Beware! This review contains spoilers!
Fist of Legend is Hong Kong martial arts cinema at its finest. This gem from 1994 is a remake of the classic Fist of Fury, starring the unsurpassable Bruce Lee. However, Jet Li does the mythical figure of Chen Zhen more than justice, putting on a ferocious and unforgiving performance (much to the detriment of his Japanese opponents). This film addresses universal themes such as love, jealousy, betrayal and revenge, while satisfying our insatiable kung-fu appetite too – there are understated heroes, evil antagonists, sublimely choreographed battles and, of course, the heart warming triumph over adversity.
Jet Li’s portrayal of Chen Zhen is at once unrelenting, but also composed and at times vulnerable. He conveys a certain tenderness in his encounters with Mitsuko and Ting’en, juxtaposed with the fierce attitude he imposes upon his Japanese oppressors – in other words, everything a kung-fu hero should be! Billy Chow delivers a deft representation of General Fujita, creating a reprehensible antagonist effective in making us fear for the safety of our beloved hero. Chen’s classmate and love interest, Mitsuko Yamada – played by the former J-pop singer Shinobu Nakayama – is one of the only Japanese characters to be sympathised with, acting as a bridge between the cultural and political divides of her countrymen and the Chinese. Meanwhile, Yasuaki Kurata puts on a stellar performance as the wise old master, Fumio Funakochi, who is also Mitsuko’s uncle. Kurata’s supreme air of confidence and subtle humour, along with his dan ranks in karate, judo and aikido, provide for riveting viewing in his extended battle scene with Chen. Chin Siu-ho plays Huo Ting’en – probably the most identifiable character in the film – in most compelling fashion, convincingly portraying a character who is struggling with grievous loss and new-found responsibilities.
Straight from the opening credits, complete with foreboding drumbeats and fast-paced violin strokes, you know this is going to be a dramatic affair. The year is 1937 and Shanghai is occupied by Japanese forces during the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War. We come across Chen as he’s studying the relationship between oil tanks and engines at Kyoto University, when some Japanese karate students from the Black Dragon Clan put an end to the lesson, intent on “kicking the Chinese pig out of the school”. After failed attempts by his classmates, including the beautiful Mitsuko to intervene, our hero sees no other choice but to lay a beating on these thugs. In a matter of seconds and against trying odds, he dispatches his foes one by one and leaves the classroom in tatters. The Japanese thugs’ sensei, Fumio, enters at the culmination of the ruckus and is introduced to Chen through Mitsuko, whereupon he informs our hero that his master, Huo Yuanjia, has died at the hands of a Japanese martial artist. Chen is evidently upset by the news. After bidding farewell to Mitsuko, he leaves for Shanghai.
Upon returning to the Jingwu School, wherein he is known as ‘Fifth Senior’, Chen meets with his old friend, Ting’en, and Ting’en’s uncle, Nong Jinsun. Chen then proceeds to pay his respects to the fallen master and vows revenge for his death. The next day, Chen gatecrashes a Japanese dojo to challenge his master’s killer, the formidable figure of Ryoichi Akutagawa. After making a mockery of Akutagawa’s cronies, Chen squares off with the man himself. However, Akutagawa’s skills prove weak enough for Chen to suspect something more sinister was involved in the death of Yuanjia. That evening, Chen has Yuanjia’s corpse exhumed for examination, despite vocal objections from other members of the Jingwu School. After analyzing the liver, the coroner concludes that Yuanjia was poisoned. Chen soon becomes the new master in everything but name as the students of Jingwu School hang on his every word and action. By doing so, he inadvertently incurs the envy of Ting’en, who by rights should succeed his father as master. We then observe Ting’en being consoled by a prostitute named Rose.
Meanwhile, Akutagawa interrupts a meeting between General Gō Fujita and the Japanese ambassador, wherein he confronts Fujita over the suspicious nature of Yuanjia’s death. Fujita calmly confesses and disposes of Akutagawa in ruthless fashion. After learning of Akutagawa’s death, his students place the blame on Chen and infiltrate the grounds of the Jingwu School. A tense battle ensues between the rivaling students which is interrupted by Captain Police Inspector Jie, who takes Chen into custody. Now we are taken to a place rarely seen in kung-fu flicks, a courtroom! A string of unreliable witnesses with conflicting stories are called upon by the police department to testify against Chen. But when all seems lost, Mitsuko comes to the aid of our hero, supplying a false testimony which sees the judge let Chen off the hook. Realising the sacrifice that Mitsuko has made, Chen attempts to take her into his care and that of the Jingwu School. Alas! Her presence creates division amongst the students to the point where Ting’en decides to challenge Chen to single combat. After Ting’en is defeated, Chen reluctantly leaves the Jingwu School and settles with Mitsuko in a small abandoned hut in the countryside.
