Monday, June 29, 2009

Movie Review: Fearless

Most of the people in our family, and I imagine most people in general, have one or two genres of mindless entertainment that they prefer.  It is good to just relax and enjoy something.  My mom reads murder mysteries and watches nature videos.  My dad watches sports and reads books about baseball history.  My top two are Japanese RPG's and martial arts movies.  For example, I thoroughly enjoyed 'The Forbidden Kingdom'.  It is everything I want in a chopsocky flick.

Fearless, by contrast, was not as enjoyable.  This was mainly because the whole thing was a propaganda piece.  The film spent way too much time and effort ramming the message of 'China is great and everyone else is corrupt' down the audience's throat.  This isn't the first time I noticed this.  'Hero' had the same problem, but in a less extreme form.

Note that I watched the directors cut.  A quick browsing of the WIkipedia entry for the film shows that several of the things I am complaining about are unique to that version.  The moral is that the editors often produce a better movie than the director.

Now, the martial arts and choreography were absolutely top-notch.  The wushu moves were all well-done, and there were only a few acrobatics that strained credulity.  There were a lot of little details that were handled well, such as the ineptness of students training to show that a teacher was not really any good.  If I was willing to ignore the rest, it would have been okay.

But I couldn't.  The film actually started out with a woman giving a speech on why wushu should be an Olympic sport.  This was pointless, and ruined the feel of the movie while making it obvious that there was a Message.  The Westerners and Japanese businessmen are all portrayed as one-dimensional caricatures of evil.  The film was loosely based on a real person, but much of it was pure fiction.  That blend of history and fiction, not making it clear what is what, is always questionable, and it was used here for obviously political purposes.

For example, in history there was a Russian boxer who insulted the Chinese and who backed down when confronted by the main character.  In the film, this was changed to an American boxer, who loses a fight.  The main series of fights in the movie was completely fabricated, and quite ridiculous.  The main character wins a sword fight with a champion 'fencing master' from Europe.  The European's sword work was a joke.  I could have done better. ( Oriental martial arts may be great for bare-handed work and improvised weapons, but European-style rapier fighting is the best weapon-based martial art. )

The scenes in the peasant village, in particular, were fairly annoying.  I have never seen such a ridiculous romanticization of peasant life.  A Chinese peasant village circa 1900 was portrayed as a magical wonderland where everyone is well-groomed with clean, attractive costumes and the kids spend most of the time playing.  By contrast, the old Kurosawa samurai films accurately depict the misery and brutality of peasant life.

One of the things I like about Japanese films is that they are never nationalistic.  They never try to make Japan look good, or other nations look bad, or build up a national myth, or score points on some debate.  If anything, the historical Japanese military serves mainly as inspiration for the villains.  Japanese movies and art are clearly the work of a free people expressing themselves and selling entertainment.  Sometimes I almost wish that they were a bit more patriotic, at least enough to match the level found in the average Hollywood action movie.  Even in 'Grave of the Fireflies', a film about the horrors that Japanes civilians faced during and after World War 2, there is no hint of anger at the USA.  The message was simply 'war is hell' and most of the problems are depicted as coming from uncaring fellow Japanese.  ( Maybe they do make such things but are too smart to export them.  But I've seen a lot of fan-subtitled anime that was never meant for export, and still have seen nothing that hints at jingoism or historical grievance. )

But Chinese films are tainted by the shadow of the censor.  The influence of totalitarian politics is lurking behind the production process, shaping the result in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  And If the filmmakers did all of this on their own free will, it iwould be because their thought process has been shaped by the nationalistic propaganda that the commies keep turning out. 

It is kind of sad, really.  It hints at an inferiority complex.  Mature civilizations, ones comfortable with their place in the world, are willing to admit their mistakes and look honestly at their history.  And that maturity can only come from an open, democratic, pluralistic society.


e said...

yeah, when I saw that village, hens clucking, grass gently wafting, ladies all in nice clean blue ethnic gear, I had to go 'damn that's some idyllic vision.'

Also, if that was really meant to be an ethnic chinese village, there's no guarantee they would have actually spoken the same Chinese variant the main character from Tian Jin would have. Pushing the usual same old "nostalgia for the simple life" schtick.

Perhaps the Japanese find alternate ways to express the majority of their national identity.... like say, baseball. I can't quite buy that the films are never nationalistic... I'm sure it plays its part in film, even if it's on the level of keeping face by keeping movies 'clean' of all that. Have you seen any Japanese movies about say, the Rape of Nanking? I'd be curious what they say about themselves then.

Richard Bruns said...

'Grave of the Fireflies' is the only Japanese movie I've seen or heard about that deals with WW2 at all. Japan has never apologized, admitted responsibility for, or even recognized any of the atrocities its soldiers committed.

But then again, they have never complained about or asked for an apology for us dropping two nuclear weapons on civilian population centers and firebombing dozens of others. They seem to be trying to forget that anything took place. There are problems with that attitude, but it is better than publicly nursing grudges.