‘Fist of Legend’: Hong Kong’s Late-Night Filmmaking at Its Best

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Much has been written about why Hong Kong movies of the 1980s and early ’90s were so unique. It was a 10-year period during which a thousand celebrities bloomed, notably Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-Fat, Jackie Chan, and, most impressively, Jet Li. The era, when one tiny city-state with fewer than 7 million residents improbably made hundreds of movies that became wildly popular all over the world, fuels fanatical devotion from legions of fans. Film scholars have speculated that it had to do with the production style in Hong Kong, the 50 years of filmmaking that preceded it, the Cultural Revolution, identity politics, and any number of other things. I think it was because of the midnight screenings.

Between 1984 and 1994 in Hong Kong, producers made a tradition of previewing new films, the prints still wet from the lab, on Thursday nights at midnight. Rowdy audiences packed into theaters, nervous directors and producers stood in the back, and if the movie was good, the audience would cheer and sometimes rip out the seats. If it committed the cardinal sin of being boring, they often tried to attack the producers. The surviving filmmakers read the crowd reaction like tea leaves, and would spend the 24 hours before the release re-editing, trimming the fat, and re-dubbing lines: It was moviemaking as a product of entertainment Darwinism set on fast-forward. A lot can go wrong with this process, but “Fist of Legend” — Mr. Li’s 1994 film, now out on a two-disc DVD from Dragon Dynasty — is what happens when it works perfectly.

“Fist of Legend” is a remake of 1972’s “Fist of Fury,” which made Bruce Lee a legend, but Mr. Li was already a major star when it made its premiere in 1994. Sadly it bombed, making less than half what his previous film had made at the box office. But “Fist of Legend” features Mr. Li at his most iconic, not to mention the action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping at his most savagely intense. Perhaps that’s why it’s matured into a classic. Reportedly, this is the film that inspired the Wachowski brothers to hire Mr. Yuen to choreograph “The Matrix.”

As “Fist of Legend,” which is based on actual events, begins, Chen Zhen is earnestly studying engine repair in 1937 Japan before leaving for his Hong Kong home, when word comes that his master, the real-life martial artist and defender of Chinese national pride, Huo Yuan-jia, has been killed in a martial arts tournament by a Japanese fighter named Ryuichi Akutagawa (Lou Hsueh Hsien). Chen arrives in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, burns some incense for Huo, and marches down to Akutagawa’s dojo for revenge.

What follows is late-night filmmaking at its best. Chen takes on a mass of Akutagawa’s students by himself, and the filmmakers pull out all the stops — long tracking shots, slow motion, undercranking to speed up kicks, wire work to make falls more intense, the dramatic pauses made famous in spaghetti Westerns, the tension and release of Bruce Lee’s fighting style, and tiny, character-building, crowd-pleasing flourishes. Chen hooks a bad guy by the cheek and throws his head through the floor before taking a moment to disdainfully wipe his fingers on his tunic. He then pointedly targets the offending crotches of the Japanese occupiers, and it becomes obvious that the director, Gordon Chan, and the editor, Chan Kei-hop, were schooled in the language of extremity by rowdy late-night crowds and the need to feed the beast.

Mr. Li plays a sort of kung fu Sherlock Holmes here, finally fighting Akutagawa and deciding that he’s not powerful enough to have defeated his master. Chen discovers instead that his master was poisoned before the fight (something many believe to have actually happened; Mr. Li even played Huo Yuan-jia as the victim of this poisoning in 2006’s “Fearless”), and he must take on an escalating series of Japanese henchmen, including his girlfriend’s father, until he fights the one he thinks was responsible for the murder.

“Fist of Legend” is a chiropractor’s nightmare, full of cracked joints and shattered bones, with spines exploding and knuckles popping like firecrackers. It’s also an anthem to Chinese nationalism, applying the soothing balm of maximum violence to the wounds of Japanese occupation.

Uniform fetishists will have a field day with the finale, as super-kicker Billy Chow (playing an evil Japanese general) and Mr. Li face off, one in a sharp military uniform with knee-high leather boots, the other in a Japanese schoolboy’s high-collared black uniform. The two martial artists basically pick up an entire house and beat each other over the head with it; the impossible thing about this fight is that it never stops cranking up the volume, never trails off, and continually explodes to higher levels of unbelievable carnage.

The original “Fist of Fury” ended with Bruce Lee dying in a hail of Japanese bullets. But here, Mr. Chan rewrote the story to give it a happier ending. The era of movies that spawned “Fist of Legend” put a premium on sending the rowdiest of audiences home happy, their eyes bleeding and their ears ringing. Depending on the size of your home entertainment system, “Fist of Legend” will probably do the same to you.

The New York Sun

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