leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh
Chinese superstar Jet Li's farewell to traditional wushu films is a costume biopic inspired by the exploits of master Huo Yuanjia (1869-1910), who dedicated himself to uniting China's rival schools of wushu (the all-encompassing Mandarin word for various schools of martial arts) and emphasizing the discipline's spiritual component; his efforts helped restore Chinese national pride in the early years of the 20th century, when the country was in the grip of foreign interests and widely derided as weak and enervated. Shanghai, 1910: A huge crowd gathers to watch a brutal series of matches that pit 42-year-old wushu master Huo (Li) against a succession of opponents skilled in different forms of battle. He easily defeats three Westerners, one wielding a sword, another a lance and the third bare fists, but when the fourth and final challenger, Japanese martial artist Anno Tanaka (Nakamura Shidou) steps up, Huo suddenly thinks back on the events that brought him to this moment. Thirty years earlier, as a boy in Tianjin province, Huo secretly studied wushu over the objections of his father (Collin Chou), a renowned teacher and professional bodyguard who believed the discipline was too harsh for his frail, asthmatic child. Huo grew into a formidable fighter, but also became belligerent, willful and arrogant, neglecting his moral and spiritual development in favor of humiliating challengers and accumulating rowdy, worshipful students. Huo's pride precipitated a terrible fall, alienating his lifelong best friend (Dong Yong) and leaving another master (Chen Zhuhui) dead for no good reason, but it was also the catalyst for a spiritual rebirth that coincided with a dark time in his country's history. Directed by Hong Kong-born, Hollywood-based Ronny Yu, the film inevitably recalls Tsui Hark's dazzling ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA (1991), which first brought Li to international attention in the role of 19th-century martial-arts master Wong Fei Hung; Wong, like Huo, represented the endurance of traditional Chinese cultural values in the face of corrupting Western influences. The plot development is formulaic, and Huo's rebirth through manual labor and the goodness of simple peasant folk would be risible were it not played so straightforwardly. An air of melancholy permeates even Yuen Wo Ping's dazzling fight sequences — which rely on wire work and computer enhancement much less than most contemporary martial-arts films — and the final scenes pack a surprising melodramatic punch.