Andrew Lau is a big hitter when it comes to directing, a proponent of the Rafael Nadal approach to craft. His camera shoves its muscular way around baroque sets overflowing with movement, action, noise, and moods. There is no room for subtlety or contradiction in his latest film, Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, a superhero-kung fu hybrid big on stunts and technical bravado.
The fictional Chen Zhen, first penned by Kong Kon writer Ni Kuang, was brought to the screen by Bruce Lee in 1972’s Fist of Fury. Lau’s update pales in comparison to Lee’s legendary hit, but the former cinematographer deserves a lot of respect for his technique. He simply kicks ass at action, moving the camera with every thrown punch to move scenes forward at an often exhilarating pace. This, however, comes at a price, especially as Legend of the Fist struggles into its last hour and loses energy.
Chen Zhen is played by Donnie Yen, the current king of Chinese martial arts, who also served as action director and choreographer. His character is quite similar to Ip Man, featuring Yen taking on the Japanese (its climax is a variant of Legend‘s). Yen and Lau’s collaboration sparkles in several dizzying set pieces, including a World War I battle in France that combines the pummel of Saving Private Ryan with the artful parkour of Jackie Chan and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. This opening salvo fades in from newsreel footage of Chinese labourers sweating in European trenches – fitting considering the film’s patriotic tone and distrust of all foreigners, Europeans and Japanese alike.
We skip ahead twenty odd years to Shanghai, an westernized oasis dripping in champagne, criminals, and Japanese troops. Chen Zhen, who faked his death in a dojo fight against the Japanese, returns in disguise to gain the trust of night club owner and Triad boss Mr. Liu (Anthony Wong). Under his thin moustache and smooth businessman exterior Zhen is really working with other Chinese resistance fighters who seek to oust the Japanese (and to some extent the British) from Shanghai and unite China.
What seems to be a pretty normal narrative of national solidarity amid chaos is jolted when Zhen spots a leather costume in a department store and suddenly decides to become the Masked Warrior. While kung fu and superhero mythology should not be incompatible, this decision feels like a cheap add-on that is not needed. Lau apparently came to that conclusion as well: the Warrior disappears from the screen after 30 minutes. Yen was probably tired of looking like a sex shop Zorro.
A number of other elements do not come together. Shi Qu is too manic and too drunk to inspire much sympathy as the duplicitous Kiki, the club’s singer who (of course) takes a liking to Zhen. Once again, the film’s last half is sporadic, full of half-scenes fading in and out of each other. Lightening the speechifying (I arrogantly assume speechifying because, as an ignorant white film viewer, I have to read unreliable subtitles) of unification is the requisite policeman/idiot (whose name I forget, but he’s very funny). It is as if Lau threw him into the mix of gangsters, socialites, and freedom fighters to remind us not to take everything too seriously. Also keeping the fairytale spirit of the film alive are the stock Japanese villains, led by a Colonel (Ryu Kohata) who punches disappointing subordinates in the throat. Imagine Darth Vader with a black belt.
When not directing Yen in mind-blowing stunts Lau and co-cinematographer Man-Ching Ng pull out every flourish they can think of. Historical figures are stamped over with their names and positions à la Kill Bill. The cameras circle, swoop, duck, and zoom like Scorsese on steroids, and the results are sometimes fun and sometimes tiresome. Legend also snorted too much step printing and slow motion, old tricks Lau put to better use when we worked with Wong Kar Wai on As Tears Go By and Chungking Express.
But when Zhen dons a white shirt and grabs Lee’s nunchucks, the film’s shortcomings are momentarily forgotten. There is not much else more pleasurable to the eye than watching Donnie Yen take on a dojo while the resistance sabotages Japanese headquarters (another fine set piece). You know what’s coming, you know when Chen Zhen will fall to the ground, you know when he will pick himself up, and you know he will clobber his enemy to a pulp. Just for a few minutes though, it is nice to see a director and action star do what they do best and burn the celluloid right to its last frame.
Legend of the Fist played at the Winter Garden Theatre on September 9th, opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival. It also plays at 12pm Friday September 10th at the Ryerson Theatre and 9am September 18th at the Varsity.