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Fist Of Legend (1994,Hong Kong)

02/10/2011

Director: Gordon Chan        Starring: Jet Li, Shinobu Nakayama, Siu-hou Chin, Billy Chow, Yasuaki Kurata

My mid to late teens were characterised, predominantly, by a penchant for Hong Kong cinema and thanks to my first part time job which paid actual money the ability to collect said Hong Kong cinema on good old VHS tape. Gordon Chan’s remake of Bruce Lee’s Fist Of Fury, starring Jet Li in the lead as the grief stricken and vengeful Chen Zhen, was just one of many films I owned on tape. As VHS gave way to DVD at the end of that decade I began to watch my VHS collection less and less and by about 2001 I stopped watching videos altogether. As such it’s been at least ten years since I last saw Fist Of Legend, my recent acquisition of the blu ray version proving the perfect opportunity to reacquaint myself with what I remember being a competently executed if not quite as good as the original version of the Bruce Lee classic.

Just in case you aren’t familiar with the story, Chen Zhen is the most talented (though not the most senior) student of Master Huo Yuan Jia of the Jing Wu Men kung fu school. Chen is a student in Japan, studying engineering, when he receives news of his Master’s untimely death in Shanghai, in a challenge bout against the local Japanese martial artist Ryuichi Akutagawa. Chen seeks revenge on the Japanese karate dojo, in the process establishing that there is no way Akutagawa could have defeated his master in combat. When his suspicions of foul play are confirmed, they reveal a greater conspiracy going all the way to the top of the Japanese military administration in Shanghai, a plot that leaves Chen fighting not just for his life but for the honour of the Chinese people.

The broad strokes of the story are more or less identical to the Bruce Lee version. The biggest difference here is how Gordon Chan has opted to handle the interracial conflict between the Japanese occupiers and their Chinese victims. In the 1972 version, the lines are drawn very clearly. The portrayal of the Japanese is of the evil aggressor, imposing their will on the Chinese people forcefully and cruelly with no regard for them as people. The Chinese hatred of the Japanese is shown as being entirely justifiable. Fast forward twenty odd years and Chan has introduced a little bit more nuance into the situation. Yes, the Japanese military and government are portrayed as villains but he allows more complexity when it comes the Japanese people. Similarly, by the introduction of Mitsuko Yamada (Nakayama) as Chen Zhen’s Japanese love interest he creates the opportunity to show the irrational intolerance of the Chen’s countrymen towards the Japanese. Their relationship is met with venom and condemnation based entirely on the fact Mitsuko is not Chinese, hatred all the more vehement because she is Japanese.

These shades of grey are further examined in the character of Funakoshi (Mitsuko’s uncle) who first witnesses Chen’s martial skills in Japan when he has a run in with his disciples in the Japanese school. An older, wiser martial artist Funakoshi sees past national identities and is concerned only with Chen’s martial spirit, something he gets to test in a challenge fight in the latter part of the film. Chen himself has, somewhat controversially, incorporated elements of foreign martial arts including, *gasp*, Japanese styles in order to make his fighting style more effective. He represents a much more open mindset that highlights the problems with the insulary, isolationist attitude of his more traditional kung fu brothers. His openness to diversity is what gives him his strength.

Speaking of kung fu, the fight scenes in Fist Of Legend are superb. Yuen Woo Ping’s choreography is much more restrained than in much of his other work. The use of wires is minimal, there is no flying over rooftops and balancing on bamboo poles here. The fights are much more brutal and direct and I suspect this has a lot to do with a conscious desire to pay tribute to Bruce Lee’s concise action from the original. The fighting is relentless, sometimes one on one, one on twenty and even full blown mass brawls and all of it is wonderful. Just like the original, Chen Zhen’s annihilation of the Japanese dojo as the first strike of vengeance is particularly exciting. Most interesting of all is his challenge fight with Funakoshi. Rather than a straight out fight to the death the two men spend the bout discussing martial arts philosophies, realising in the process that there is little real difference between their respective styles, that they are merely different interpretations of very similar ideas. They see the fight as an opportunity to learn from each other rather than to try and impose their perceived superiority on another person. Chen’s final confrontation with the evil Japanese General behind the whole thing is the brutal cherry on top, an intense confrontation which manages to pay even more tribute to the Bruce Lee original but retain some original flair.

This Cinema Asia blu ray is obviously streets ahead of the VHS version I was previously used to but sadly lacks some of the polish of their other titles, although to be honest it appears to be due to the quality of the original source print. I haven’t seen their DVD version but given the visible damage to the print it’s debatable whether or not the blu ray version is worth the extra investment, although my obsession with the superior colour balance and tonal variation of blu ray would probably force me to say that it is. Despite these visual flaws (and I must stress these are minor issues that don’t really impact on the experience but prevent this disc being up to the standard of Cine Asia’s other releases) it’s still the best this film has looked on my television. Whatever format you see it on though cannot detract from the fact that this is a phenomenal film and a worthy remake of the legendary Bruce Lee film upon which it is based. No self respecting kung fu fan should be without this in their collection.

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