Fist of Legend Review
The 90s has the rather tragic honour of being the last truly great decade for Hong Kong (HK) martial arts film, it was the time when Tsui Hark and Yuen Woo-Ping took wirework to new extremes to give the Wǔxiá and Traditional Kung Fu film a new found resurgence in a fresh contemporary form that focussed less on traditional fighting techniques and classical narratives, and more on delivering a story as fast as an express train weaved around action sequences that exchanged internal logic for a frenzied flurry of activity. Although HK audiences appeared to have had their fill by the end of the decade, this was very much the golden period of Jet Li’s career; where he teamed up with Yuen Woo-Ping to produce what many fans consider to be the definitive films of his career: such as the first three Once Upon a Time in China films, Tai Chi Master, Fong Sai Yuk 1 & 2, and perhaps most importantly for his future career path: Fist of Legend.
Being a remake of the seminal Bruce Lee classic: Fist of Fury, the plot of Fist of Legend will sound familiar enough: A talented young martial artist named Chen Zhen is studying abroad in Kyoto University in 1937 when he hears news that his Kung Fu master, the legendary Huo Yuan Jia, has been killed in a duel with Japanese karate master Ryoichi Akutagawa. Leaving behind his Japanese girlfriend Mitsuko, Chen returns home to the Jing Wu Men school in Shanghai to attend Huo’s funeral and reunite with Huo’s son and head student: Huo Ting’En. Chen pays his respects to the man who was his adopted father in all but name and angrily rushes directly to Akutagawa’s dojo and defeats both master and pupils with ease. It’s clear that Akutagawa couldn’t possibly have defeated Huo in a fair fight, and after having Huo’s body exhumed Chen discovers that his late teacher had been poisoned. The poisoning is part of a clandestine campaign run by Japanese army general: Gō Fujita to demoralise the people of Shanghai by breaking down their strongest martial arts school, but with Chen’s return another natural leader is going to have to be eliminated for Fujita’s plan to succeed.
For many fans (myself included) Fist of Fury is THE iconic film of Bruce Lee’s ephemeral career and outdoing Bruce Lee is a daunting task in itself, but back in 1994 Jet Li and Gordon Chan would’ve been considered a highly unlikely pair to update the work of the great icon of HK action. Li was a film star whose screen presence and fighting style was intrinsically different to Lee’s and Chan a director who was known for making action comedies (with the emphasis on the comedy), and yet in spite of having to work outside of their established niché – or perhaps precisely because of this – Li and Chan managed to create a film that offers its own unique spin on the story and is every bit the equal of the original in the action stakes.
Obviously because it's a martial arts film people tend to talk about Fist of Legend mostly in action terms and therefore Jet Li and Yuen Woo Ping’s work on the film tends to be the most appreciated, but Gordon Chan really deserves a lot of credit for what he brought to the project. A less socially conscious director would have been content to just reiterate the simplistic black and white politics of the original and portray dull, one-dimensional Japanese villains for the Chinese hero to go up against, but here in Fist of Legend Chan takes a more rounded and sympathetic approach to the Japanese side of the war.
We see that many Japanese have distinctly anti-imperialistic tendencies, as shown in the opening shot of the film which shows Kyoto University students protesting the occupation of Shanghai before being interrupted by xenophobic Karate students. Chan draws a stark contrast between the duplicitous actions of the Japanese military with that of their political and moralistic leaders: like the Japanese Ambassador who fears a war with China, and the renowned Japanese fighter Fumikochi Fumio: who is ordered by the military to travel to Shanghai and defeat Chen Zhen in a duel but ends up teaching the brash youngster a valuable lesson on the nature of martial arts instead. Last but not least is Chen’s love interest Mitsuko, who is far from the archetypal love interest you find in most martial arts films and is headstrong enough to fight her own corner and tolerate anti-Japanese sentiment when she comes to Chen’s aide in Shanghai (thus showing it’s not just the Japanese who are guilty of xenophobia).
She’s very much a modernistic feminine figure given the era in which the story takes place, and this anachronistic modernism is rife throughout Fist of Legend – not least of all in the depiction of Chen Zhen as a passionate young man who has been exposed to a variety of international cultures whilst living in Japan, learning the best of not only Japanese martial arts but also western boxing and infusing these influences with his traditional Kung Fu base. Chen’s progressive attitude towards the martial arts proves almost as much a threat to the Jing Wu Men way of life as the occupying Japanese forces, and it’s with this clash of Tradition Vs. Modernism that the film’s most subtle themes play out, pitting the head student Ting’En against his friend.
