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April 21, 2011

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen

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Jing wu feng yun: Chen Zhen
Andrew Lau - 2010
Well Go USA Entertainment

While I wouldn't say that it's mandatory to see the Hong Kong movie Jing wu men, a film known under English language titles Fist of Fury and The Chinese Connection, it may add to the enjoyment of Legend of the Fist. Andrew Lau's film is a sequel of sorts to Lo Wei's movie, with the character played by Bruce Lee somehow surviving what appeared to be certain death at the end of that film. There is pleasure to be had during the final showdown, almost a remake of the end of the earlier film, with Donnie Yen whooping it up, with the sounds and moves of Bruce Lee, right down to pulling out the nunchucks from his back pocket.

Bruce Lee is also deliberately evoked when Yen takes on the role of "The Masked Warrior", a mysterious character who helps stand up for the Chinese during the time of Japanese occupation following World War I. With the black suit, cap and mask, Yen is Kato without the Green Hornet to hold him back. The action sequences are the film's main calling card, and a terrific showcase for Yen, who also served as the action director.

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This is also Andrew Lau's first film to get significant U.S. distribution since Infernal Affairs. Legend of the Fist amplifies the theme of identity explored in the Infernal Affairs trilogy. Going undercover, Yen takes on the name of a deceased friend, and the disguise of a pencil thin mustache, as the pianist, and later, manager, of a nightclub favored by the both the British and Japanese movers and shakers in 1920s Shanghai. The star attraction at the nightclub, called Casablanca, is the beautiful Chinese singer known by the European stage name of Kiki. Significantly, as the director and stars made their names in Hong Kong cinema, Legend of the Fist is primarily concerned with what it means to identify oneself as Chinese.

One might also argue that China has become the new Old Hollywood, as Legend of the Fist is the kind of historical epic that used to be a Hollywood staple about fifty years ago. The film begins with a reminder of Chinese participation in World War I, setting up the prologue for how Chen Zhen was able to get the identity that allowed him to return to China. The combination of documentary and staged footage also provides the set up for the first action sequence with Donnie Yen leaping past machine gun fire, swinging into a building, and taking on several German soldiers. Also impressive is the Shanghai street set where the night club is located, and the mammoth interior of the night club.

For some of us, it's hard to pay attention to Donnie Yen when Shu Qi is onscreen. There should be no doubt about her acting ability, but such considerations are easily put aside with a close up of Shu wearing a chicly tilted beret. Certainly Shu is the most beautiful actress to wear blue eye shadow this side of Elizabeth Taylor. Anthony Wong appears older than he is as the nightclub owner, lover of Kiki, and self-declared brother of the impudent pianist who plays "The Internationale". The screenplay is by Gordon Chan, also an accomplished director, but more importantly here, the writer and director of another film about Chen Zhen, made in 1994 with Jet Li, with the English title of . . . Fist of Legend. You don't need me to tell you that Donnie Yen kicks ass, but that's no stunt double when the star sits down at the piano.

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Posted by peter at April 21, 2011 08:39 AM