Inspired by real-life folk hero Huo Yuanjia, Fearless takes place in China during the early part of the 20th century. The son of a great wushu master, Yuanjia dreams of someday being a great fighter himself, despite the wishes of his father that the boy grow up to be a scholar. Having grown to adulthood, Yuanjia (Li) has forsaken his father to become a legendary champion fighter. But when a string of tragic incidents shatters Yuanjia's life, he goes into exile in the country for many years, only to return to the city to find Western exploitation rampant in China. As a means to break the spirit of the Chinese, businessmen from America, Europe and Japan stage fight tournaments where Chinese martial artists are routinely defeated. But when Yuanjia decides to defend the honor of his countrymen, easily defeating an American fighter, he quickly becomes the people's hero.
"This story has been in my head many years already," said Li during a recent interview. "But the motivation to make this movie came in 2003 when I heard terrible news in China. In that year, a quarter million people committed suicide. I wanted to make a movie telling a story of life."
Although it looks very much like the countless martial-arts films that have come before it, Fearless, which is based at least as much on Li's personal journey as on Huo Yuanjia's, is a deeply spiritual and emotional film that defies many of the genre conventions. It is a rallying cry, not just for a sense of national pride, but also, despite the violence, for a reaffirmation of life.
"This story is perfect to see—through the life journey—what changes you. Why you learn martial arts. How to use them. Who the enemy is. I believe it is yourself," says Li. "The enemy is yourself."
For Jet Li, Fearless is a culmination of a lifetime spent in martial arts and film. He has publicly said that this will be his last film of this nature, his final statement on what everything he has learned and experienced has meant to him. "I put my personal belief, philosophy and experiences into the whole story," says Li. "That's why I say this is my last wushu movie, because everything I want to say is already in this film."
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