The parallels between Chen Zhen in Fist of Legend and Bruce Lee’s own martial arts philosophies are obvious, and indeed Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do teachings are coursing through Fist of Legend, with many famous quotes of Lee’s making their way into the script. In this regard Fist of Legend is the best kind of remake: one that seeks to examine the mythology of both character and star and pay a very respectful tribute to the icon that was Bruce Lee. In fact you probably get a better feel for what the man was about watching Fist of Legend than some of the documentaries on him.
Whilst it undoubtedly has an uncharacteristically strong script for a 90s martial arts film, Fist of Legend ultimately succeeds or fails based on the strength of its action sequences, and it’s here that perhaps Gordon Chan’s influence as director is most overlooked. Sure it was Yuen Woo Ping and his team who choreographed and directed the action and therefore deserve the vast majority of the credit for how Fist of Legend’s fights turned out, but it was Chan who pushed for realism over wirework, often asking Yuen Woo Ping to shoot fights from a low angle so the ceilings were in the frame and therefore prove to viewers there wasn’t much in the way of vertical wirework going on. This gave Fist of Legend a greater feeling of authenticity than many contemporary martial arts films of the time and made a bold statement that grounded, skilfully performed martial arts can have all the spectacle and impact as any fantastical wire-enhanced fights.
Of course, Yuen Woo Ping had the cast to pull off a more traditional (and therefore demanding) style: Jet Li, Chin Siu Ho, Yasuaki Kurata, and Billy Chow were all highly experienced and talented screen fighters and each were on good form – particularly Jet Li, who manages to maintain the power and emotion of the character throughout each fight whilst also keeping the speed and lightness of touch viewers have come to expect from him. Li’s Chen Zhen is a very different character to Bruce Lee’s but both are equally effective once the shit hits the fan. The fight choreography is first rate: each character has their own unique style that’s never thrown in the viewers face and explained away by unnecessary exposition, thus giving the action a sense of depth and subtlety. Although the emphasis was on realism, it’s not accurate to say that Yuen Woo Ping completely did away with wires as some obvious wirework still remains. It’s also not accurate to say that Fist of Legend was the most grounded and realistic action film of its time as all fight sequences are heavily under-cranked to ramp up the speed and ferocity of the action. Naturally, this reduces the interval in which a series of moves will be exchanged, which has the slightly detrimental effect of making the choreography seem less complex and skilful than it is.
Despite being one of the very best martial arts films of the 90s, Fist of Legend wasn’t a massive hit in HK, tastes were moving on away from Kung Fu in the 90s and ironically for a film in which one of the main themes is the clash of modernism with traditional Chinese values, emphasising the necessity of changing with the times and embracing new cultures and practices, it was the same kind of shifts in the attitudes of Chinese cinemagoers that was killing off home grown HK action films. Gordon Chan probably says it best in his interview on this Blu-ray: Kung Fu films flourished in times when HK and China wasn’t so financially stable and the people very much felt like underdogs, but by the mid-90s that had changed and big Hollywood films were pulling in a greater share of the market so the native HK film industry was starting to shift towards the US model of big-budget action, comedy, and horror genres dominating the mainstream.
Still, in the west Fist of Legend was very much appreciated and was championed by fans and filmmakers alike. Its impact and influence on Hollywood was instrumental in bringing Jet Li and Yuen Woo Ping over to the states and making both a household name, so while it may have not made either of them a bucket load of cash at the time of its release, Fist of Legend’s legacy for both star and action director is truly immeasurable.
The Dimension CutSadly the version of Fist of Legend present on this Blu-ray is the Dimension Cut, which is to date the only edit of the film released in America – aside from the old Tai Seng VHS (which included the HK cut). The changes are relatively minor, the original HK opening titles are replaced with ugly Americanised “oriental” ones that are so clichéd they would feel more at home introducing a $10 Discovery Channel documentary on the Far East. The closing credits have also been replaced by American ones (although thankfully in a standard white-text on black background format), but the most egregious omission is the final shot of the film that shows the Jing Wu Men students adopting Chen Zhen’s cardio training and jogging through the streets of Shanghai. The implication and importance of this final shot is that it shows that the Jing Wu students have finally accepted Chen’s more internationalised ideas, so the school is now willing to evolve with the times and have a more successful future.
