Fist of Legend

Director: Gordon Chan

HK - 1994

   Hoff!    

----

Well, itís Christmas season again, and naturally, that brings to mindÖ Kung-Fu movies!  It actually makes sense if you think about it a moment.  Between the over-hyping of the season (the local K-Mart started decorating for Christmas in September) and the gOr as they say in their native tongue, "Nanny, nanny, foo-foo!"eneral quality of Christmas-themed movies (there arenít many good ones, and those that exist are played so often in this season, the mind becomes numb), you really start to feel like beating the crap out of somebody.  Hence, the kung-fu action film, preferably from Hong Kong.  Come to think of it, a really good Hong Kong gunplay film will do just as well.   But letís stay in the hand-to-hand area for the moment, shall we?

Of course, as any regular reader of our aegis page, Stomp Tokyo, will know, there are gradations even within the Hong Kong martial arts action flick, all of which can be represented in terms of Jackie Chan movies.  Youíve got your period pieces (any of the Drunken Masters, for example), the stunt extravaganza (such as Jackie Chanís First Strike, which was lighter on the combat and heavy on the falling and blowing things up), and the modern-era chop-socky flick (well-defined by Jackieís U.S. breakout hit, Rumble in the Bronx).  It is the lattermost of these options that best expresses the holiday spirit these days.

Which brought me to the often-edited Jackie Chan vehicle City Hunter.  But then, the esteemed Stomp Tokyo creators already did City Hunter (in fact, I first saw the film thanks to Scott), and I really donít have any new insights to relate.  Sure, I could add details, due to the sheer length of my columns, but it would be just as good to go out and rent the movie for yourself.  Itís worth it just for the surreal ďGala Gala HappyĒ song, though Chimp Girlís noises get annoying after a while, just like on Cleopatra 2525.  But I digress.  Point is, I realized it was time to head out and rent a movie for my own self.

So me and my cohorts in cinematic crime, George and Jennie, trek on down to the local DarkStar video stMan, "The Family Circus" sucks all over the world!ore (everyone should have a cool local independent video store; Chicago is fairly crawling with them, and DarkStar has the advantages of being close and well-organized as compared to some Iíve seen), and pick up a triple feature.  The other films are ample fodder for future reviews, but the real find was the Jet Li vehicle, Fist of Legend.

Regular readers of these various pages will know Jet Li was the Chinese national wu shu champion, the premier martial artist in competition at the time.  He took that skill, his natural good looks, and a quiet charisma, and parleyed it into film stardom.  Though his penetration into American media isnít particularly good (can we say Lethal Weapon 4, good people?  His character was the most likable villain since Gary Busey.  The man, not the character), heís like unto a god in his own country.  Certainly, heís on a par with Jackie or Chow Yun-Fat.  And why?  Because heís damn cool.

Letís get to the movie.  The year is 1937, and the Japanese occupation of Shanghai is well underway.  This story being made in Hong Kong, the Chinese are naturally the complete victims (I donít know enough about this history to make moral judgments, myself, so weíll take the movie by its own premise).  Jet is playing Chen Zhen, a Chinese student apparently studying engineering in Japan.  Of course, nationalistic fervor leads a bunch of young Japanese hotheads to confront Chen Zhen in class, and despite the entreaties of Yamada Mitsuko (Nakayama Shinobu), Chen Zhenís pretty young Japanese girlfriend, they spring to the attack.  Wait a minute, were Japanese classrooms coed back then?  And I thought teachers were respected in Japanese culture?  Well, heck, what else is he supposed to do?  He takes them apart without breaking even half a sweat, naturally.

In actuality, this is one of the more realistic martial arts scenes Iíve seen in a long time.  Somebody strikes at Chen Zhen, he blocks and takes the limb out.  Bam.  That guyís not getting back up anytime soon (particularly the one who tries the kick).  The way I learned it, back when I could still almost manage a roundhouse kick, thatís what youíre supposed to do: take your opponent down fast, and keep him or her from attacking you again.  None of that smacking someone just enough to make them back off, so they can hop back up and come at you again.  I know itís the classic way to stretch out a fight scene without having to hire a whole bunch of extras.  But itís still an annoyance.  ďJust take the guy out, for Peteís sake; heís already whacked you six times, if youíd just break that arm, youíd have no further problems.Ē  Such is my usual laYou know, this bandana thing might work for Bruce Springsteen, but...ment.  But not so in this particular scene, to my joy.

