Fist of Legend: Two-Disc Ultimate Edition Review
Essentially a remake of Lo wei’s 1972 feature Fist of Fury, Fist of Legend opens up in 1937 at the beginning of the fierce Second Sino-Japanese War, which saw Japan endeavour to overtake China’s political and military power. A young man by the name of Chen Zhen (Jet Li) has been studying in Japan, where he tries to live out a relationship with his Japanese girlfriend Mitsuko (Shinobu Nakayama). One day members of the ‘Black Dragon Clan’ force their way into Chen’s classroom, spouting anti-Chinese sentiments and threatening his livelihood. Chen effortlessly dispatches the ruffians just as their leader Funakoshi Fumio (Yasuaki Kurata) arrives. He tells off his students, and upon learning of Chen’s identity brings grave news. According to reports Chen’s master, Huo Yuan-Jia has been killed in a challenge match by a man named Akutagawa Ryuichi (Jackson Liu), which prompts Chen to immediately head back home to Shanghai and visit his beloved Jing Wu Men school.
Upon his arrival with Mitsuko, Chen discovers that the once proud school is on its last legs. His best friend and son of Huo Yuan-Jia, Ting’en (Siu-hou Chin), isn’t quite ready to take over the reigns, but with the ever looming threat of the Japanese they must do what they can to raise spirits and fight for their cause. Chen decides to investigate and exact revenge for his master’s death, suspecting foul play, but he’ll find himself discriminated and with the odds stacked against him.
Gordon Chan’s modern update of the Bruce Lee classic sticks to the original pretty much like a tee. In terms of structure through which certain plot mechanics remain the same there’s little sense here for me to talk about the overall development of the narrative, save for some tweaks here and there, for instance the final scene in which this time our hero gets to ride off into the sunset; it’s a simple tale told in the simplest of ways. However, despite its proud influences there is a notion that sensibilities have moved on in the twenty years since the original hit cinema screens which certainly leaves some portions up for discussion. Now in a time of deeper reflection Chan has the good grace to not take a predominantly one-sided stance. Fist of Legend is certainly melodramatic and jingoistic to a point and it carries a discriminatory subtext throughout, but it doesn’t overly portray its antagonists with distain - allowing few to have some shred of humanity - or take things to sickly levels with the patriot act. While the Japanese are most certainly the harbingers of fear the director chooses to separate their imperialist ideals from their martial philosophies and as such these contrasts make it easier to give way to Billy Chow’s downright menacing, albeit one-dimensional portrayal of General Fujita to eventually focus more on the purer-spirited Karate master Funakoshi; even Chen Zhen himself at one point embraces Karate and adopts it into his teachings. And really that’s the heart and soul of the film; that while there will be everlasting conflict between nations people can be joined on a common ground. Chan, then, doesn’t dwell on pinpointing blame or having the Chinese wallow in too much self-pity, sensing perhaps that there’s little need in stirring sentiments from what was evidently a senseless confrontation to begin with. And of course lest we forget he’s making an action film here. The historical references firmly in place do well to drive and compliment Fist of Legend’s high-impact fight sequences, and vice-versa, allowing for a pretty well-rounded tale.
Yuen Woo-Ping, who needs no introduction these days, was drafted onboard as action director/ choreographer. He’d already worked with Li as choreographer on Once Upon A Time in China 1&2 and Tai-Chi Master, knowing therefore exactly what his main man was capable of doing. Fist of Legend, however, is something of a step-down: less reliance on the theatrical displays of who could jump the highest and more on who could keep the ground shaking. Adhering to the old Bruce Lee way, the film sets itself up as a well-grounded actioner; there are examples of wirework, but it’s subtle, simply lending select shots with a certain extra grace. In contrast to Gordon Chan’s quite sedate approach in staging dialogue-driven encounters - though arguably this is a slicker looking picture than its predecessor and one shouldn’t discount the fine compositions during the action - Yuen Woo-ping adopts a fierce and unrelenting attitude, serving hard-hitting knock after knock which altogether ruptures the stage. These are powerful moments, hugely exciting given that the field in which they’re set is intimate, and while there are only a few set pieces on display they’re each determined by their own inventive displays of human prowess: the one man vs. army dojo fight and the blindfolded duel being prime examples of beautiful intricacy. Li is at the top of his game; if ever the man could be looked upon as being a truly dangerous opponent then it’s here with his staggeringly quick moves. There’s even time to throw in some much loved homage to Bruce Lee’s fancy footwork, which is no better way to honour a true legend in his field. And that’s Yuen Woo-ping’s gift: like Sammo Hung he can bring out the best in any actor/martial artist and have them reach their fullest potential. Not only Li here, but so too a memorable roster of faces from the marvellous Siu-hou Chin to the towering Billy Chow and Yasuaki Kurata, who sure enough have been put through their paces as they provide a wonderful contrast of martial art styles.
