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Film / Fearless (2006)

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Between Japanese karate and Chinese wushu, let's see whose kung fu is stronger.

This is about the 2006 Chinese Wuxia movie. For the 1993 Peter Weir plane crash film, click here.

Fearless (original title: 霍元甲) is a movie starring Jet Li, directed by Ronny Yu and released in 2006. It is a heavily fictionalized biopic of famous martial arts master Huo Yuanjia (1868-1910).

Huo was the son of a wushu professor in Tianjin, but because of his poor health, he wasn't allowed to study martial arts himself. However, after seeing his father lose a fight against a dishonorable adversary, he decides to become a master in his own right in order to redeem the family name.

As years go by, Huo's fame rises, but so does his vanity. One day, he confronts Qin, the master of a rival school and, in the heat of combat, deals him a deadly blow. The latter's followers retaliate by killing Huo's mother and daughter. Stricken with grief, he wanders the countryside in a state of shock, and is taken in by a kindly old woman and her blind granddaughter.

Sharing their life and that of the simple country folk in their village, he nurses himself back to psychological health. In 1907, a more mature and humble man, he returns to Tianjin, and is appalled by the decay of Chinese society and the arrogance of foreigners. He restores his fame by winning a fight against an American wrestler, and with the financial backing of an old friend founds the Jingwu Association, a martial arts school in Shanghai.

Incidentally, Jet Li also starred in the 1994 movie Fist of Legend (itself a remake of the Bruce Lee movie Fist of Fury), where he played the fictional student of Huo Yuanjia out of get justice for the death of his master after he is murdered, so while they have very different continuities, the film could be considered a Spiritual Successor of sorts to that one.

Unrelated to Fearless (1993).

Contains examples of:

