Now that Hollywood has almost ruined the conceptual approach of Hong Kong’s evolution of stylized martial arts fight choreography, there’s one film left this year that’s a welcome sight for fight-film fans. After a four-year absence from the kind of movies that made Jet Li famous, he’s come out of retirement for one more curtain call that’s sure to bring the proverbial house down. In Fearless (Chinese title: Huo Yuan Jia), he’ll portray real-life martial arts hero and founder of the Chin Woo Physical Training School, Huo Yuan Jia. It’s not the first time he’s played a true-to-life Chinese martial arts legend, but apparently it’ll be his last.
In February 2006, Jet Li said: “I stepped into the martial arts movie market when I was only 16. I think I have proved my ability in this field, and it won’t make sense for me to continue for another five or 10 years. Huo Yuan Jia is a conclusion to my life as a martial arts star.”
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However, it was soon learned that Jet Li had started working on Rogue, an action flick co-starring Jason Statham. Jet Li then recanted his statement: “I am no longer making wushu films because what I wanted to say about them has been said. I will continue to do action and kung fu films. Action, kung fu and wushu films are three different concepts.”
Jet Li’s other renditions of real-life heroes began with his first movie, when he played one of the heroic Shaolin monks that rescued emperor-to-be Li Shimin from his father’s enemies in The Shaolin Temple (1982). In 1991 Tsui Hark cast Jet Li as one of China’s all-time favorite cinematic and true-life heroes, Huang Fei-hong (Cantonese: Wong Fei-hung), in Once Upon a Time in China. Although the franchise enjoyed a run of five sequels, Jet Li starred in part two (1992), part three (1993) and the final installment, Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997). In Kung Fu Cult Master (1993), Jet Li was the top student of the founder of tai chi and the wudang school of martial arts, former Shaolin monk Zhang San-feng.
Jet Li magnificently portrayed Zhang San-feng again in The Tai Chi Master (1993), directed by Yuen Woo-ping. He continued his portrayal of true-life heroic characters with two of China’s most fabled Shaolin heroes, member of the 10 Tigers of Shaolin, Fang Shi-yu (Fong Sai Yuk I and II, both in 1993), and Hong Xi-guan (The New Legend of Shaolin, 1994), all of which were directed by Corey Yuen.
“Because of their stories, these men are real and famous in our history,” Jet Li said. “Yet nobody knows their real life and in many cases what they look like. Like Huang Fei-hong—there are over 100 movies about him, and each film tells [that] he’s a master, [that he] has a good heart and he’s not just about beating or killing people. But I have my own vision about making films about some of the 10 Tigers of Shaolin.
“So we try to create them and end up putting our philosophy into them the way that we think. This way, we can get to know them so we can make the character seem real and work. My films about the old heroes of China represent that younger generation of Chinese. I don’t think my characters actually did that in real life. We create them, and by doing that we can learn something through them.”
Which brings us back to the real Huo Yuan Jia. Born in 1868 in Tianjin, China, he was forbidden to learn kung fu from his father because he had jaundice. His father feared that the boy’s illness would make him a weak fighter and bring dishonor to the family’s school. However, refusing to heed his father’s wishes, Huo dug a hole into the training area and for 10 years watched how his dad trained his students.
In 1890, when a stranger defeated his kung fu brother, Huo showed his abilities by subsequently beating the stranger. It was Huo that brought mi zong chuen (“lost trail” fist, a Shaolin style of kung fu based on deception) into prominence. This part of Huo’s history was brought to life in Yuen’s Legend of a Fighter (1982), which starred Liang Chia-ren, a non-martial artist who gave an outstanding performance. The movie also reflected Huo’s true martial spirit.
Back to history: While Huo was working as a bodyguard with his father and escorting a group of religious men, a bandit with an army of 1,600 threatened to attack them. Huo took on the gang leader and broke his arms, causing the outlaws to disperse. His reputation grew further when he answered the challenge of a Russian wrestler who claimed he was unbeatable in China. However, according to the records of the Chin Woo School in Hong Kong, when Huo showed up at the designated place in Xi Yuan Park, the Russian was taken aback by Huo’s unyielding spirit and backed out of the brawl.
A similar scenario took place in 1909, when Huo answered the challenge of a British boxer who continually issued derogatory statements about the Chinese. The anticlimax occurred when the boxer failed to show up at the prescribed meeting place.
Based on the disappointment that stemmed from a fellow Chinese martial artist who had never learned the meaning of humility, Huo established the Chin Woo Physical Training School in 1909. His credo was that martial artists should try to do their best and diligently train their minds and bodies in an effort to perfect their spirituality.
By late 1909, because Huo was losing his bout with jaundice, he sought help from a Japanese doctor—the only local medicine man familiar with the disease. Through the doctor, word of Huo’s fighting prowess spread to local Japanese martial arts schools, which inevitably lead to a confrontation between Huo and Japan’s top judo teacher in Shanghai. Because of Huo’s ailing health, his senior student Liu Zheng-sheng took the challenge and won.