Dragon Dynasty has afforded Fist of Legend with a rather nice 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation. The first good sign is that there’s a healthy amount of natural film grain which matches the grit of the feature itself. On occasion the image shimmers on darker outdoor shots and grain becomes more pronounced, neither of which comes across as distracting. Detail is a mixed blessing, though I have no doubts much of this is again down to the original source materials. For the most part it’s perfectly fine and close-up shots perform remarkably well, with my only major complaint in this regard going to the unnecessary amount of edge enhancement that’s been applied. Honestly, why do companies do this? I’m convinced that with each review I finish that most, with the exception of very few, have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. The palette overall is colourful with very few issues. Skin tones can appear a little over-saturated, which wouldn’t be a first (known as The Lobster Effect around here), and contrast has been slightly bolstered, but overall this is a pleasing looking transfer, one that I’m confident is now the best on the market in terms of a complete and accessible package. One last niggle - what is with the new opening titles? They’re rubbish
There’s no messing about when it comes to our choice of audio. Dragon Dynasty has largely done away with fancy surround gimmicks, at least as far as the Chinese sources go. Here we have original Cantonese and Mandarin stereo. Neither track is particularly arresting, but they sound as intended. Dialogue is always clear and the fights have enough oomph to them, with no distortion to speak of. For the English 5.1 surround track DD has done a good job. The dub itself is perfectly fine, though I couldn’t tell you if it’s an old or new recording. Certainly it fares better in terms of providing ambient noise across the soundstage. For example when the Japanese arrive at Ting’en’s school to take revenge over the death of Akutagawa there is greater emphasis on the birds happily chirping away in the trees. Small instances such as this raise the experience, though for my money I’d still prefer to stick with the former Cantonese option.
Optional English subtitles are included and before anyone starts to worry they are not dubtitles. I believe these are closer to the original Chinese script. The subs are raised a little too high, but they’re well timed and free from grammatical errors.
The first notable extra is an audio commentary from Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan, offering more of his invaluable insight as he follows the film, picking up on various issues along the way. He offers a well-timed commentary, knowing exactly when to change the pace to bring us more scene specific discussion. He talks a lot about the various locations used for shooting and picks up on much of the film’s political undertones, while also addressing the references to Fist of Fury and even talking about several differences between both films during specific scenes. There is of course plenty of historical factoids to be had as Bey looks at the film’s historical background and the importance of traditional Chinese values; especially nice is the way in which he translates key Chinese phrases for us, which helps understand portions of the film a lot better. Bey also takes plenty of time out to talk about many of the actors and stunt men involved in the production and naturally informs us about the distinct martial arts styles on display. And he still has time to give us his honest opinion of the film: which parts he thinks work best and which ones feel slightly off, while he also throws in a few jokey comments and touches upon influences as wonders himself about which director’s Gordon Chan felt inspired by; referencing Paul Schrader’s Mishima a couple of times. Once more you’re getting value for money here as Bey continues to prove that he’s one of the best speakers in the business.
There are no optional subtitles for this commentary, which seems a shame seeing as Dragon Dynasty have gone to great lengths in providing two subtitle streams for the bonus material on disc 2: English and English SDH.
Disc 2 offers a wealth of personal insight. Beginning with The Man Behind The Legend: an exclusive interview with director Gordon Chan (35.35) the man himself fondly reminisces about working on his first action film. Conducted in English, Chan comes across very well. He talks about how he became attracted to the original idea and how he didn’t wish to imitate Bruce Lee. He mentions contacting the original writer, whose work Fist of Fury was based on, before telling us how he went about assembling his team of choreographers and actors. From here things get considerably anecdotal, with the director telling some pleasant stories about various cast members; how many were kind and willing to go through a lot of pain to see things done. More interestingly is when he talks about meeting and casting Kurata who then helped him find Japanese actors who would understand his true intentions. He goes through some of his personal procedures when working on any film, such as doing last minute re-drafts and he offers his own philosophy on the subject of martial arts. He also laments certain things such as how actor Siu-hou never made it as an A-list star, not to mention the fact that the film didn’t really do that well at the Hong Kong box-office. But he likes his work and he certainly appreciates its old-school techniques. He’s probably right when he says that we’ll never see the likes of it again.
