PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 January, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 January, 2006, 12:00am

Starring: Jet Li Lianjie, Betty Sun Li, Shidou Nakamura

Director: Ronny Yu Yan-tai

Category: IIB

An action film whose nationalistic spirit veers dangerously close to jingoism, this biography of martial artist Huo Yuanjia (1868-1910) is light on its feet, but heavy-handed in its patriotism. Jet Li, himself a leading exponent of wushu, is ideally cast as the defender of Chinese honour in the face of foreign belittlement.

Director Ronny Yu has crafted a solid and sober portrait, but the film is so stolid and serious that, despite the abundance of fight sequences (choreographed by Yuen Wo-ping), the proceedings rarely generate a sense of excitement or awe.

Huo's life is familiar territory, having inspired numerous television series and movies, most famously Fist of Fury (1972), in which Bruce Lee played Huo's avenging disciple. Yu employs an epic sweep, beginning and concluding with Huo's extraordinary Shanghai tournament in 1910 against four adversaries from four nations. Sandwiched in between is a series of flashbacks that make up the bulk of the film's 105 minutes. We see the boy's stern upbringing by a father (Collin Chou) who heads a martial arts school; Huo as a young adult whose hubristic pride in his prowess leads to a dramatic downfall; and his years in the wilderness, where he learns humility and the value of wushu in serving his country. There follows a series of physical matches against foreign athletes in Tianjin and Shanghai, where Huo's victories become a source of national pride. It's potent stuff, strongly rooted in the historical realities of a nation weakened and humiliated in the waning years of the Qing Dynasty. The source material is so strong that the film's stereotypical delineation of snarling foreigners and conspiracies lessens the credibility of Huo's struggles and accomplishments. The movie tries to lessen the sting by including a few honorable non-Chinese, most notably Huo's righteous Japanese adversary (Shidou Nakamura), but the effect is simplistic and one-dimensional.

The aversion to evil, alien influence is also apparent in the depiction of the countryside, where Huo lives an idyllic life planting rice and engaging in a chaste love with a blind beauty (Betty Sun Li). All the more ironic given that both the director and star have chosen to live outside the mainland.

In what is purportedly his final action role, Li is both dignified and agile at 42 (the same age, coincidentally, as Huo at the time of the final tournament) and still has enough boyish charm to be convincing in the flashbacks. Perhaps the overuse of CGI is unavoidable in this hi-tech era, but in Fearless it has the negative effect of leading the viewer to wonder where Li's wushu ends and the special effects begin.

Fearless opens today