REVIEW: DVD Release: Fist Of Legend

Film: Fist Of Legend
Release date: 22nd March 2010
Certificate: 18
Running time: 99 mins
Director: Gordon Chan
Starring: Jet Li, Chin Siu-ho, Yasuaki Kurata, Billy Chow
Genre: Martial Arts/Action
Studio: Cine Asia/Showbox
Format: DVD
Country: Hong Kong

Jet Li steps up to two monumental challenges - on-screen, he battles corruption and oppression as he seeks to avenge the wrongful death of his master; off-screen, he attempts to wear comfortably the shoes of Bruce Lee in remaking the legend’s signature film role. Genre convention dictates he will likely succeed on-screen - but what about off?

In 1940s Kyoto, Chinese student Chen Zhen (Li) receives word that his esteemed kung-fu master, Huo Yuan-jia, has been killed in a challenge match with a Japanese fighter. Abandoning both his studies and his Japanese sweetheart, Chen returns to Jing Wu Men, his kung-fu school, in occupied Shanghai, where he sets about seeking righteous revenge. But after defeating his master’s conqueror far too easily, Chen orders a snap autopsy on the old man’s body, determining that he was poisoned shortly before the fight.

What begins out as a simple righting of a wrong soon becomes a crusade for the vengeful kung-fu student. He must battle not only the Japanese oppressors, but also the xenophobic attitudes of his fellow Chinese, who disapprove of his courting of a Japanese girl, as well as the envy of his master’s inferior son…

In remaking Fist Of Fury, arguably Bruce Lee’s finest hour, Gordon Chan and his collaborators set themselves two tough challenges. The first is producing a film that honours and lives up to the legend of ‘The Little Dragon’; the second is figuring out a way to tell its straightforward story (Chinese hero cuts a righteous swath through nefarious Japanese baddies) without employing the kind of two-dimensional, anti-Japanese jingoism that characterised the earlier picture. On the first challenge, they succeed - Fist Of Legend is an efficient martial arts actioner, if a little rough around the edges. Their success with the second challenge is somewhat questionable.

Chan’s film certainly makes efforts to tone down the nationalism that pervaded the earlier work, principally through the use of likeable, positive Japanese characters. Its Chinese hero has a Japanese girlfriend who is endearing and honourable, as well as a strong, respectful relationship with her karate master uncle, Fumio, played with characteristic poise and dignity by Yusuaki Kurata. In addition, Chan does not shy away from presenting a cast of Chinese supporting characters hampered by ignorant xenophobia, and even goes as far as having Chen Zhen walk away from his beloved school rather than abandon the Japanese sweetheart who has travelled to Shanghai to find him.

But as refreshing as the even-handed approach is, it ultimately comes off as disingenuous in a film that shoots, edits and scores early moments like Chen Zhen smashing a banner that reads ‘Tolerance’ right before seeking his master’s killer with such a triumphant and righteous energy. Furthermore, the overtly staged and statically directed scenes of the secondary characters debating the rights and wrongs of the film’s socio-political context render any depth and subtlety in the script’s theme as preachy and obvious, leaving the viewer with the distinct impression that the filmmakers have more interest in playing it safe in a politically sensitive era than they do with turning a sharp eye on Sino-Japanese relations.

Politics aside, the film is an enjoyable, if straightforward action movie that makes a decent fist of giving its supporting characters some depth, especially Chin Siu-ho’s frustrated and conflicted Ting’en - the son of the great master, talented but not as prodigiously so as his lifelong friend, Chen Zhen. Ting’en is characterised as the Salieri to Chen’s Mozart, and the casting of Chin Siu-ho, an actor with the looks of a leading man and the charisma of a sidekick, who never quite made it to the top tier of the Hong Kong film industry, is both shrewd and inspired.

Where Bruce Lee played Chen Zhen as borderline psychotic in his vengeful bloodlust, thus making slight overacting entirely appropriate, Jet Li’s version of the character is scripted as being thoughtful, with more in the way of quiet inner conflict. Li infuses the calm persona he perfected in the Once Upon A Time In China movies with a new restrained intensity, creating a convincing heroic figure that feels like a step outside his comfort zone. While he may, as a dramatic actor, lack the range to make convincing Chen Zhen’s inner turmoil, there’s no doubt that he hits all the right notes as the force of vengeance and honour the script needs him to be.

And, of course, who else in this era of Hong Kong film could tear up the screen with the same kind of balletic, graceful ferocity? In this, Li is aided by superlative work from the great Yuen Wo-ping, whose choreography eschews the wire-based, near-supernatural style that characterised his work in films like Iron Monkey, Once Upon A Time In China Part 2, and Wing Chun in favour of a more grounded, hard-hitting approach. Bruce himself would have surely approved.

5-star action enlivens a 2-star script. But, for pure entertainment value, you can’t do much better than this - even if the film is not destined to be as much of a landmark as its source material. JN

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