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: Master Qin's sword. Huo's own blade gets progressively more chipped during their fight, eventually breaking in two different places, while Master Qin's seems to come out completely unscathed.
  • Absurdly Sharp Claws: One of the opponents Huo Yuanjia fights uses a form named "Tiger Claw" that involves him scratching his opponent with his bare nails. Apparently, he can slowly rip your shirt if you let him get close enough.
  • Accidental Murder: In a duel to restore his personal honor and pride, Yuanjia ends up beating Master Qin, a fellow martial artist, to death. Qin died offscreen the following day, which Yuanjia learns from his friend Jingsun, leading to a painful Cycle of Revenge.
  • Alternative Foreign Theme Song: In the Japanese release, the theme song was changed from "Fearless" to "Crime" by HIGH and MIGHTY COLOR. This apparently upset many Japanese fans of the original song.
  • Anti-Villain: Tanaka, to the point he isn't really a villain at all, just an opponent in the tournament. He and Huo clearly respect each other.
  • Arcadia: The village folks live an idyllic existence made of wholesome agrarian work and caring togetherness.
  • Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: Huo is one before he learns better. His vanity and recklessness end up making him bankrupt his family's money on extravagant parties for his admirers, participate in random death matches to show off, and causes him to carelessly kill a rival martial arts master, whose godson end up murdering Huo's family in a Murder-Suicide plot since he could never beat Huo personally.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The only similarities between the film and Huo Yuanjia's biography are the following: that his father was a martial artist, that Huo had asthma and was forced to learn secretly the family style of wushu, that he founded the Chin Woo Association along with Nong Jinsun, and being generous, that he did fight challenge matches against foreign fighters. The rest of the movie is dramatic embellishment, in particular the point of him being an arrogant master that got his family killed in a honor feud, which is completely fictional (in fact, his wife and children survived him in real life).
    • The real life Hercules O'Brien was a boxer, while the one from the film appears to be a professional wrestler. Also, he was an Irishman, while in the film he is American (and played by the Australian Nathan Jones). In any case, sources disagree, some claiming that he and Huo never actually fought because O'Brien fled before the challenge.
    • The notion Huo being poisoned by the Japanese was actually claimed by some of his students in real life, especially given that one of his doctors was Japanese and worked for a judo association the Ching Woo school had clashed against. However, there is no evidence that something so farfetched actually happened, and it's rather accepted that he died of complications of the tuberculosis and jaundice that plagued him for much of his life. Huo's corpse was exhumated in 1989 and did reveal marks of arsenic poisoning, but arsenic was a popular fixture of Chinese medicine and supports more the theory of Huo dying as a consequence of putting his trust on traditional medicine of dubious scientific value.
  • Artistic License – Martial Arts: Jet Li's fighting style on screen does not resemble very much mizongyi, the school of kung fu used by the real life Yuanjia. Instead, it resembles more Li's natural wushu (which Yuanjia also practised, anyway).
  • The Atoner: After Huo spends some time in the village and learns compassion and mercy, he returns to his home to atone for his past by apologizing to Qins family and his friend who’s now business man.
  • Audible Sharpness: When Huo fights Master Qin, their swords are very, very sharp, and therefore incredibly audible, even when they aren't moving...
  • Awesome by Analysis: In space of a second, Tanaka realizes both that Huo was throwing a type of punch which could end his life and that he stopped it out of his new morals.
  • Battle in the Rain: Parodied in one of Huo's fights, where he takes on an opponent in the middle of heavy downpour holding an umbrella in one hand and kicking ass with another. Huo didn't even need to move and wins the fight!
  • Beat Them at Their Own Game: The last series of fight are this: he fights the boxer with his bare hands, the pikeman with a spear, and the fencer with a jian. Subverted during his first bout with Tanaka, though, where he countered the latter's katana with a completely unrelated weapon, the 3 sectioned staff.
  • Blinded by Rage: After the Belgian lancer comes off the worse in his first few clashes with Huo's spear, he angrily decides to snap his lance and shorten it to allow him to stab faster. However, his now-shortened reach proves to be the reason he loses the fight.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Huo dies, but on his own terms, and while bringing self confidence back to China's martial arts.
  • Black Blood: Huo, due to the poison.
  • Blood from the Mouth: You know Huo has dealt his rival a killing blow when the latter spits blood. Likewise, he starts coughing blood when the poison kicks in.
  • Boxing Battler: The British fighter in the tournament against Huo.
  • Break the Haughty: Strikes Huo brutally.
  • The Bully: Zhao Jian, the son of a local expert fighter, delights in beating up the neighbourhood kids and especially picks on the young Yuanjia, after his father had beaten Yuanjia's in a duel. He's probably the closest the movie has to a Hate Sink, as one of the most obnoxious named characters in the film - it makes Yuanjia beating Zhao into a pulp in a fair fight during their adult years, avenging his father's defeat, even more satisfying to watch.
  • Call-Back: Huo's spinning forward punch, his killing technique. We first see him use it on Master Qin, killing him. He later uses it in his final match against Tanaka, though instead of going through with it, he pulls it at the last second, illustrating how far he's come from what he once was.
  • Call to Agriculture: After the murder of his mother and daughter, Huo goes to a small village. He lives among the farmers and he takes part in the farm work (but he sucks at it).