I’m sure casual fans of the film won’t bat an eyelid over these changes, but the fact that there has never been a DVD release of the film’s original HK cut complete with the original Cantonese audio and English subtitles in the US/UK is a particular bone of contention amongst the hardcore fans of this film. It’s said that when Miramax subsidiary: Rolling Thunder Pictures acquired the US rights to the film back in 1995 the HK studios demanded that they release the international version. Eventually Rolling Thunder went bust and Dimension took over the release of Fist of Legend and presumably they were still bound to use the international edit or simply couldn’t be bothered to go back to the HK studios - either way, since then the original cut has since been released outside of HK in France on DVD by HK Video, so we have to assume that Cine Asia/Dragon Dynasty would have been able to source and release the original cut and ergo could have taken a pop at producing a decent quality HD transfer that would satisfy every demographic of Fist of Legend’s wide fan base. Unfortunately their modus operandi is to work with the masters Dragon Dynasty already own, so the film’s biggest fans will still be left asking why-oh-why can’t these companies not just go the extra effort for a venerated classic and do the release 100% right.
I sympathise with them greatly, but at the same time I sympathise a teeny bit with companies like Cine Asia/Dragon Dynasty if the market for HK cinema isn’t there anymore for them to raise the cash to source and remaster other, potentially older prints. You could argue that if Cine Asia didn’t hold the rights then perhaps another UK company would have released the film right if given the chance, but sad truth is that I can’t think of any HK film distributor in the UK Blu-ray market right now who would be able to cover the cost of pulling that off (Masters of Cinema probably could, but they don’t seem interested in HK martial arts films).
The Taiwanese CutTraditionally a lot of HK films end up being released across the various Asian territories with slightly differing edits, so many HK fans like to pay attention to Taiwanese prints as a good source for longer edits of classic movies. The Taiwanese print of Fist of Legend runs about four minutes longer than the HK cut and while that might not seem like enough to make any kind of noticeable different to the story, most of the footage fleshes out the character of Ting’En and add a couple of subtle layers to the film that explain character actions that seem a little harsher in the HK cut. The most significant addition is a scene that shows Ting’En smoking opium after his fight with Chen Zhen and being lambasted by Xiao Hung when she discovers him in the act, not only does this highlight that their relationship is the real thing it also implies that Chen’s exile has affected Ting’En on a much deeper level than it seems in the HK cut. We later see in another extra scene that Ting is still brooding about Chen during his training for his duel with Fujita, and the opium couldn’t have helped his preparations either.
Not only do these scenes give a greater implication that Chen and Ting truly share a familial bond, but they also add depth to Huo’s refusal to accept Mitsuko into the Jing Wu Men after she helps Chen beat false accusations of murder. In the HK cut it seems overly harsh that Mitsuko would be spurned after essentially saving the good name of the school, but by establishing Ting and Xiao Hung’s relationship more the Taiwanese cut further sells the sacrifice Ting’En has made for the name of the Jing Wu Men in covering up and limiting their romance. Ultimately his decision is based less on anti-Japanese resentment and more on the fact that he believes that interpersonal relationships come second to the reputation of the school.
PresentationPresented in 1080p at 24fps (like all Cine Asia Blu-rays seem to be), Cine Asia is the UK distributor for the US company Dragon Dynasty, and comparing it to their R1 DVD release of Fist of Legend it’s apparent that this BD transfer has been struck from the same HD master that the DVD was taken from (comparison grabs are shown below). There were reported niggles with the frame-rate of the NTSC DVD where viewers complained of a perceived “motion blur” in a few scenes here and there whenever a new shot commenced, which according to fan reports has sadly been passed on to this Blu-ray release as well, but personally I couldn't spot any juddering at all on my projector set up so maybe it's something that some viewers will notice, others won't (and I have to say I did really try to notice it).
