The Legend Of Fong Sai Yuk Review
Fresh from the runaway success of Once Upon A Time In China, Jet Li played another Chinese folk hero in 1993's Fong Sai Yuk a.k.a. Jet Li's The Legend. The story takes place in the southern Chinese province of Guang Dong, and is set during the dying days of the Manchu-ruled Ching Dynasty. Manchu oppression is widespread, and a clandestine sect called the Red Flower Society fights to keep China free from such tyranny. A cruel Manchu governer is dispatched by the Emperor to find a secret list of the Red Flower's members - and to kill those who are on it. Into this tale comes local martial arts champion Fong Sai Yuk, a carefree youngster whose world soon collides with that of the rebels in a perfect blend of comedy and action.
Corey Yuen directs with a keen eye and a penchant for subverting the audience's expectations. Early on we see Fong square up to a guy who's harassing a young lady, but instead of fighting him the man challenges Fong to an athletics contest. As you do. Thankfully the humour is broad enough so that it plays to all audiences, and much of the movie is actually centred around the Fong family matriarch, played by Josephine Siao on top ass-kicking form. She gets involved in a funny (and ultimately sweet) gender-bending caper, and she gives the film a lighter touch that sets it apart from Li's other Wuxia epics. Chu Kong is also good value as Fong's poker-faced father who's got some secrets of his own, and newcomer Chiu Man-Cheuk holds his own against Li as the evil governer.
Former beauty queen Michelle Reis does what she can in the token eye-candy role. Chen Sung Young and Sibelle Hu are great as her overbearing Manchu parents, who are keen to get on the good side of the locals by holding a martial arts tournament - with marriage to their daughter as the prize! Jet Li shows his range with some decent comic timing, but the deftly-staged action is the main treat. Whether fights are played out on a huge wooden frame, in a dye shop, or crouching under a stage, it's all performed and edited with a clarity of vision that puts Western fight scenes to shame. That's par for the course with any decent kung fu flick, granted, but the invention and sheer audacity on display is breathtaking at times. The scrap that takes place between Sibelle Hu and Jet Li as they bounce around on the heads of spectators is a particularly dazzling piece of action cinema.
Finally, on a somewhat sour note, this DVD release from Cine Asia (licensed from US distributor Dragon Dynasty) contains the shorter international version. It's missing a few snippets of violence as well as some extra comedy antics. Dragon Dynasty head honcho Bey Logan has said that they were unable to source the extra footage, so we're stuck with the shorter version. This UK disc also has 1 second of compulsory BBFC cuts for a horse trip. The heart of the film still shines through however, and I'm just glad that it's finally gotten a half-decent UK DVD release.
Fong Sai Yuk comes to DVD with an anamorphic 1.78:1 presentation. It's been given a decent clean-up, as there's very little dirt or damage on the print. But the image still looks quite rough, owing to some coarse grain which devolves into noise all too often. MPEG blocking isn't a major issue though. The contrast runs fairly hot, blowing out white highlights. As a result the black levels have also received a superficial boost which is pleasing to the eye, but comes at the expense of shadow detail. Edge enhancement is all too obvious, with glaring halos appearing around contrasting edges.
So far, so mediocre, but there's an even bigger problem: the video skips a frame every second or so. There doesn't appear to be any combing artefacts common to shoddy NTSC to PAL conversions, and this PAL encode actually runs with the correct 4% speed-up - Bey Logan sounds likes a hyperactive chipmunk in his commentary. So what gives? (I've contacted Mr. Logan and he's passed on my concerns to Cine Asia.)
The Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (edited to fit this shorter version) is resolutely mono but does its job well enough, with clear music and dialogue, and snappy sound effects. The English Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a far more engaging mix on a technical level, with respectable bass and a lively sense of atmosphere. But as with 99% of English dub tracks, I just can't enjoy the movie in this way. The audio has been completely rebuilt (music, dialogue, effects, the lot) and the movie loses much of its charm, like the wonderful nod to Li's role as Wong Fei Hung in the Cantonese track which is completely overlooked in the English dub.
The English subtitles do not appear to be dubtitles - they're not based upon the English dub on this disc, anyway - and they are generally well-timed and are spelled correctly. The translations appear to be a little colloquial, but given the greater comedy leanings of the film this is not entirely inappropriate.
As for the extra features, we're not spoiled rotten like the days of old (RIP HKL) but what's there is very good indeed. Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan comes up with yet another excellent audio commentary, reeling off facts, figures and anecdotes like his life depends on it. As always, multiple listenings are recommended because there's so much to take in!
The interview with director Corey Yuen, titled Hit Hard & Fly High, is excellent (in Cantonese with English subtitles, 23:06). He covers topics like how he got started in the business, how Fong Sai Yuk came to be made, and so on. Screenwriter Jeff Lau speaks in The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword (in English, 13:09), and although it's not as good as the other interview it's still worth viewing. Lau talks about how he changed the Fong Sai Yuk characters compared to the older versions of the story and how the film was cast, among other nuggets of info. The package is rounded off with five cheesy promotional trailers for other Dragon Dynasty releases.