This is finally stopped when the teacher of the hot-headed bravos shows up.  Funakoshi Fuimo (Kurata Yasuaki) is apparently the finest warrior in Japan, we later learn.  It does happen that heís much more controlled than his students, much more civilized.  Heís also Mitsukoís uncle, and he brings bad news: Chen Zhenís master, Master Wah (going on audio alone, here), was killed in a match with a Japanese master, one of the Noguchi clan.  This puts the film on traditional footing; the honor of the martial arts school must be defended!  Combined with the themes of ethnic conflict and domination, it is an ambitious project.  Chen Zhen must go back to Shanghai, to the school of Jing Woo Kung Fu, and Mitsuko promises sheíll wait for him.  Ainít love grand?  ďMitsuko, I just met a girl named Mitsuko, and suddenly Iíve found how wonderful a sound can beÖĒ

So Chen Zhen returns to Shanghai, all dressed like a chauffeur (apparently itís the formal student uniform of the Japanese, or something), and is harassed by a clingy gang of child beggars until he gets medieval on theirÖ no, wait, a rickshaw driver shooes them away.  He chats with Chen Zhen, and again, the effectiveness of the Jing Woo school is questioned.  Chen Zhen shows admirable restraint in not kicking the manís head right off.  At the school, a rival master is challenging the school.  The current master is Ting An (again, thatís what it sounds like), Master Wahís son, and Chen Zhenís best friend.  They were raised like brothers.  We get to see that Ting An is no slouch when it comes to punting a little derriere, either; who thinks weíll get to see whoís kung fu is stronger between Chen Zhen and Ting An?  Hands?

Ting An and Uncle Nang (Paul Chan), the cynical grounding character in the film, greet Chen Zhen.  As hOwe approaches the Jing Woo shrine, to honor Master Wah, Chen Zhen wordlessly inspires the others with thoughts of resistance against the Japanese.  And the music swellsÖ  Boy, thereís nothing like a little nationalistic fervor. Believe me, I donít just pick up on it in foreign movies; it makes me just as skeptical when I see it in American movies, too.

Chen Zhen goes to the Japanese compound to challenge the man who killed his master.  If the man had burned Chen Zhenís pants as well, then there would really be trouble.  Some of the Jing Woo students are sent to follow him, but as theyíre not dressed like chauffeurs, they canít get in.  Of course, news of Chen Zhenís return circulates through the community, and the local Chinese police force rushes to the Japanese compound, as well.  Again, no spiffy black suit, no entry.  Conveniently enough, Japanese martial arts class is just breaking up when the uppity Chinaman comes walking in.  He looks for Akutagawa Ryuichi (Lou Hsueh Hsien), apparently the master who he needs to see.  Of course, the students canít be polite, they have to start something.

Chen Zhen is polite at first, merely dealing out devastating blows with his hands, but eventually, things get out of hand, and he has to employ his feet.  You know youíre in a good fight when the one guy all thirty of your friends are attacking is kicking people across the room; literally.  Quite naturally, after a bit of this, many of the students are maintaining a fearful distance.  But thereís always a fewÖ There are some moves that could be played for laughs, but Jetís not a physical comedy sort of guy.  Not that heís above a wry observation or two, but rather than go for the giggle with his martial arts, he keeps it real, i.e. painful and dangerous.  Well, excepting the bit with the manís jaw in the first battle, and the Batman-esque no-looking hit in this one.  He actually does a whole bunch of Batman-esque moves; thereís just something about a stoic guy whoís a superlative fighter that they all start looking similar.  Give him a cowl and a cape, and heís better than Clooney!  But back to the comedy.  Letís just say itís rare, and well-timed.

Finally, Akutagawa shows up, and they go into a formal duel.  We get the first hints of Chen Zhenís strategic technique, which is based on observation and exploitation of observed weaknesses.  He also employs a bit of detective work: Master Wah would have beaten Akutagawa, if heíd been healthy.  And then he finishes up, and leaves.  The Chinese citizens are massed outside the door, and are surprised when Chen Zhen shows up.  Then we witness the arrival of two more characters, the evil General Fujita (or so it sounds, played by Billy Chau), and the John Lennon-esque ambassador (Toshimichi Takahashi).  Hey, all you need is love, people.

Chen Zhen goes to great lengths to prove that Master Wah was the victim of foul play, which, naturally, raises questions of who did it.  Obviously, it was the Japanese, but the only people who could have delivered it were in the Jing Woo compound.  Suspicion runs rampant, but Chen Zhen helps alleviate the tensions.  Then he goes through his calisthenics routine, which he learned in Japan.  Then he spars with the other students, teaching them new techniques and modifications that he learned in Japan, improvements and such.  Of course, heís not the official master, and Ting An is getting a bit threatened.