|Cine Asia BD||Dragon Dynasty R1 DVD|
As for the quality of the image itself, I was pleasantly surprised by it but make no mistake this is a HK film that is over 15yrs old now and therefore it’s pretty obvious that Dragon Dynasty’s print could benefit from some remastering. There’s a fair amount of damage in the form of specks, scratches, nicks, pops, and vertical lines throughout the film and the intensity of this varies from scene to scene, although the damage is never overbearing and is probably at its most distracting 58 minutes in when a vertical line can be seen running through the image for about one minute. All other aspects of the image can also vary from shot-to-shot as well: detail, grain levels, colour balance, brightness, contrast, etc. Now, this isn’t as bad as it sounds - the image looks stable, consistent and more importantly filmlike on a large screen display (I’m viewing it at 109”), but if you go through the film frame-by-frame for screen capture purposes then you’ll see some subtle and not-so-subtle changes.
Brightness flickering is probably the most intrusive niggle. It’s possible that this could be caused by automated brightness boosting throwing the levels fractionally off from frame-to-frame, but personally I think given the rather raw nature of the image it’s more likely down to the fact that some of the frames of the print are simply faded, and if brightness levelling were applied it would clear the problem up somewhat. Whatever the cause, the result in motion is a very faint flicker that makes various scenes look a little like they were lit via candlelight - but of course when this flickering is occurring in daytime exterior shots you know the Cinematographer is not to blame here! Aside from this flicker, brightness and contrast levels are pretty pleasing and feel a little more naturalistic than the Dragon Dynasty DVD (which also exhibits flicker). Blacks and whites seem occasionally clipped but shadows and highlights are not overbearing, if there is clipping (and it’s not just a case of under or over-exposure) then it’s most noticeable in white objects that sometimes look illogically over-exposed - like Chen’s white shirt in the fight with Funakoshi, and Mitsuko’s face looking a little too white after that fight.
Detail is satisfactory; close ups and mid-shots exhibit an acceptable level of fine detail and generally the image looks sharp enough in the scenes that you’d expect to be sharp, and softer in outdoor scenes. There’s not a tremendous increase in detail over the Dragon Dynasty DVD (and therefore considering it’s likely a port: the Cine Asia DVD), but there’s enough of an increase to warrant the term High Definition. One of the big changes brought on by the increase in clarity is that the grain structure of the film is now quite apparent and heavy enough to maybe take some fans aback at first, because the opening scenes in the Kyoto University are particularly affected by a dense layer of thick grain. As the film progresses the grain settles down and becomes lighter and sharper with a reasonably rich texture, but again many exterior scenes still exhibit a high level of grain. If you’re not a fan of film grain then this transfer may seem a bit overbearing, but it’s important to remember that back in HK in 1994 it’s highly unlikely that Gordon Chan and cinematographer Derek Wan were using the most state-of-the-art cameras and best quality film stocks, so fans should really expect Fist of Legend to look more like an 80s Hollywood film in terms of detail and grain.
This brings me on to the other major niggle of this transfer: Edge Enhancement. There are some really thick halos throughout the film and they appear to be inherent to the master, as you can see the same halos in the Dragon Dynasty DVD - although at times the halos are even thicker in the DVD! Again this is a problem that is at its worst in the opening act and settles down until the halos are far less intrusive, but they crop up here and there right through to the end of the film.
Alongside the increase in clarity the colour scheme exhibits a more expressive palette with more naturalistic colours that look more attractive than the BD’s standard-definition counterpart. The colour scheme is the best we’ve seen from this film since the original R1 DVD release from Dimension, but viewers should bear in mind that colours may alter subtly from shot-to-shot thanks to a lack of continuity in the cinematography and the fact that the fight sequences took days to film, which leads to drastic changes in lighting conditions for outdoor fights; the original print may also be faded as well. It’s possible that the colours were adjusted at a lower bit-depth as there’s some minor banding present in the image, but this could very well be down to the 28Mbps AVC compression not being all that efficient. Either way it’s not particularly noticeable in motion.
I may have given the impression that the transfer is quite wishy-washy and ebbs and flows in quality quite torrentially throughout, but the truth is that there’s a big chunk of the film towards the midsection where the print seems in better condition: Grain levels are a little lower, detail higher, the colours are more vibrant, and the transfer looks great. If the rest of the print had been in the same condition, or if some quality (read: expensive) remastering had been applied, then this image would earn an easy 8 or 9 rating, but with the flickering, occasionally heavy-handed EE, the inconsistencies in the print and the minor banding, I feel a 7/10 is more appropriate score. Make no mistake though, this Blu-ray represents the best Fist of Legend has looked on home video to date. It’s a noticeable improvement over any of the previous DVD releases.