  • Casualty in the Ring: Huo dies of poisoning in the final bout.
  • Clothing Damage: Tiger claw moves seem to damage everything but the skin.
  • Completely Different Title: The original title is simply the hero's name.
  • Composite Character: Anno Tanaka, being a karate man with some judo moves, is a mixture of the Japanese opponents Huo is said to have fought through his life. According to sources, he faced one of more judoka and later a karate master from the Goju-Ryu school, presumably defeating them (though sadly their names or circumstances have not been registered.)
  • Contemplative Boss: Huo's long-estranged friend strikes the pose when turning down a request to lend him money. On a later encounter, their reconciliation is illustrated by his turning from the window to face him as Huo enters the room.
  • Cool Sword: Master Qin's. At one point, Huo's sword gets caught in its rings. Master Qin releases his grip, causing his sword to flip through the air as if launched from a spring, and then catches it after it slashes Huo.
  • Crazy Homeless People: There's one who constantly asks Huo when he will become the champion of Tianjin. Huo usually treats him kindly, but when the madman's words take later a sinister echo, he gets understandably disturbed.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle:
    • One time Huo fought in the rain, and he beat the challengers (MANY!!!) without moving from his spot while holding an umbrella.
    • His first fight as a child is also this.
  • Curb Stomp Cushion: The three European champions Huo fights before facing Tanaka are shown to be no slouch and they manage to put up a good fight against him, but Huo is shown to be above their league.
  • Cycleof Revenge: One that turns the film tonally upside-down. Huo Yuanjia, intending to restore honor to his pupils, challenged another martial artist, Master Qin, to a duel right on Qin's birthday, leading to Yuanjia beating Qin to death. Qin's godson then pulls a Revenge by Proxy, killing Huo's mother and adopted daughter, before commmiting suicide. Thus leading to Yuanjia losing everything in a single night and ultimately choosing to throw himself off a cliff...
  • Death Glare: The look on Tanaka's face is terrifying after the corrupt Japanese businessman declares he "is not Japanese" for conceding the fight.
  • Death of a Child: Huo Yuanjia's adopted daughter, who gets killed alongside his mom by Qin's vengeful godson. Though it's a Censored Child Death where audiences sees only the aftermath.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Double Subverted. The U.S. wrestler is at first furious when Huo defeats him, but after Huo saves his life comes to respect him.
  • Disabled Love Interest: Moon, Huo's love interest is blind.
  • Doomed Moral Victor:
    • Master Qin's relative who had killed Huo's mother and daughter. He waits by Master Qin's funeral pyre, thanks his godmother for taking care of the surviving relatives, then waits for an angry Huo to show up before committing suicide. Denying Huo his Roaring Rampage of Revenge drives him into a Heroic BSoD.
    • Huo continues his fight against Tanaka despite being poisoned. He fought for the pride of China.
  • Dramatic Thunder: During Huo's Duel to the Death with Qin.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: In the director's cut, Huo beats up and scolds some of his students for not training hard enough, and demonstrates the results of his training when he punches a wooden pole in two.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • Master Qin's godson, after killing Yuanjia's mother and adopted daughter, offs himself with a self-inflicted Slashed Throat.
    • After his family's death, Huo roams the countryside and nearly dies from drowning after letting himself fall from a boat.
  • Dual Wielding: Huo does this in the last moments of his armed bout with Tanaka; after Tanaka uses his katana to cut the chains of Huo's three-sectioned-staff, Huo wields two sections of it as dual staves until the end of the fight.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father: Huo's father is a martial artist, but he does not want his son to learn wushu. He wants him to study.
  • Foreign Wrestling Heel: O'Brien is the most prominent example. Before the fight, he mocks the "sick men of Asia" and claims he can demolish the Great Wall with one finger. However, he has a change of heart when Huo saves his life. The other Western fighters Huo faces also count.
  • Forgotten Framing Device: In the extended version, at least. While the theatrical cut is set entirely in the Qing Dynasty, the extended version actually begins in modern times where a wushu spokeswoman (Michelle Yeoh, as The Cameo) narrates the backstory of the founder, Huo Yuanjia, with the movie flashing back to the past. But at the end of the film, after Yuanjia's death, the movie just ends without going back to the present.
  • A Friend in Need: Huo's Childhood Friend Nong Jinsun, though more of a Sour Supporter at first, copies the Huo family's wushu manual to help his friend learn martial arts, covers for some of Huo's debts, prevents the foreclosure of Yuanjia's old home, and after some convincing, gives Huo the money he needs to travel to Hong Kong and challenge O'Brien. After they properly reconcile, Jinsun sells his successful restaurant to provide start-up funds for his friend's Jingwu Assocation.
  • Friendly Enemy: Tanaka is on very good terms with Yuanjia.
  • Go-Karting with Bowser: Tanaka visits Yuanjia before the match, and they have tea and enjoy a friendly conversation about martial arts (and tea).
  • Go Out with a Smile: Huo himself at the end.
  • Graceful Loser: There are an unusual high number of those for a martial arts film.
    • Huo Endi, Yuanjia's father. In his fight with another martial artist at the beginning of the movie, even though he only lost because his opponent was an honourless bastard, he bowed and accepted his defeat without complaint.
    • O'Brien starts off as a Sore Loser but becomes this after Huo saves him from falling on some spikes.
    • The Spanish fencer. Huo takes away his sword and points a jian to his throat. He looks at Huo, nods and smiles, with an obvious "good one" face. Huo smiles back and returns his sword.
    • Tanaka, who declared Huo the victor even though he's dying of poison.
