Written by Andre Dellamorte
The Fu genre has many ups and downs, and many cadences. It’s hard to argue with the fun and superiority of the Shaw Brothers films, especially now that they’ve become available in uncut versions stateside. But then there’s the bizzaro offshoots that deserve their respect. I saw a film retitled The Chinese Mack during a Grindhouse festival here in Los Angeles, and it ended on a perfectly nutty note that made me love it. Then you’ve got Bruce Lee. Undeniable. One of the greatest moments in the history of cinema is Bruce Lee tasting his own blood. You’ve pissed that motherfucker off. And then there’s Jackie Chan, and his Drunken Master and super Cop and his Armor of God. Bringing a splash of Buster Keaton into the mix. Jackie Chan and Jet Li are like – to me – Fred Astaire (Chan) vs. Gene Kelly. Kelly was the precisionist, the perfectionist, the inimitable technician, while Astaire had the moves, but he also had personality, a droll figure amused with his own movements. Both Chan and Li proved their mastery time and time again, but I give an edge to Li, and mostly because of Fist of Legend.
Jet Li stars as Chen Zhen, who begins the film studying in Japan (and fighting off Chinese haters), but returns home because his master has died. He does a little digging and it becomes obvious that his master was poisoned, as his supposed killer does not have the martial arts skill. In his temple, he returns to his brother Hou (Chin Siu-ho), who is nervous about his brother and his strength as it will challenge his role as the leader of their discipline. Chen Zhen also becomes chased by people who want to learn his skills, but the Chinese turn against him when he’s blamed for murdering the Japanese man who fought his master, but then is reviled for his Japanese girlfriend Mitsuko (Shinobu Nakayama), who lies in court that they spent the night of the murder in a hotel room fuckin’.
Directed by Gordon Chan, the movie plays almost like a silent drama, as the plotting and concerns are all very heightened, and it’s as much about kung fu as it is the politics that have made Japanese and Chinese relations delicate over the years. His direction is functional, and the music emphasizes the melodramatic flavor. But with the choreography of Yuen Woo Ping is such that nothing else matters. From the opening fight where Chen Zhen takes on a room full of Japanese students, to when he holds his own against forty men, to a fight with a Japanese master (Kurata Yasuaki) who he then fights blindfolded, there are highs here that remain spectacular fifteen years after the fact. Jet Li was also in his prime, and when you watch the fights (with very little wire work) it can take your breath away.
Dragon Dynasty has released the film in a two disc set. Like a lot of Kung Fu releases over the years, the original domestic DVD was a travesty, as it featured only a dubbed version. I know that Rolling Thunder was supposed to put out a theatrical release, but I was always told that what happened was that Golden Harvest wouldn’t let them put it out subtitled in the states, and so the QT gang passed. The new version presents the film in both Mandarin and Cantonese in stereo, with optional English subtitles, along with a 5.1 English surround track. The first disc also comes with a commentary by Bey Logan. On disc two there’s featurettes “The Man Behind the Legend” (36 min.), which interviews the director, “Brother in Arms” (23 min.) with Chin Siu-ho and “The Way of the Warrior” (30 min.) with Kurata Yasuaki. These are informative interviews, and everyone knows what they did with this movie. “The School of Hard Knocks” (27 min.) tours Kurata’s school, and shows his students practicing, while Anglos may appreciate the appreciation of the film done by Elvis Mitchell and Brett Ratner called “A Look at Fist of Legend” (10 min.). The disc also comes with five deleted scenes (5 min.) and the film’s theatrical trailer, and an American promo trailer.