Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Jet Li's Fearless

Ever since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won four Oscars in 2000, a whole new line of movies opened up for me: arty martial arts films my wife will actually watch with me. Since then we've seen House of Flying Daggers, Hero, and now Fearless. (Unfortunately, we have to call it "Jet Li's Fearless," lest it be confused with Jeff Bridges' 1993 film Fearless, which is also a good film with spiritual epiphanies, but with vastly fewer cool fights.)

What makes these films an entirely new genre? We can probably thank Ziyi Zhang for giving us beautiful heroines that can sustain romantic themes worthy of any chick-flick without slowing down the action. We can also credit Ang Lee for making art-house beautiful films (in Chinese with English subtext, no less) that take advantage of the ubiquitous bullet-time slow-motion to add a Zen-like clarity and visual depth. Not to mention complex plots that scramble time sequence and perspective in ways that Pulp Fiction and Memento pioneered. Oh, yeah, and genuinely spiritual themes, as opposed to the pseudo-spirituality served up by Kung Fu and its many successors. We've come a loooong way from Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris slug-fests.

Fearless is actually based on the true story of Huo Yuan Jia (1869-1910), the founder of the Jin Wu Sports Federation. Rather than lingering on the gravity-defying acrobatics of the new genre, this film works hard at historical accuracy in hair and dress, and the shows the gradual invasion of Western dress and culture in China at the turn of the century. The title comes from a quote from Lao Tzu, used as the film's tagline: "Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself makes you fearless." That may sound trite and hackneyed after Kung Fu got through with it, but that is, in fact, the theme of the film. Huo Yuan Jia is transformed from a foolish, ambitious, and angry young man into a master of genuine depth, and it really is about him mastering himself. There is no attempt to try to correlate spiritual understanding with fighting prowess, a la The Karate Kid. Just the opposite: as Huo Yahn Jia matures, he learns when not to fight, when to pull back, when to let go of revenge and hate. And if Taoist philosophy is not your bag, be comforted that the film loads up Huo with Christ imagery, including symbolic burial, resurrection, baptism, scourging, and heroic martyrdom.

The plot of the film is not complicated, and at times a little slow. Aside from its big arc and spiritual themes, it has its surprising moments. One scene that stuck with me is when, after his fall from grace, Huo is working in a rice paddy, and he is surprised to see all his fellow workers straighten up at one moment and stand perfectly still. A slight breeze has come up, and all the workers take that moment to allow themselves to be cooled. At first Huo is baffled, and he keeps on working at a frantic pace. Eventually, he too learns to stand still when the moment calls for stillness. Any American movie would feel compelled to comment on that scene; but here is is quietly offered up, as it is. It's those moments of stillness, between the action, that make the film interesting, and give more than just lip-service to notions of respect, understanding, and restraint.



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