Ting An finds solace in the arms of his prostitute girlfriend, who he has been seeing for a while, but who heís kept secret from the rest of Jing Woo.  Yes, this will be played upon later.  And yes, itís just kind of shoe-horned in there, as far as I can tell.

Cut to the Japanese.  The General is spying on everyone, even the other Japanese, and John Lennon doesnít liThis line dancing craze has gotten way out of handke it.  ďThere will always be traitors who will try to go against us,Ē is the Generalís response.  Nice comeback, General!  Oh, but here comes a drunk Akutagawa, who didnít know anything about the poison, who wants to know the truth.  General will do anything for a win.  Much like Bobby Knight.  Akutagawa gets all upset, as he is a samurai, and the battle with a weakened, poisoned opponent had no honor.  Plus, he doesnít like it when the General starts throwing those folding chairs onto the battlefield.  Which the General doesnít care about, but when Akutagawa puts a hand on him, thatís it.  No more Akutagawa.  ďLet me tell you about samurai spirit,Ē the General lectures the body, in proper evil villain style.  ďIt has nothing to do with honor, but survival, and the total domination of our enemies.Ē

Which, of course, is a total crock.  One of the primary tenets of bushido is the acceptance of death.  The samurai is not destined to survive, but to die in the service of his master.  Itís all about living honorably.  After all, isnít that the point of seppuku, a way to honorably end oneís own life?  The wandering samurai of The Seven Samurai aside, the whole point of bushido is to serve a master honorably.  Thereís always that tale of the samurai who sacrificed his life to warn his master that the dangerous tide was coming in: that man didnít value survival over service, and thatís a well-respected and honored tale in the samurai tradition.  And if you want a good samurai movie thatís not made in Japan, donít go to Hong Kong, just rent Ghost Dog.  I canít say enough good things about that movie, by the way, but before I review that, I have to review Dead Man, so just wait.

In any case, Iím just saying that the General is full of it.  But he does have that thousand yard stare, so Iím not saying it to his face.

The General frames Chen Zhen for Akutagawaís murder, and the samurai students go to exact revenge.  Of course, Chen Zhen isnít at Jing Woo, bOwut they donít believe it.  Which leads to another huge battle, naturally, this time with not only martial arts, but katanas and a wide variety of Chinese weapons.  A huge mass battle with flashing blades and swinging sticks; heaven, Iím in heaven, which wonít end until the police arrive with guns.  You donít fight guns with kung fu.  As Jet himself helped demonstrate in Once Upon A Time In China, bullets trump kung fu.

Still, we have a huge and long battle scene.  This is what Christmas is all about.

Then it comes down to a courtroom scene, just like in Inherit the Wind.  But without the star power, or rudimentary sense of believability.  In any case, according to ape law, Chinese testimony canít be trusted, unless itís for the prosecution.  Of course, surprise witness Mitsuko makes it all a wash, and the case is dismissed.

However, as Mitsuko is now staying with Chen Zhen, this brings up the racism angle.  Thereís a lot of bitterness toward the Japanese, particularly in Jing Woo.  Even those students who appreciate Japanese fighting techniques donít like the idea of having Mitsuko staying at Jing Woo.  And it is this conflict which brings up the battle for control of the school.  Ting An versus Chen Zhen!  Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!

Whoever wins this battle, nobody really wins.  I mean, think about it: brother against brother, just about.  One is clearly superior, but doesnít want the job; the other has to win to keep the respect of his students, but canít really.  Itís almost as if Sophocles wrote it.  Chen Zhen does introduce this little footwork thing that comes up again later.  As Bender might say, ďFloat like a float-bot, sting like an automatic stinging machine!Ē  The JapaThe Killing Machine aka Snuggle Bunnynese donít seem to have seen his footwork either, so apparently, Chen Zhenís seen some American boxing, or invented the same thing (parallel evolution?  Just ask the Yangs and Cohms).  This whole fight is worth it, though, to the viewer.  In the end, Chen Zhen and Mitsuko leave Jing Woo, forever.