Brother In Arms: an exclusive interview with Kung Fu impresario, Chin Siu-hou (23.16) follows a similar direction. Siu-hou, speaking in his native Cantonese, tells of how he became involved in Chinese martial arts at the age of ten, moving on to discuss the difference between real life and film martial arts. He talks about being selected by one of his heroes Chang Cheh, who placed him in his first film role. The actor goes on about how he approaches his roles and tries to apply some of his own personal feelings, while in terms of fighting he and many others would have to endure hard knocks for the betterment of a scene. He chats about Yuen Woo-ping and Jet Li, coming across as very honest in his opinions; he mentions for example how Li had matured from his early roles and developed a far greater personal style. Inevitably he compares Fist of Legend and Fist of Fury, something which Gordon Chan didn’t like to, and he talks about his preferences when it comes to old-school and new action, the latter of which he acknowledges is rather poor on account of not enough directors adopting martial art philosophies. Like Chan he’s enjoyed Fist of Legend’s international success and seems very proud of his work.
The Way Of The Warrior: an exclusive interview with Japanese Action Legend Kurata Yasuaki (29.39) sees the man touch upon his early days. Like Siu-hou he talks of his early adoption of his chosen art: Karate, quickly moving on to discuss how he became the first Japanese to appear in a Hong Kong action film. He proudly talks of meeting Bruce Lee and then setting up his own action club in Japan shortly after Lee passed away. He’s often frank when telling old stories and is totally upfront when addresses his original concerns about starring in Fist of Legend - the expectations of stereotyped portrayals of villainous Japanese for example. He mentions working with Yuen Woo-ping and how he was free to suggest ideas and incorporate them into the choreography, while telling of the contrasts between the action director and Gordon Chan. Toward the end he touches upon the Japanese system and how different they approach films to that of Hong Kong: he certainly appreciates the long and arduous shoots in which everything must be perfect as there’s a philosophy behind HK films that isn’t far off from the martial arts he practises. But he has time for both worlds and above all needs to continue carrying himself as a Japanese with firm ideals and beliefs.
The School For Hard Knocks: A screen fighting seminar at the Celebrated Kurata Action School (26.29) is simple enough. We’re taken through a typical day at the action club and watch Kurata instruct his students on proper fighting techniques. There’s a lengthy lesson on the art of drawing the sword, followed by fist fighting and demonstrations of a typical movie fight scene. The piece closes with some traditional Japanese etiquette and a few final words from Kurata about his own philosophies of the art. One problem is with the subtitles: Every time the female host confers with Kurata we get [Speaking Japanese] as opposed to the Cantonese she’s actually speaking.
A Hollywood look at Fist Of Legend with director Brett Ratner and critic Elvis Mitchell (9.34) basically consists of two separate interviews in which each talk about certain aspects of the film. I presume that Mitchell is a knowledgeable critic on Hong Kong cinema - at least he seems to know what he’s talking about - though I don’t think there’s any real need for Ratner to be involved in this. To be fair though he at least understands the film and draws some solid conclusions which I can’t argue with as they match my own views. Both men talk fondly and manage to pick up on several of the film’s undertones, which sees it as a decent enough inclusion in terms of providing western opinions.
Deleted Scenes (5.07) features five short clips of fairly rough quality and with hard English and Chinese subs. I presume, then, that these are from an early test screening or maybe even an old VCD. Few amount to much. The most significant scenes follow Ting’en having lost his fight to Chen Zhen; one shows him smoking opium and feeling sorry for himself and the other just shows him feeling sorry for himself. I can understand why perhaps the director removed these as it shows the character in a rather unsavoury light, which goes against his likeable figure seen throughout the feature. The last scene is rather nice, featuring a little extended dialogue between Funakoshi and the Japanese Ambassador, which I’d actually have liked to seen left in there.
Rounding off this nice set is an original theatrical trailer and standard U.S. promo.
Fist of Legend is often hailed as one of, if not THE, greatest martial arts movies of all time. But then a lot of martial arts movies have the same thing said about them. Such appraisal doesn’t come unwarranted though. This is damn fine piece of entertainment, regardless of whether or not it actually deserves to be called a classic. That it took this long for a great DVD to surface is almost unbelievable given its reputation, but it’s finally here and fans will be happy that at least we have a definitive way to own the film. As far back as I can remember this was always one of the flicks placed highly on Hong Kong cinema fans’ wish lists along with Jackie Chan’s seminal Drunken Master 2, and by that I mean fully uncut with tidy presentation and English subtitles. I can only hope that Dragon Dynasty are secretly working on the latter.