Director: Gordon Chan
HK - 1994
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 general
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?
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
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.
me and my cohorts in cinematic crime, George and Jennie, trek on down to
the local DarkStar video store
(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.
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.
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.
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 lament.
But not so in this particular scene, to my joy.
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
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?
An and Uncle Nang (Paul Chan), the cynical grounding character in the
film, greet Chen Zhen. As he
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
to the Japanese. The General
is spying on everyone, even the other Japanese, and John Lennon doesnít
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
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.
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.
General frames Chen Zhen for Akutagawaís murder, and the samurai
students go to exact revenge. Of
course, Chen Zhen isnít at Jing Woo, but
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.
we have a huge and long battle scene.
This is what Christmas is all about.
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.
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,
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
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.
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?
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 unbelievably
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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
out a clip from this film, along with many others, here!
-- Copyright © 2000 by E. Mark Mitchell