Tag Archives: B+

FEARLESS (HUO YUANGIA)

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B+

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.

BALLETS RUSSES

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B+

Even viewers for whom ballet remains a form of artistic expression they can do without will find this documentary by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller not only consistently engrossing but genuinely engaging, if technically conventional. It tells the tale of the dance company that sprang up at Monte Carlo in 1932 as a successor to the famous Ballets Russes that impresario Serge Diaghilev had established in Paris in 1909 and overseen until his death in 1929, and that split up into two competing corps, one of which disbanded in 1947 and the other in 1962. Made in conjunction with a reunion of performers from the companies–men and women in their seventies, eighties and even nineties–who reminiscence about their careers, and featuring an amazing variety and volume of historical footage, still photos and newspaper accounts, the film lovingly captures both the brilliance and the turmoil of more than three decades of dance and the literally indomitable spirit of those directly involved in it.

The story is fascinating not only because of the level of accomplishment under often difficult circumstances (World War II and the unfamiliarity of ballet among some audiences–particularly in the American hinterlands–where the troupes toured during it) and the range of places involved (including Australia and Latin America as well as Europe), but also by reason of the professional rivalry the story reveals. The Monte Carlo Ballet Russes came into being as the joint project of Wassily de Basil and Rene Blum, who hired many of the emigres and other artists Diaghilev had employed to such stunning effect, but new talents as well. (Some of the most entrancing moments involve the trio of so-called “baby ballerinas” that captivated audiences with both their youth and their dexterity.) But by the late 1930s it had split into two separate troupes, each boasting an amazing choreographer–George Balanchine on the one hand and Leonide Massine on the other–and during the 1940s, the troupes both had to improvise in order to stay afloat, whistle-stop touring, vaudeville style, in the U.S., in some cases taking gigs in Hollywood, and traveling to such unlikely locales as Sydney and Buenos Aires. Questions of race also enter into the picture when one troupe touring in the American south features an African-American dancer; and Native American ballerinas are also profiled. The reaction of the Russians to the work of American composers and choreographers like Agnes De Mille is also touched upon.

In fact, it’s amazing how many points–not merely artistic and professional but also personal, historical and sociological–are covered, if only in a glancing fashion, in the course of the picture. That’s a testimony to the makers’ indefatigable tracking down of obscure footage, stills and interviews, and also to the spryness and still-vivid personalities of the elderly survivors of the troupes, who are remarkably candid and articulate in their recollections. Special praise has to be given to the editing of Geller, Goldfine and Gary Weimberg, who knead all the material together with wonderful crispness and impact.

“Ballets Russes” begins by emphasizing the transitory character of dance which, like theatrical performances, exists but for a brief instant, surviving only in the memory of those who have personally witnessed it. Thanks to Goldfine and Geller, however, we’re all privileged to experience, if only at second remove and through an imperfect means, the glories that these artists created over three and a half decades long ago. Bravo!