Tag Archives: B+

49 UP

This is the seventh installment in what’s surely one of the most remarkable film projects of our–indeed, any–time, Michael Apted’s continuing series of documentaries that record the changes in the lives and attitudes of a cross-section of English children over the years. It began with a 1964 television program that introduced the fourteen subjects at age seven, since which time Apted and his crew have returned every seven years to interview them (or at least those who haven’t opted out of the series along the way) anew. The result is an incredible portrait of individuals growing and changing over time, a reality show that transcends that now-hackneyed phrase to become an utterly unique work of “popular history”–and of art.

“49 Up” finds its subjects deep into middle age, some still single, some divorced, others married for the first or second time, and most all relatively comfortable. There are moments of exasperation with the filmmaker (a couple of the subjects complain about being intruded on every seven years, or being misrepresented, or having to put up with the notoriety the program has brought them). But for the most part they’ve turned into a more contemplative, satisfied lot than they’ve been in some previous episodes, though there are more than a few hints of regret and uncertainty about the future. As usual, the picture almost builds to its visit with Neil, who’s certainly had the most painful, troubled itinerary of the subjects; one always worries that Apted might have found him again in a depressed and tortured state, as he’s sometimes been in the past. This review won’t reveal his current circumstances, nor those of any of the other subjects, because this is one instance in which spoilers are especially odious; it’s rediscovering these old acquaintances after seven years and learning how they’ve changed that provide such great pleasure on first viewing. Repeated viewings, however, deepen the emotional impact.

“49 Up” stands on its own as a fascinating film, but its effect is unquestionably enhanced by viewing it in the context of the entire series, watched chronologically. Happily all the programs are available on DVD. So if the project is new to you, get started. And if you’re already addicted, you’ll know that this installment, like all its predecessors, is self-recommending.

FEARLESS (HUO YUANGIA)

A kung-fu tear-jerker may seem an odd combination, but “Fearless,” advertised as the last martial arts movie that Jet Li intends to make, also manages to be a paean to Chinese nationalism (and traditional eastern virtues generally) and a wushu version of the “Rocky” formula. Almost childishly naive but beautifully crafted and both viscerally exciting and oddly touching, the picture will prove–if the star holds to his decision–a fitting capstone to his action-hero career.

Ably directed by veteran Ronny Yu, the picture is a highly romanticized biography of Huo Yuanjia, the founder of a Chinese sports club in the early twentieth century, portrayed here as a young, arrogant wushu champion who learns the true meaning of martial arts discipline in time to redeem himself as an exponent of his people’s cultural traditions in an age of increasing western dominance. Through the story, Li is able to teach the real meaning of wushu to audiences that might share the character’s initially erroneous idea of the skill as a means of self-glorification and aggression. It also gives him an opportunity to demonstrate that, even in his forties, he can still move with the best of them.

“Fearless” begins with the older Huo dispatching a trio of western opponents in a tournament in Shanghai in 1910. As he readies himself for the final bout against the imposing Japanese champion, the film flashes back to his youth in northern Tianjin, showing his father losing a public bout and the boy, furious, taking on a preening youngster from the victor’s supporters. Despite his father’s opposition, Huo trains in the martial arts and becomes a local celebrity, eventually challenging a rival master in a brutal battle over a perceived slight. His victory, however, turns to ashes when he finds that he was misled about the insult and his mother and daughter lose their lives as a result of his actions.

To this point “Fearless” has had plenty of action, some of it quite spectacular (and accomplished naturally, without a lot of special effects trickery); now it becomes far quieter and meditative as the broken Huo finds himself in a distant rural area, where he’s effectively adopted by a blind peasant girl (Betty Sun) and her grandmother and learns, while working in the fields, the virtues of humility, self-control and fidelity to the ancient ways. Returning to his home, he’s shocked to see the Chinese kowtowing to westerners, and seeks help from his oldest friend, restaurateur Nong Jinsun (Dong Yong) to establish the Shanghai sports club as a place to teach the true wushu ways. His success against a U.S. strongman (Nathan Jones) leads the foreigners to set up the four-against-one tournament to destroy his popularity. At this point the film reverts to the opening, with the final match against the Japanese champion (Shidou Nakamura), who proves a man of honor himself when his sponsors seek to win by underhanded means.

Li isn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he gets by in the early segments playing loud and extravagant, effectively shifting in the second half to a more reserved, calm demeanor; and throughout he exhibits his customary dexterity in the martial arts. He gets able support, especially from Yong as the friend unafraid to point out his failings and Sun as the girl who effectively becomes his savior. He’s also fortunate in the work of Yuen Woo-ping, who staged the plentiful fight scenes with aplomb, and the behind-the-camera crew: Poon Hang-seng’s cinematography is lovely throughout, and both Kenneth Mak’s art direction and Thomas Chung’s costumes are exceptional. And editors Virginia Katz and Richard Learoyd smoothly integrate the quieter expository material and the explosive combat sequences.

Fans of the wushu genre may be disappointed that Li has chosen to close his string of movies in the genre with a picture that, while providing him ample opportunity to exhibit his prowess, is less a spectacular exhibition of his skill than a ruminative lesson about the authentic spirit of kung-fu and the philosophy of life that undergirds it. But the mixture of rousing action and quiet stateliness, of combat and reflection, in “Fearless” proves a surprisingly rich and satisfying love letter by Li to the martial arts and the values they represent to him.