10/01/2008

Fist of Legend (1994)


Inspired by Bruce Lee -- in Gordon Chan's film, Martial Arts fans met a new Li... Jet Li.



Earlier in the week, I walked out of a press screening with a group of critics and in our amazing disappointment at a hotly anticipated upcoming film that screened at both Cannes and Toronto (which shall remain nameless), we tried to summarize our disgust in various phrases. “Made me want to kill myself,” was one guy’s take while another said, “pointless; he shouldn’t be allowed to make films,” and this continued on until another critic said, “the only way it would’ve been worse is if it involved Kung Fu."
My jaw-dropped in response and before I knew it, I temporarily forgot about the bleak and jarringly brutal film we’d just witnessed and addressed the dissenter directly. “I love Kung Fu movies,” I gushed and couldn’t believe the disgust leveled my direction-- including some awe over the fact that on the surface as a white, tall, gangly female whose typical wardrobe consists of retro girly dresses and skirts—utter amazement that I could ever appreciate a good old fashioned kung fu smack-down.
However, having attended a predominantly Asian high school, I grew up with the films and while my peers at other schools lusted after Brad Pitt, I obsessed over Hong Kong cinema stars like Chow Yun-Fat.
And while admittedly, yes, some martial arts films (especially the dated classics) are cheesy and man, do I hate it when they overdub the Mandarin or Cantonese dialogue with "Surfer-Dude" styled English but to me, an excellent martial arts film is as bewitching as a breathtaking and highly stylized musical.
Both involve precision, stunning choreography, an overwhelming goal to entertain and most importantly for the medium, to tell the story visually, thrilling its audience and tricking us into thinking for one brief moment that we could dance like Gene Kelly or fight like Jackie Chan.
Chan is a personal favorite, owing a great deal of his success to silent comedians with his energetic and inventive prop styled fights but the overwhelming master of the genre that brought it to our American shores is the man himself, Bruce Lee.
Co-screenwriter and director Gordon Chan paid tribute to Lee with his wildly popular film Fist of Legend, loosely based on Bruce Lee’s classic film The Chinese Connection (also known as Fist of Fury). The film, which as film critic Elvis Mitchell notes on the DVD, “put Jet Li on the map,” provided Li with a showcase to illustrate not only his tremendous athleticism and agility but also his range as an actor as Mitchell continues that his eyes are always illustrating a though and there’s something “kind of hidden about him” in his “countenance.”
Given the deluxe two-disc treatment by the phenomenally dedicated company Dragon Dynasty, Fist of Legend arrives in its amazingly restored widescreen glory available in Cantonese Stereo, Mandarin Stereo, and English Dolby 5.1 sound with English and Spanish subtitles along with an optional feature length commentary by Bey Logan, a Hong Kong Cinema Expert, the film looks better than it ever has before as you can witness in the trailer below.
Fist of Legend: Theatrical Trailer

Far more political and emotionally moving than one would normally expect of traditional martial arts fare, including the clich├ęd naysayers I referenced above who only dwell on the genre’s weakest links instead of the strongest ones (in which category this film belongs), it’s a historical piece about the Japanese occupation of China. In fact, daringly it tackled racism and prejudice head-on instead of the traditional emphasis on the class system or cultural differences as Mitchell explained.
And likewise, I felt as though it were nearly a martial-arts version of West Side Story as we initially meet Jet Li’s Chinese character Chen Zhen studying in Japan alongside his Japanese sweetheart. Upon learning that his martial arts master back at his former school has been murdered, Li leaves his love and returns to China where he and his allies try to figure out just what exactly happened, all the while trying to reconcile their prejudice regarding the Japanese occupiers as the groups antagonize one another.
When Li is wrongly arrested, his girlfriend willingly ruins her reputation and leaves everything behind to clear his name but now as a Japanese woman living with a Chinese man she’s unable to marry since neither side will perform the ceremony or accept them, tensions increase. Soon, they’re forced to live in the outskirts of the community in a mere hut, reminiscent of the Little Tramp’s situation in Chaplin’s Modern Times.
Although he’s most famous for helping solidify Jackie Chan’s popularity with American audiences with the Rush Hour trilogy, director Brett Ratner is also interviewed on the second Special Features disc, offering an interesting evaluation that since director Gordon Chan illustrated both sides of the conflict in a fair and balanced manner that showed the good and bad, he argued that it’s the one Chinese film that could play equally well “without censorship” in both countries. And honestly, viewing the film now as an adult instead of just an adoring teen who couldn’t wait to see those mesmerizing fight sequences (including the finale which the press release notes was listed as the #5 Best Fight Scene Ever by Rotten Tomatoes), I must admit he’s right.
In fact, I was equally caught up in the politics of the film, the romantic relationship which seemed far more earnest and relatable than actually some of the ones produced in the last few years. As Ratner explained, because Chan’s background was first and foremost as a trained writer, instead of just a martial arts expert or choreographer (which is the usual path to becoming a director in Hong Kong cinema), he was able to approach it on a “mythological” level. Thus, it’s safe to say that by addressing the project this way from the start, I’d argue that Chan ensured that even those who may instinctively feel they’d dislike a typical martial arts film would be nonetheless taken in by it.
Don’t get me wrong and that is not to say that there’s not enough action! For, when you’re dealing with choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Kill Bill), you know that the film’s fights will surpass your wildest fantasy. And it definitely is filled with action yet instead of just a few perfunctory scenes for us to “get to the good stuff,” when the men throw-down, it’s actually justified and acting happens as well during those phenomenal sequences, including one where Li voluntarily fights blindfolded.
With a trailer and interview gallery, and deleted scenes-- the second disc is packed with extras including an exclusive and eye-opening director with Gordon Chan, another with “Kung Fu Impresario” Chin Siu-ho, a “School of Hard Knocks” which takes us inside a screen fighting seminar at the renowned Kurata Action School, and others. This being said, while Kung Fu movies can leave one feeling invincible, they should definitely come with the "don't try this at home warning" so please for the love of Pete, don't try to break concrete slabs with your head or use your hands to hammer in nails anytime soon.
And whether you want to watch as a mere fan, eager to rewind or jump to your favorite scenes that no doubt you’ll want to screen again and again (making it a “must own” for fans of the genre rather than a simple “Netflix add”) or you’re an martial arts movie aficionado, no doubt you’ll be equally overwhelmed by this fully loaded set… destined to become legendary just like Fist.