Audio options are Cantonese DD2.0, Mandarin DD2.0, and English DTS-HD 5.1. The Cantonese track presents the film’s original audio as it should have originally sounded (almost, but I’ll talk about that later) without any intrusive remixing in play. The format is lossy Dolby Digital but the quality of the source is clearly so poor that there may have been little benefit in using uncompressed LPCM 2.0. Certainly the audio is in greater need of a remaster than the video, and generally sounds very muffled; with weak and loose bass and quite harsh treble response – it does sound reasonably clean though and dialogue is audible throughout. Dynamics are generally okay, with the biggest problem being louder and harsher dialogue drowning out all other elements in some scenes. There is a very brief issue with the synching of some impact sound effects during the fight between Chen Zhen and Ting’En when some of Chen’s punches go slightly out-of-synch when the character first starts fighting back, thankfully this seems to be an isolated incident and only lasts for fifteen seconds or so.
I mentioned earlier that the Cantonese track is unhindered by added sound effects, but there is one extremely bizarre alteration to the original dialogue that occurs halfway through the film, when Chen Zhen is on trial for murder and the English judge dismisses the case after a laughably inept case is presented by the prosecution. This is how he ends the trial:
“I find these proceedings ridiculous... And anyway I have to go play a cricket game. Case dismissed!”
However, in the Cantonese track on both the Dragon Dynasty R1 DVD and this BD from Cine Asia, the judge’s line has been dubbed to this:
“I find these proceedings ridiculous... besides, being a waste of my time. Case dismissed!”
A rather pointless change, what makes it even more jarring is the fact that they’ve only dubbed this one line, and the Judge mutters a couple of other words earlier in the trial in his original English voice (obviously his dialogue was looped even in the original Cantonese), so you notice the change in actors! The new line of dialogue can be found in Dimension’s English dub, so it seems that either the Cantonese masters sent to Dimension were damaged during this one moment in the dialogue, forcing them to fill it in with their English dub, or Dimension decided that Americans wouldn’t understand what the judge is talking about when he mentions cricket, or they decided the original dialogue didn’t synch up to the actor’s lips well enough (although neither dub actually matches his lips very well).
Compared to the Cantonese track the Mandarin DD2.0 audio sounds a little better, there are no issues with any looped dialogue because all the dialogue is dubbed into Mandarin anyway (so the Japanese and English are no longer speaking in their native tongues), but the track is noticeably less muffled, less hollow, and has smoother treble response. It’s not all improvements though, much of the impact sound effects are missing in the Mandarin dub and as a result the fights sound a little surreal.
Optional English subtitles are provided for people watching the film in Chinese, the subtitles on the R1 Dragon Dynasty DVD were widely criticised for reverting back to dubtitles (transcripts of the English Dub) for the final act of the film (where the English dub script is at its most annoyingly revisioned), but the English translation on this BD does not suffer from this problem. It offers a reasonably accurate translation up until the final frame, but annoyingly the final expository line of the film - which explains that the Jing Wu Men flourished after the war - is missing. For most of the film the subs are near identical to those on the Dragon Dynasty DVD only with some minor refining here and there, and while the translation seems to do the job it is also far from perfect either. There are one or two instances of glaring mistranslation - like the deranged witness in court saying Chen’s defence attorney is holding up 6 or 9 fingers, and a game of Go between Funakoshi and the Japanese ambassador being referred to as chess. Also some typos have been introduced that aren’t there in the Dragon Dynasty subs.
For those who don’t like the idea of subtitles your only option is the old English dub from Dimension, which I kind of hate in principal for altering the film’s excellent score and significantly changing the script in one or two places. The dub itself is reasonably well performed, except for the fact that the guy doing Chen Zhen’s voice seems to think the character is an emotionless robot. The English DTS-HD 5.1 track on this disc sounds decent enough; dialogue is clean and audible but tears heavily when people start screaming, and while bass is still a little softer than it could be; it’s far deeper, louder and fuller than in the Cantonese track. Dynamics are also much improved compared to the Cantonese audio, although I would say the score could perhaps be a little more aggressively mixed.
