Fist of Legend

I try to avoid terms like awesome or blown away in my reviews because I don’t want to sound like a total HK fanboy – but after watching this Jet Li film on the big screen at the Music Palace those were the terms that first came to mind. The fight choreography (action director Yuen Wo-Ping) truly is awesome – incredibly clean, pure, powerful, quick and as graceful as any ballet. It is almost dance like in its incredibly precise movements and has an amazing rhythm to it. I was simply blown away by the many fight sequences and wanted to have them replayed on the screen. The wire work is kept to a minimum – utilized primarily to send people flying back 20-feet upon being kicked by Jet! – and the fighting style is more in keeping with the traditional kung-fu films – but so much faster, so much more exciting and edited to perfection.
Though this film's great reputation rests to a large degree on its action, it has a number of other interesting cultural and personal cross-currents that make it an even richer and more rewarding film. Based to some degree on the Bruce Lee film – Fists of Fury – it approaches the story in a much less simplistic manner and has a number of other characters and plot threads that create a fuller portrayal of this period in Chinese history.

It is a fascinating period in history – at least looking back – perhaps not so much for the people living through it. In the 1920’s Asia was again coming into its own after being subjected to western domination for many years. In Japan militarism/expansionism was on the rise – in conflict with some of their traditional values – and at odds with the intellectuals and the remnants of the samurai warrior class. Japan was intent on not only diminishing the influence of the west, but also on carving out its own sphere of influence – China being one of their main targets. China on the other hand was attempting to form a republican government after centuries of Imperial rule. The western governments along with Japan had control of certain areas of China – in particular in Shanghai where this film takes place – and a strong sense of nationalism was taking hold throughout China. The hatred and racial prejudices between China and Japan also comes to the forefront. All these themes are explored within the context of this action film.

Jet Li is studying in Japan – and has a Japanese girlfriend – where he learns that his sifu back in China has been killed in a match with a Japanese master. Jet rushes back to his martial art school and immediately challenges the man who defeated his sifu and completely destroys him. This brings Jet and the school into conflict with the Japanese. Jet has a number of fights – against large groups a few times – but it is his four one on ones against various foes that are truly remarkable.

In one, he fights against an honorable Samurai (Yasuaki Kurata) – the uncle of his girlfriend – and the fight is a pure visual pleasure – in particular when Kurata gets dirt in his eyes and can no longer see. Jet honorably puts on a blindfold and the two fight each other only by sound and instinct. It is an astonishing sequence.
In the final fight – it is Jet Li up against the Japanese general played by Billy Chow. The fight goes for a good fifteen minutes and is as brutal and savage and brilliant as any you will see. The fight seesaws back and forth until both are bloodied and beaten.
Though the film is clearly from a Chinese point of view and is certainly very nationalistic in nature – it is not a strictly anti-Japanese/pro Chinese diatribe. There are a number of Japanese that act honorably and have no sympathy for the military – while there are some Chinese who are much less than honorable.

There are also some intense personal conflicts that keep the film interesting. The son (Chin Siu Ho) of the sifu becomes jealous of the admiration that Jet receives and challenges him to a fight and later Jet is expelled from the school and deserted by everyone because he won’t leave his Japanese girlfriend.

Jet Li plays this one completely straight – there is no time or room for levity in this film – and his naturally stoic personality feels just right for his character. Needless to say he is brilliant in the action segments, but he gets wonderful support from Billy Chow, Chin Siu Ho, Paul Chun Pui and others. One of my favorite actresses – Ada Choi - has a smallish but important role as a high class prostitute.
This is simply a great martial arts film with some of the best martial arts I have come across in a HK film – and that is saying quite a bit. This is a must see film.

My rating for this film: 9.0