I knew going into this kung fu marathon that expecting great acting would be somewhat foolish, because for many of these films the action is intended to trump the narrative, not to mention most of the films are dubbed anyways so any hope at discerning a decent performance is near impossible. Perhaps that is what allowed for Fist of Legend to be such a different experience from what I have viewed thus far. It is not an excellent film, but is certainly above average, possessing some of the best choreography I have seen yet, while also presenting it within the context of a historical moment in which national distrust ran rampant. The narrative falters throughout and, ultimately, does not deliver in a cohesive manner, but what is lost in this department is absolutely made up first in the aforementioned choreography that is nothing short of perfect and in the performances of the actors who approach their roles with a degree of sincerity and poise that is often not associated with an action oriented period piece and certainly not one with martial arts as its central driving force. While all the performers are top notch it is Jet Li who absolutely brings it here and makes whatever narrative cohesion that lacks work by adding a degree of authority and believability to the entire cause. While I would say this was a bit of a surprise, in that for some time I had written Li off as an action star (although I love Hero so I should have known better), it was when I caught up with the blind buy of Ocean Heaven that I truly realized that Jet Li had acting chops. In Ocean Heaven he plays a struggling, single working class father whose task in life is to take care of his mentally challenged son. A film where the melodramatic would have sufficed, Li makes a choice to go minimal and it makes all the difference. I am glad that I had this film in my catalogue, because it now allows me to reconsider Li's performances when I run into them in different contexts and specifically helped me to realize that in Fist of Legend he brings this same degree of minimalism to his performance, allowing the characters words to have a decided degree of authority and gravitas. Furthermore, considering that it is a subdued performance, one unconsciously allows it to juxtapose with the wild fight scenes adding intensity to them, while also reinforcing the mentally serene character Li plays.
Fist of Legend is set in 1930's Shanghai when the large city was heavily occupied by countries as a result of an ensuing war, most notably the British and Japanese presence that forced Chinese citizens to follow the rules and expectations of their country, regardless of rights to land and space. One such person experiencing this absurd occupation is Chen Zhen (Jet Li) a Chinese student studying engineering at a Japanese school. When he is approached by a group of unruly Japanese martial art students who want to kick him out simply because he is Chinese, he reveals himself to be an expert martial arts expert, much to the frustration of the young fighters, but to the elation of their sensei Funakochi Fumio (Yasuaki Kurata) who has come with rather tragic news of the death of Chen's own master during a martial arts bout with a rival dojo. Stunned Chen immediately leaves to return to his dojo only to discover it is moral disarray as the master's son Ting'en (Chin Siu-ho) desperately attempts to establish his authority. After Chen approaches the leader of the dojo that killed his master, the lack of skill possessed leads him to believe that foul play likely led to his death. Ordering an autopsy, it is quickly revealed that Chen's master was indeed poisoned resulting in the final straw that breaks sense of decency and order within the dojo. Chen, realizing that to follow the order of challenges and authority will never result in justice he begins a personal quest to avenge the death of his late master, one that leads to a discovery of internal betrayal and political corruption. In the midst of his quest for justice, Chen is framed in the murder of the dojo master with whom he challenged and heads to court to defend his name, it is during this endeavor that it is revealed that he has been involved with a Japanese woman, leading to his banishing from the dojo, who feel that such an act betrays his entire nation and training. Accepting this he takes his Japanese girlfriend and moves to the countryside assuming that he can no longer aid in the process of vengeance, yet when he is visited by Funakochi and eventually Ting'en he is convinced that his presence is necessary, as they head to attack the mastermind behind his master's death the general Go Fujita (Billy Chow) who has earned the appropriate name Killing Machine. After a confrontation that is wildly violent and destructive, Chen comes out on top, using his newly learned defensive attacks to topple the aggressive fighter. This endeavor earns the admiration of a Japanese ambassador and further gains him a right to move about the occupied Shanghai with considerably more freedom.
While it would be quite easy to read this as a text solely concerned with imperialism, it would be somewhat easy and merely result in a rehashing of the plot, which has already occurred above. Although it is worth noting that the film really only considers issues of colonization as they affect the male body, while depicting the female body as submissive and supportive to the masculine struggles. Nevertheless, the film exists as a larger consideration of the issues of class and agency, one where group mobilization only serves a certain degree of productivity, when one is versing a person with considerable wealth or political power. Indeed Chen, despite his ability to attend engineering school, reflects a person of lower class status, coming up as an orphan and earning his respect through physical labor, at least metaphorically so in his being a high ranking martial artist. This stands in stark contrast to Fujita who is clearly of wealth and, therefore, has trained his body externally by using the bodies of others to harden his own. A dichotomy then emerges between Chen and Fujita, Chen representing a person who is in a constant state of internal struggle, having to navigate and negotiate what he sees as valuable, because in most cases he cannot possess both, having to either sacrifice dojo or his love to assure the justice he initially seeks. Even in the films closing when he has attained his girlfriend it is suggested that given the political state of Shanghai that this could continue to be temporary. Fujita, as a counter, does not have to choose anything, because all is provided for him, at least in his world view that is the case. His movement through spaces in a destructive manner suggest that he has no value for items or bodies, because he has never been threatened with the loss of either, it is rather clear in the closing fight between himself and Chen that he will destroy without hesitation, breaking windows and statues in a blind rage to kill his enemy. Indeed, it is quite interesting to see him react to being killed by his own sword, because it is a wonderfully metaphoric scene in which his own assumption that once an item is in his control, he possesses it in every sense, Chen counters this suggesting that to own something works on a level far larger than physically.
Key Scene: The battle between Chen and Funakochi that occurs in the field of hay is mesmerizing and it helps to explain why choreographer Yuen Woo-pig was hired to help The Wachowski's make The Matrix, it is by far the best fight choreography I have ever encountered in a film.
I would suggest renting this film, but be warned there are apparently tons of alternately edited versions depending on where in the world you live. I cannot find out which is a definitive version, but it appears to have suffered the same troubles as Bladerunner.