ExtrasThere’s a small but substantial selection of extra features on this disc, all of which are ported over from the Dragon Dynasty DVD. Each extra is presented in 576i@50Hz (PAL) and therefore if you have a Region A BD player you may find the Extra Features are unplayable from the main menu. The video quality of the extras isn’t too bad - they’re free from ghosting but you will see some aliasing in areas of fine detail; most notably in the eyes of interviewees.
Commentary by Hong Kong Cinema Expert Bey Logan: Anyone who has bought a Hong Kong Legends DVD should be acquainted with Bey Logan by now, but for newcomers to Asian cinema I’ll just state that Bey is an English HK film expert who has been working in the industry for decades now, and has built a reputation as a very charismatic audio commentator who makes sure to name check just about every actor on screen and provide a brief history for each one. He’s obviously a big fan of the film and speaks enthusiastically and infectiously about it.
Trailer Gallery: Just the film’s original trailer and a promo trailer created by Dragon Dynasty, the original trailer comes with properly translated, but non-removable player–generated English subtitles.
Deleted Scenes: These are the extra scenes found in the Taiwanese Version of the film (see section above for details), presented in a Mandarin dub and probably sourced from the old Ritek Taiwanese DVD.
The Man Behind the Legend: An Exclusive Interview with Director Gordon Chan: The first of three lengthy interviews on this disc, Chan is an intelligent filmmaker who seems very comfortable discussing and reminiscing about his previous work. In the interview he covers how Fist of Legend came about as a project and how he and his crew began figuring out how to put their own stamp of originality on the story of Chen Zhen. He then goes on to talk at length about working with Yuen Woo Ping on the action scenes and also with each member of the primary cast. To round up he addresses the issue of the waning of Martial Arts films in the late 90s.
Brothers in Arms – An Exclusive Interview with Kung Fu Impresario Chin Siu Ho: The perennial bridesmaid of HK action, Chin Siu-Ho tells the story of how he first got into martial arts, thanks to having a champion martial artist for a neighbour, and how Chang Cheh discovered him in the late 70s. Chin also talks extensively about his work on Fist of Legend and shares his views on Fist of Fury.
The Way of the Warrior – An Exclusive Interview with Japanese Action Legend Kurata Yasuaki: Arguably Japan’s greatest ever export as far as the HK film industry is concerned, Kurata-san is a genuine legend who has worked with pretty much all the top action directors, so as you’d expect he’s not short of topics to discuss and offers some real insight into the differences in working in both the HK and Japanese film industry - and his work on Fist of Legend in particular. An inherently cool and charming man, this interview is a real treat for hardcore Kung Fu fans.
The School of Hard Knocks – A Screen Fighting Seminar at the Celebrated Kurata Action School: We join Yasuaki Kurata in one of his stuntman training classes at his prestigious Kurata Action Club in Tokyo, where we see the master choreographing some simple hand-to-hand and weapons exchanges. This is a Japanese class so the action we see is more Japanese in style than HK, but it’s an interesting featurette for HK film fans nonetheless.
A Look at Fist of Legend with Director Brett Ratner & Critic Elvis Mitchell: Despite his obvious limitations as a filmmaker, Brett Ratner is a pretty likeable, charismatic guy who usually proves pretty frank and entertaining when it comes to discussing his own films; but it’s painfully obvious whenever he discusses Asian cinema that he doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. He’s completely on form in this featurette, spouting one false comment after another. Here are some of the best:
“Fist of Legend is the one film that is a Chinese movie that can play in both Japan and China without any kind of censorship”
“You see in this movie a lot of Yuen Woo Ping, who choreographed and directed the first two Jackie Chan movies”
“It was the first time that they didn’t use wires. They wanted to do something that kind of hadn’t been done before”
“It was the first time that you really saw the ability of this star Jet Li without any enhancements, per say”
“When you have wirework and when you have a fantastical martial arts kind of film, there’s a lot of: “Ok, I’ve seen this before, he’s been doing it for hundreds of years, this type of flying martial arts kind of cinema”
Luckily former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell is also onboard to offer more insightful comments on the film, although it’s Ratner who’s given the majority of the screen time.