In shame, 10 Japanese students charged Huo. Even in his poor health, Huo defeated the upstarts, including the teacher, by breaking their hands. It’s believed that perhaps in a fit of revenge, either by choice or under orders, the Japanese doctor poisoned Huo while administering medication. However, the exact circumstances were never determined.
It wasn’t until Bruce Lee played Huo’s student, Liu Zheng-sheng, in Chinese Connection (1972) that many Chinese nationals and Westerners finally caught wind of what Huo stood for in the martial arts world. The movie focused on the “sick men of Asia” theme and that it was a Japanese cook at their kung fu school who poisoned Huo. Jet Li’s Fist of Legend (1994), directed by Yuen Woo-ping, was a remake of Bruce Lee’s film, in which Jet Li played Liu with a tad more spiritual content and appreciation for the brotherhood of all martial artists.
In Fearless, Huo dreams of continuing the legacy his father established as a world-class fighter in China. After reaching his goal, a personal tragedy causes him to disappear for several years—until September 14, 1910. On that day, Huo resurfaces to defend the honor of China at an international fighting tournament. It happens at a time when Chinese morale is plummeting. From the one-on-one battles, the country’s pride soars, and Huo becomes a symbol for Chinese nationalism. In fact, he’s regarded with reverence.
So just how real is the story?
Apparently, not real enough. The great-grandson of Huo, 81-year-old Huo Shou-jin, filed a lawsuit on March 7, 2006, claiming that the movie dishonors Huo Yuan Jia by fabricating information about his life and portraying him as a wealthy man who killed many innocent people.
Huo Shou-jin was quoted in China Daily News as saying: “There have been a lot of films and TV [shows] about my great-grandfather. My family can understand and accept the fiction part in these works for the sake of art, but that is under the premise that these works respect the true spirit of my great-grandfather and are at least 70-percent true. But some plots in this movie are too inconsistent with the facts.”
Huo Shou-jin learned about the movie from a newspaper that reported on Jet Li’s plans for the film and was disappointed when no production personnel asked for his family’s input. The family’s lawyer stated that because the film depicted Huo’s family being murdered, it would make people suspicious of Huo Shou-jin and his clan’s claim to be Huo Yuan Jia’s direct descendants.
“I couldn’t believe they would make up stories like that,” Huo Shou-jin said. “According to their story, Huo’s sons were all killed and left no offspring. Actually, he has seven grandsons and 11 great-grandsons, including me. We’re a big family.”
Huo Shou-jin wanted an apology from Jet Li and the producer and asked the studio to clear up the mistakes.
“This movie is less a story about Huo Yuan Jia the man than it is an expression of his spiritual path,” Jet Li contended. “Much of the movie’s plot is fiction, although the setting and time periods are based on fact. Our aim was to tell a convincing story in which Huo is portrayed as a human and not a god.”
Ten years in the making, the film started production in 2003—around the same time Jet Li discovered that 280,000 people in China commit suicide every year. Jet Li said he hopes the movie encourages those who’ve lost faith in life to be strong again. “Huo’s attitudes toward life, the world and the martial arts depicted in the movie are similar to mine,” Jet Li said. “He died at age 42; I made the film at 42. I’ve tried to reflect the philosophies of people my age in the movie, and the main message I hope to convey is, Live your life positively.”
Directed by Ronny Yu (The Bride With White Hair, Warriors of Virtue, Freddy vs. Jason), the motion picture was shot in Shanghai. To maintain an action-packed pace, it was cut from its original 143 minutes to just 103 minutes, which involved omitting scenes involving Somluck Kamsing, a Thai fighter and former Olympic featherweight boxing champ, as well as all the scenes with Michelle Yeoh.
“In Fearless, the audience will recognize that Jet is the person who brought the martial arts to the contemporary world,” Yu said. “Jet is, therefore, in a sense a modern-day Huo Yuan Jia.”
When the producer showed Ronny Yu the script, at first Ronny Yu couldn’t see any reason for making the film. He admitted that there would have been great fight scenes and that Huo was an interesting historical character, but at the end of the day, it had all been done before. “The story needed something that spoke to the contemporary audience,” Ronny Yu said. “It needed soul.”
After Jet Li told Ronny Yu how he was troubled by the number of suicides in China and that it was his contention that the nation’s youth had lost belief in themselves, Yu had a change in attitude.
“I was deeply affected by what Li said,” Ronny Yu admitted. “All of a sudden, I began to see the potential in Huo’s story. Huo was a patriotic figurehead in Chinese history because he united all the schools of martial arts under one roof and introduced China to the virtue of sportsmanship. He gave hope to his people at a time when China’s national morale was at an all-time low. I also thought that with the Beijing Olympics coming up, it was a good time to examine the concept of sportsmanship. So I was adamant that our film should speak to everybody and that the story should be about Huo Yuan Jia the man, an ordinary fighter whose pride and arrogance nearly destroy him. Yet he finds redemption when he learns that marital arts is a spiritual challenge and not a physical one.
“Plus, since martial arts is a discipline that promotes peace and not violence, it sits at the very heart of our story.”
(Dr. Craig D. Reid is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and fight choreographer with more than 20 years in the business. For more martial arts movie wisdom, check out his book, The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors).