Finally, I get around to a film I have been eager to see ever since I heard the stories about its production: Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen! So here we go!
In order to satisfy me, I knew the movie had to credibly enhance the story of Chen Zhen. What happened after that hail of bullets at the end of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury? Well, I don’t know, but Andrew Lau’s movie drops you in the middle of France, and you don’t have time to wonder how Chen Zhen got there. I have to say, I never expected that opening sequence. I thought it was GREAT! I mean, I knew Chen Zhen was BAD, but DANG! Let’s just say I never knew he was part-SUPERHERO! However, aside from that, I thought the decision to open the film mid-battle in France set a very cosmopolitan tone for the film, one that would be repeated once the setting shifts to Shanghai.
One of the critiques one can make of Lee’s Fist of Fury is that, in the process of making Chen Zhen the ultimate Angry Young Man, other aspects of 1908 Shanghai get flattened. But we have to remember, the 1970s was a very different time (that’s what I heard), especially for representations of Asian men, particularly Chinese men, in particular. Prior to Lee’s Chen Zhen, Asian men were getting the short end of the stick in terms of representations in roles where they had agency and were seen as men. So when Lee’s Chen Zhen goes to regain the honor of Chinese men at the Japanese dojo, it means something. Unfortunately, in the process, the Japanese come off as arrogant, evil, sadistic and mean, often through the use of stereotypes. I wondered when I heard about Lau’s sequel about how he was going to handle this. Can you make a sequel to Fist of Fury without the Japanese as the enemy? How would this go over in the 2000s?
I think Lau does a good job (disclaimer: I’m a Lau fan, and while he CAN do wrong (ahem, The Avenging Fist), in my eyes he rarely does (yes, I’m claiming The Duel–I LOVE that movie). I particularly liked the way he evoked a cosmopolitan 1920s Shanghai: the British businessman, the African American jazz bandleader and orchestra, the Japanese soldiers, the Chinese triad members, workers and students. All of these people are believably in Shanghai (for real! go look it up). I think this also contributes to the way he handles the characterization of the Japanese. Are they evil? Well, Japan was an imperial power and they did occupy many locations, so you kinda have to go there with that. What I find interesting is that Lau does not use stereotypes to make his point. Remember the Japanese from Fist of Fury?
In Lau’s film, the Japanese are bad guys, but their badness is not based on stereotypical representations about the Japanese. Here the characters are a little more fleshed out, more complex. Yes, you have the Japanese commander completely committed to ensuring the victory of the Japanese, and his minions, but the traitor isn’t Woo, a sniveling, groveling go-between who wears glasses. Quite the opposite: Shu Qi (thank you for not letting her dance too much, Andrew) reflects a level of inner turmoil as she infiltrates the club.
And while we’re on the subject of stereotyping, Lau also corrects the omission of the Western presence in Shanghai and their attitudes towards the Chinese. Absent from Fist of Fury were the British, who had a hand in colonial affairs in Shanghai and complicated the political situation in Shanghai in ways that affected both the Japanese and the Chinese. The use of Huang Bo’s relationship to the British guy illustrates just how complicated power relations could be.
Moreover, whoever is responsible for the costuming (Dora Ng, costume design) and sets (Eric Lam, art direction) needs an award. If Lau’s intention was to evoke a lush, glamorous Shanghai, then he was successful. I mean, look at this:
So yes, I am loving just the LOOK of this film, even though I know ultimately, we are supposed to be here for the action. Um, did you not see the cast? Two words: Donnie. Yen. YES! I believe that Donnie does justice to the multi-decade character of Chen Zhen. No longer just looking to punch someone in the face, we see a veteran Chen Zhen, who has seen good friends die in the war, and has become involved in the politics of this country as part of the resistance movement. And yet, as always, you do well not to make him mad. His anger here is far more controlled and more targeted. If Donnie did sucky action direction, it would be news, but you know the choreography is on point. Was it a little TOO slicetastic? Yeah, to a certain extent, but not too much to distract me.
And finally, one of the big critiques of Fist of Fury (at least for me) was the wimpy woman character (yes that is singular). Here this chick is in the Jing Wu martial arts school, and her kung fu is ok, but at the end of the day she comes off a little whiny and fairly passive. I guess we were lucky to get her in the film at all. However, Lau, in both principal characters and smaller roles, provides women who are in the thick of things (Shu Qi) and who are politically active (the student who protests Japanese control). Even the quite attractive women who are found close to men who have power go down swinging (check out that assassination attempt).
I dimly remember somebody telling me that I may not like this movie. So silly. I think Lau does a good job of advancing the storyline of Chen Zhen in ways that are compelling for a 21st century audience. Is it a little nationalistic? Maybe, but would it be Chen Zhen if it wasn’t?
Oh yeah, and Donnie channels Kato in the central role he should have had in The Green Hornet.