All entries for March 2011

March 11, 2011

Sub–Legendary Fisting

3 out of 5 stars

Pious, honest Chen Zhen would be the first to admit he’s a made-up person

Legend of the Fist

When the excellent but largely made-up Fearless was released in 2006, Beijing Film Studio was sued by the heirs of Huo Yuanjia, a prominent member of the legendary Jing Wu Athletic Association of martial arts. Huo’s descendents were offended by the film’s inaccuracies, particularly the characterisation of Huo himself, who seems a rascally fellow in Jet Li’s treatment. Why, Jet Li was even summoned to court to explain himself, under oath not to use his Northern Fist to get out of answering the questions. Given this fuss over an alleged biopic, one can only imagine Jing Wu’s bemusement over cinema’s fascination with Chen Zhen, a supposed disciple of Huo who never actually existed.

Chen Zhen first appears in Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury (1972) as a Jing Wu student who discovers that Huo Yuanjia was poisoned by the Japanese and sets about avenging the murder. In reality Huo’s death is a mystery, and he may have poisoned himself with a traditional medicine that contained arsenic. Yet the fiction of murder and the retaliation of Chen Zhen has remained potent, and Fist of Fury has been remade in versions staring Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen, and Gordon Chan’s excellent reimagining of the fiction in Fist of Legend (1994) with Jet Li.

Legend of the Fist is a sequel to Donnie Yen’s 1995 TV series based on Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury. Presumed dead at the hands of the Japanese, Chen Zhen has skipped out to Europe to fight in World War I, and turns up in Shanghai to help the Chinese resistance of the Japanese occupation. Tonally the treatment is light, and very much in homage to Bruce Lee: Donnie Yen makes Lee’s obligatory cat noises when fighting, and – when he is not concealing his identity behind a moustache – Chen Zhen distributes vigilante justice disguised as the Green Hornet. Yet there’s too much plotting, far too long between action scenes at times, and falling back on formula makes much of the film predictable.


Two favourite clichés have driven recent kung fu films. One is the Chinese fighter challenging foreigners to restore national pride, as in Fearless, Ip Man and True Legend (in reality Huo’s Russian and British opponents backed down from fighting him and left town, while Ip Man never really duelled with people). The other is the showdown at the Japanese general’s dojo, a staple of Chen Zhen-based films and [spoiler alert] a major player in Legend of the Fist. Unfortunately, Donnie Yen expends a lot of energy trotting out conventional storylines.

The character of Chen Zhen is useful for imagining possibilities of heroism amid thorny Sino-Japanese relations, but in a limited way. Donnie Yen could do better for his career than recreating Bruce Lee, and there are real-life martial arts heroes that might deserve film treatments rather than rehashing the Fist of Fury fiction. Legend of the Fist attempts to peg a new ending to this fiction, but it’s not enough.

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