By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Legend of the Fist,” a sweeping historical epic from Hong Kong director Andrew Lau, begins with the dismal, gray battlefields of World War I. Over the course of 106 minutes, the action moves from those battlefields to the colorful neon fantasias of Shanghai.
Its central character, ace martial arts master Chen Zhen (played by Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen) continues to fight for the Chinese people. He makes the switch from being a solider in uniform to an undercover operative in disguise.
The character of Chen Zhen was created by Hong Kong writer Kuang Ni for the 1972 film “Fists of Fury,” starring Seattle’s own Bruce Lee. Jet Li took a turn as the character for 1994’s “Fist of Legend,” and Donnie Yen first played the fighter on television in 1995.
Though there have been many incarnations, the charismatic Yen, with dashing good looks and faster-than-the-eye fighting moves, has very much made the character his own. This new film follows Chen Zhen from his adolescence to the complications of adult life.
On the French front in the year 1917, Chen Zhen leads a band of Chinese, sent by their government, to fight for the Allies. Most of the Chinese have no formal solider training. Some of them panic under fire. Chen Zhen, however, boldly takes on the German troops.
Chen Zhen finds himself in Shanghai by 1925, using a false name to avoid his enemies. He’s drawn to the Casablanca Club and its gorgeous featured singer, Kiki (Qi Shu).
Kiki serves as mistress to the Casablanca’s owner, Master Liu (Anthony Wong). As a businessman, Liu initially cares for nothing other than the money in his cash register. But he can’t ignore the Japanese soldiers and diplomats invading his club, led by Col. Chikaraishi (Ryu Kohata), a career army man and martial arts master determined to push his own country’s agenda.
In addition to playing the main character, Donnie Yen choreographed all the action scenes for “Legend of the Fist.” He incorporated elements of the Wing Chen fighting style, as well as mixed martial arts.
Yen also added elements of Bruce Lee’s own jeet kune do fighting style, paying tribute to the deceased master.
Director Lau keeps the action steady-paced and his audience guessing. Most of the characters go through their days — and long, festive nights — with at least one hidden agenda.
And Chen Zhen, who quickly works his way up to managing the Casablanca, isn’t the only one with a secret identity. Sometimes, he must grin, bow, and indulge the very enemy he’s plotting to destroy.
As the tension mounts, unfinished business between Chen Zhen and Chikaraishi comes to light, exposing a raw connection, which could explode in their faces.
The American theatrical distributor, Variance Films, proudly points out that “Legend of the Fist” is presented as the original Hong Kong version, with no missing footage, no Western-music soundtrack substitutions, and with subtitles instead of dubbed dialogue.
This is a crucial distinction, because many Hong Kong action movies suffer those kinds of edits and switches when they play in U.S. theaters. In this case, the film’s epic scope and its deliberate placing of action sequences within a historical context remain happily undisturbed.
“Legend of the Fist” takes its story and setting from history, but it embellishes facts with magnificent action sequences. Those unfamiliar with the development of early 20th-century Chinese nationalism might learn something. And any fan of the Hong Kong-style over-the-top martial arts films should come away satisfied. ♦
“Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen” plays April 29–May 5 at the Grand Illusion Cinema, 1403 N.E. 50th St., in Seattle’s University District. For prices and showtimes, call 206-523-3935 or visit www.grandillusioncinema.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.