Things get more and more difficult for the young couple, and the Generalís machinations against Jing Woo just keep getting more dangerous.  Ting An finally comes clean with his girlfriend, and she is accepted by the school (theyíll take a prostitute, but not a well-born Japanese girl; typical).  Uncle Fuimo shows up, as well, to conduct an extensive fight scene with Chen Zhen which really shouldnít be missed, not only for the moves and the neat twist they employ close to the end of the fight, but also because of the sense of fairness and honor displayed by both combatants.  And Fuimo is aware of the necessity of warming up before exercise, just like the Vikings, which is never a bad lesson to learn.  But it turns out that while heís the finest samurai in Japan, heís not the best killer.  That honor goes to the General himself, the tin-plated dictator whose delusions of godhood (and intense powers of concentration) make him an unbeatable opponent.  Can Chen Zhen figure out the weakness in the Generalís technique?  Can he figure it out in time to save his life, or Ting Anís?  How will John Lennon handle the aftermath?  Will Yoko break up the embassy staff?

Itís worth noting that the fight coordinator, Yuen Woo Ping, was the same guy who did The Matrix, and it shows.  Some of the same techniques appear in both movies, and yes, they are just as impressive.  Whereas Matrix did a bunch of slow motion, Legend uses slow motion only sparingly, and tends to speed the action up even more than it already is.  This naturally makes it unbelie"I suddenly see your side of things..."vably fast in places, but itís a basic observation technique that you have to let the fight scenes in this kind of movie just wash over you.  You get to see all the moves, but you canít spend too much time trying to follow it; just immerse yourself in it, and let yourself sense the flow of it.  At least, thatís always worked for me.

Now, there have been very few of Jet Liís HK movies released in the USA where Jet wasnít the hero.  Some, like Black Mask, are vicious and violent, but thatís really the decision of the director and the fight coordinator.  Few, however, allow Jet to lose very often.  Mostly, heís unbeatable.  But then again, with his moves, itís hard to cast him in a losing role.  The closest he comes is up against Mr. StoneSkin in this movie, or the master with the Iron Shirt technique in Once Upon A Time In China, for example, but in those cases, he eventually finds a way to prevail.  Mr. Chow, on the other hand, can have his fingers chopped off and nearly have his eyes cut out, and heíll use the time to get tougher, come back swinging (as in the brutal Full Contact).  He can even die in the end of the film.  But then again, he doesnít have to tone down his moves for his initial scenes, because he does mostly gunplay films, and anyone can pretend to be a poor shot; you just plant the squib off to the side before you film the shot."This is a little something I call Pee-Wee Fist."

The question in the HK film is not whether Jet will win, but how well and how entertainingly he will pull it off.  In Fist of Legend, the answers are very and very.

Sadly, the credits did not seem to hold a name I could recognize as anything close to Ting An, which I swear was what everyone called the man.  There was a Chin Siu Ho with second billing in the opening, third billing in the credits, who may well be the guy, but his character name is given as Hou, and that just doesnít sound even remotely close.

Now, the rating.  The Hoff has no business in a martial arts film.  Oh, not that he couldnít hold his own; heís a juggernaut of entertainment, after all.  But he would be trying to establish himself in a field already populated with great ones, and itís always difficult to do such a thing.  He would be welcome, but we canít say that Fist of Legend actually needs him, per se.  Therefore, a single Hoff on credit, but a vote that Iíd love to see the man in a HK flick.  Even if heís just a targetÖ

So as far as Christmas movies go, Fist of Legend really helped me get the tensions out.  Now I just have to figure out what to buy Grandpa, and weíll be all set.  HmmmÖ

"Oh, so you're gonna use *that* old stance?!"

 


 

- Chen Zhenís insufferable calm.  Itís hard to get under this manís skin.  He doesnít really hate, even when heís taking revenge; heís just doing his duty.  Seeing him get just plain vicious, or all narrow-eyed and coldly hateful would be a good thing.  We did see it in Lethal Weapon 4, which is a good thing.  But then, youíd have to see the rest of Lethal Weapon 4, upon which opinions vary.

- Mitsukoís fear of the mouse when she and Chen Zhen move into their new digs.  Isnít that pwecious?  (gag, yarf)

"I knew I forgot something when I made this mask!"

Fuimo and Chen Zhen: noble warriors.

- The Generalís warm-up routine.  Doesnít it get expensive to find all those raw materials every time you want to work out?

- Jetís clever use of the belt in his fight.  It wouldnít be my first choice to counter the weapon his opponent has, but hey, he makes it work.  Puts a whole new spin on locker-room antics, donít it?

- Ko Pui Fong is listed in the credits as the Tea Lady.  Pretty much only in HK movies do I see such things.  But give credit where credit is due: Ko Pui Fong was most definitely the Tea Lady on this production, and nobody can take that away from her!  

 

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