
The movie presents Huo Yuanjia, at the beginning, as essentially a kung-fu bully, a talented fighter who lives only to win, even when the way of achieving that is questionable. Granted, the main character never does anything trully incriminating, he pretty much stays within the letter of the law, but it's the spirit of fair play that he's willing to ignore, and it's the moral law that he's willing to push aside, if that's what it takes to be the winner, the best, the "champion of Tianjin".
And there's a payback. Due to his reckless actions, he brings tragedy upon others and upon himself. He wins, but is plunged into living hell through tremenduous and utterly crushing personal loss. He walks through the valley of the shadow of death - and the movie, while perhaps a bit too emotional for the average Western taste, does a good job at showing the character's overwhelming darkness and despair.
And here comes the best part: he walks through the dark fire, he's forged in the smithy of hell - and he emerges back, purified, a better man. Losing everything, he has nothing to worry. Touching the bottom, he's not scared of falling. Undefeated by human opponents, he's brought down by Destiny and forced to face his own weakness and mistakes, admit them, and left with no choice but change his ways.
And now he's fearless.
That's, I think, the best part of the movie. It's the story of the individual who cast off his petty goals and ambitions and embraced a larger ideal. Stepping outside the narrow circle of the individuality, any loss pertaining to his own person becomes irrelevant. Instead of the subterranean ambition and fear, the clarity of the conscious goal takes over and drives the human vessel forward. This is symbolized in the movie by the hero's perfectly calm and composed expression during his fights. It is the victory of the conscious mind over the shadows.
"Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself makes you fearless." What's symbolized by self-mastery in this saying attributed to Lao-Tzu is the reign of the conscious will and mind. Initially, the hero was automatically driven by his own ambition. Now he's moving purposefully, aware of the goal set forth. No more subterranean currents. No more shadows. No more fear.
In my opinion, this is where the movie truly shines. Perhaps it will be seen as just another martial arts flick - and it is that, indeed. Perhaps it will be seen as political propaganda - and propaganda is delivered, to be sure, through the firehose fully open. But crammed together with these more obvious levels is this message of freedom from darkness, which is expressed everywhere in the movie, even in the title. For that reason alone, I think it's worth seeing. Regardless of what Jet Li is going to do in the future, this is certainly one of the highlights of his career.
Two thumbs up.