Back at the Jingwu School, a couple of Fumio’s students bring a challenge for Ting’en on behalf of their master. The only problem is, Ting’en has gone AWOL and nobody can find him. Shortly after, Rose arrives at the Jingwu School to persuade Uncle Nong to reconcile with his nephew. They find Ting’en drunk and beaten in a brothel. Ting’en swears to reform and defend the honour of his school. Meanwhile, Fumio visits the residence of Chen and Mitsuko, seeking a contest with our hero at the behest of General Fujita. The fight ends in a draw and Fumio leaves Chen with a warning of Fujita. Soon after, Ting’en calls upon Chen’s country home in order to invite him back to the Jingwu School. While he’s there, he teaches Chen the way of the Mizong Fist.
The day after, Ting’en and Chen go to confront Fujita together. When they arrive in his dojo, Fujita exposes and systematically executes one of the conspirators in the murder of Yuanjia. Ting’en then squares off against Fujita, but quickly succumbs to the general’s superior strength. Aware that his old friend is no match for the villain, Chen steps in to fight. After a spectacular and debilitating battle, we even see an enraged Fujita attack with a Katana sword stabbing Ting’en through the arm: things get pretty drastic and I bet you’ll want to see this climactic battle for yourself…!
Fist of Legend contains some truly remarkable action sequences, courtesy of legendary fu-choreographer, Yuen Woo-ping. The fight scenes are so realistic that, if you can make it through the first one without wincing, then you’re made of tough stuff! The initial classroom tussle is a brutal display of the martial arts abilities of Chen. He slams fist, foot and head home with such intensity and speed! He contorts arms and crashes through legs like his numerous opponents are made of silicone. In fact, before the first 20 minutes are through, Chen has already disposed of dozens of highly-trained Japanese martial artists, as well as his master’s supposed killer, the enormous Akutagawa. It is here also that Chen first displays his signature footwork, as well as some rather creative manoeuvres such as fish-hooking, groin punching and ear pulling. The finest moment of this sequence has to be the devastating Fok Fist delivered by Chen to the sole of Akutagawa’s foot, which sends him reeling.
The famed fight scene between Chen and Fumio begins with a discussion of techniques and a hilarious warm-up exercise. But when the battle starts, boy does it start! The fact that these two fighters seriously respect each other, coupled with the humour in observing Fumio employ some of Chen’s moves, make for riveting viewing. An air of intrigue develops when a sudden rush of wind obscures the vision of Fumio, forcing the pair to fight blindfolded to the interesting accompaniment of electric guitar and bongo drums. Chen’s final epic duel against the incredibly powerful Fujita sees our hero employ Chin Na movements and traditional Fok style kung-fu, incorporated at times with boxing stances -viewers are even treated to a capoeira-style finishing kick!
Director Gordon Chan’s Fist of Legend is a high-flying, no holds barred, kick-and-punch-fest set against a historical, epic backdrop. Complete with love stories and vengeance plots, it’s a masterful blend of elated action and intricate storytelling. Jet Li is in his early thirties and at the height of his powers, displaying amazing agility, skill, and convincing acting chops to boot. Fist of Legend also stays true to the anti-Japanese sentiment conveyed in Fist of Fury. But thankfully, the Japanese are portrayed in a more humane light this time around, which meant less reports of Chinese crowds crying and giving standing ovations at every showing! In short, Fist of Legend represents the best the genre has to offer and is a must see for any kung-fu enthusiast, strongly recommended, see it soon!
- Yuen Woo-ping’s stunning action choreography on Fist of Legend impressed the Wachowski’s so much that they hired him as the martial arts choreographer on The Matrix.
- Jet Li goes on to play his character’s former master, Huo Yuanjia, in Fearless.
- The Jingwu School that Chen belongs to in Fist of Legend did indeed exist, but in the form of a martial arts association named Jingwu Athletic Association. Huo Yuanjia was also a real historical character, taking part in the foundation of the Jingwu Athletic Association.
- The belt versus Katana sword scene involving Chen and Fujita, went on to influence Hitman, which also includes a sequence involving the protagonist utilizing a belt as a weapon.
- Although set in 1937, one of the cars seen on the street in Shanghai is a 1947 Chevrolet, and another is a 1948 Buick.
Film Rating: 9/10
From the pre and post match dialogue between Chen (Jet Li) and Sensei Fumio (Yasuaki Kurata):
Sensei: Tell me what should be the most powerful punch?
Chen: It’s about focusing the body’s energy to one single point, that’s it.
Sensei: The Chinese martial arts always emphasise on self-discipline rather than strength. You’ve broadened my views.
Chen: The object of a match is to beat the opponent.
Sensei: Wrong young man! The best way to beat the opponent is to use a gun. The ultimate goal of Martial Arts is to maximise one’s energy. If you want to achieve this ultimate goal, you need to understand the soul of the universe.
Fumio: So how about the best defense?
Chen: It’s offense. Why waste energy defending when you can attack?
Fumio: Your master must have taught these basic theories?
Chen: My master never talked so much. Are you going to fight or not?
Fumio: What fist is this?
Chen: Don’t ask. It’s a good fist if it wins.
Japanese ambassador: Japan is now like a very strong ant which wants to eat a sleeping elephant. While the elephant is asleep, the ant seems to have some advantages. Once the elephant awakens, the ant will have no way to win.
Fumio: However, I think the elephant is still asleep and there’s more than one ant eyeing it.
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