  • Katanas Are Just Better: To a point — Tanaka manages to slice Huo's metal (or at least metal shod) three piece staff out of the air when Huo hurls it directly at his face, leaving a visible slice in its structure, and later in the duel slices easily through two of the chains holding the staff sections together. However, the weapons are otherwise shown to be evenly matched.
  • Heroic BSoD: Yuanjia has a major one after finding his mother and daughter dead in their beds after his fateful match with Master Qin, then a worse one when their murderer commits suicide right in front of Yuanjia, denying him his revenge. It gets so bad that he winds up in a semi-catatonic state, stumbling around until he winds up in Moon's village.
  • How We Got Here: The story begins with the final fight, then goes back to Huo's childhood.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: If it were not for Huo catching him, this would have nearly happened to Hercules.
  • Insistent Terminology: During the fight with his childhood rival.
    Cat's paw?
    Tiger claw!
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Moon, the blind village girl, teaches Huo a lesson about compassion and mercy.
  • I Will Wait for You: Yueci.
  • Midfight Weapon Exchange: During Huo's bout with Tanaka, with the former using a three-sectioned staff and the latter using a katana, both end up swapping weapons mid-fight. Both of them adopt the other's weapon style competently at first, but after Tanaka accidentally whacks himself in the head with the flexible staff, Huo pauses the fight for them to swap weapons back.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: In the beginning, Huo is a child who wants to learn wushu. He sees his father's defeat, then he is defeated by another boy and he swears not to lose fight any more.
  • Motivational Lie: In an inversion of a Tactful Translation, the wrestler's Chinese manager tells the wrestler that Huo's polite speech that condemns death matches was a Badass Boast by Huo saying that he was going to beat the wrestler up. The wrestler is fired up after hearing that.
    He wants to kick your butt!
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The trailer gives you a pretty good idea of the plot of the last half-hour of the movie, giving the impression that it's a much more action-oriented film.
  • No-Sell: A couple of Huo's kicks and moves cause him to stumble against the U.S. wrestler.
  • Oh, Crap!: O'Brien has two when his body slam gets countered perfectly and when Huo rescues him from impaling his head.
  • Old Retainer: Huo's personal servant.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Yuanjia comes home after finding out that Master Qin died of his injuries to discover his daughter, dead in her bed.
  • Poor Communication Kills: SO much. Had Yuanjia's disciple or ANY of his compatriots simply told him that Master Qin beat the disciple up because he insulted his concubine, then Yuanjia's mother, Yuanjia's daughter, Master Qin, and Master Qin's godson might still be alive.
  • Pride Before a Fall: Huo Yuanjia during the film's first Story Arc becomes more cocky and brutal against his opponents after he beat his childhood bully (twice in the director's cut) which culminates in his No-Holds-Barred Beatdown and killing of Master Qin.
  • Pro Wrestling Is Real: Possibly with Hercules O'Brien. He fights with what appear to be "show" wrestling moves instead of the catch-as-catch can grappling system used historically by "real" wrestlers of the time.
  • Sore Loser: The Belgian lancer barely restrains from attacking Huo with his bare hands after being humiliated and defeated.
  • Sword Sparks: During the duel with Qin.
  • 10-Minute Retirement: Huo's time in the village. Actually, he's there for a few years, but that's the idea.
  • The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: Tanaka towards Yuanjia. He is so infuriated by Yuanjia being poisoned during their fight that he concedes defeat.
  • Unskilled, but Strong: Hercules O'Brien is this compared to Yuanjia. Unlike many examples of this trope, he is actually good at utilizing his massive strength to cover up his weaknesses. Behind Tanaka and Master Qin, he gave Yuanjia the most trouble out of his opponents.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Huo's father. While his refusal to permit Huo to learn Kung Fu was out of concern for Huo's asthma, it only strengthened Huo's defiant streak. If he had been more open with his son and teaching him the importance of control and mercy, a lot of suffering in the future could have been avoided.
  • Use Your Head: Hilariously fails.
  • Wire Fu: There is some, though not nearly as much as in Wuxia films.
  • What the Fu Are You Doing?: When Tanaka, the Japanese fighter, swipes Huo's three-section staff during their fight and loses his katana to Huo in the process, both men are forced to use the other's weapon for awhile. Huo swings the katana one-handed with many circular movements like how he would wield a Chinese Dao sword, while Tanaka wields the three-section staff as it is done with the same weapon in traditional Okinawan kobudo. However, Tanaka turns out less competent at the task, and after whacking himself in the head while trying a fancy around-the-back spin move, Huo graciously returns the sword, and Tanaka does likewise with Huo's staff.
  • World of Ham: Everything is dramatic. Westerners are especially shouty and not less sinister. One of them strongly resembles a Dastardly Whiplash, and the corrupt Japanese businessman is basically reprising the same actor's role as Omura in The Last Samurai.
  • Worthy Opponent:
    • O'Brien warmly greets Huo after their bout, in which Huo saved him from hurting his head in the ring's outer spikes.
    • Tanaka epitomises this trope - offering Huo a chance to fight the next day to make the contest fairer (after fighting three other opponents before him), immediately halting his attacks and attempting to stop the contest when Huo is taken ill and conceding the match, and leading the cheering for Huo's victory when he realises Huo could have easily killed him with the final blow.
  • Wrestler in All of Us: Hercules O'Brien uses a diving splash at a point.
  • You Can Barely Stand: Huo decides to carry on with the fight even though he's dying from poisoning.