The emotional complexity and depth of the characters is a strength of director Gordon Chan’s 1994 film Fist of Legend, and this is conveyed by action and dramatic scenes equally. These scenes combine to create a “fully developed political arena” in which “generic heroism” (1) (or lack of) is tested out by the film’s characters (most notably by the film’s hero, Chen Zhen, played by Jet Li).
This blog focuses on main characters such as Chen, Ting An (Chin Siu Ho), Mitsuko (Nakayama Shinobu), and Funakoshi (Kurata Yasuaki). But it is worth noting that even minor characters in the film are allowed some complexity and perhaps ambiguity – the gullible cook who helps to poison Chen Zhen’s sifu is, by turns, defensive and remorseful; and a judgmental uncle at Ching Wu manages to be a stickler for the rules but also capable of moments of fairness. Upon first meeting Chen, Akutugawa, although civil, is unruffled at the thought that he has killed Chen’s master in a duel. However, when it turns out that his victory over Master Huo was facilitated by Huo’s being poisoned, Akutugawa is genuinely distressed at the thought of being involved in such a dishonourable victory.
Chin Siu Ho imbues his portrayal of Ting An, the heir to the Ching Wu school, with great emotional complexity and depth. Chin’s superb martial arts performance is as beautiful to watch as ever, and his dramatic acting is of the very highest order. Ting An is a very conflicted person. He is in love with a prostitute, and spends too much time indulging the pleasures of the flesh. At the same time he is proud of his school and family, and tries to behave and act appropriately whenever he is at Ching Wu. Chen’s return opens up an uncomfortable array of emotions for Ting An. Through movement in the fight scenes and in close ups of his facial expressions, which are astonishing in the array of deep and complex emotions he manages to convey just through a look in his eyes, Chin portrays a mixture of genuine affection, admiration, insecurity and deep deep envy in his attitude to Chen.
Chen’s love interest, Mitsuko, looks like a delicate Japanese doll, but she turns out to be a character capable of resourcefulness and grit. In an early scene she is cheeky to a bunch of young Japanese men who want to beat up Chen, but in a scene in the middle of the movie she squeals at a mouse. Her decision to provide a false alibi for Chen during a court case in which he is facing trumped up charges is interesting. In doing this she depicts herself and Chen as sexually active lovers, whereas their relationship has actually been physically chaste and emotionally restrained (especially on Chen’s part). In outing herself as a participant in extra marital sex she sacrifices her honour as a woman according to the social paradigms of the time and society in which the film is set. Mistuko’s act has to be seen as an act of self sacrificing love. But earlier in the film we have seen Chen politely put her on the back burner in favour of his going to investigate his sifu’s death. By appearing unannounced and unanticipated at the court hearing, and by lying in court, Mitsuko effectively reclaims Chen’s focus and engages his sense of obligation to her. Looked at in this light Mitsuko’s act is opportune both for her and Chen and maybe, in claiming Chen’s commitment, a little ruthless. Perhaps the doll like Mitsuko has more in common with her wry and likeably shrewd samurai uncle Funakoshi than first glance might admit.
Martial arts movie icon Kurata Yasuaki’s interpretation of Funakoshi is a delight to watch, and the clever and witty duel Funakoshi shares with Chen is one of the highlights of the film. Funakoshi has a reputation as being the foremost martial artist in Japan but interestingly it is the Chinese Chen who benefits from his wisdom rather than the Japanese Fujita, who, as Funakoshi’s countryman and as a powerful martial artist himself, would seem, on paper, to have first claim on Funakoshi’s knowledge and insight. In his traditional garb, and being shown playing Go and praying at a Shinto altar, Funakoshi is very readily identified as being a traditional type of Japanese. The Samurai code is mentioned in the film and Funakoshi would seem to represent the Samurai code at its most honourable. He is able to transcend jingoism and understand how dishonourable and dangerous Fujita’s militaristic agenda is. Before their duel, he teases Chen that the principles informing Chen’s kung fu means that he is actually learning karate like a Samurai, but by end of the duel he has endorsed Chen fully. He responds to the integrity Chen shows during their duel and it is through the medium of martial arts, rather than nationalism, that these 2 men connect. In the character of Funakoshi we see the paradox of a man closely adhering to a traditional Samurai code of honour and philosophy and, because of this, being drawn to a man like Chen who needs to learn about the importance of being flexible and adaptable. Funakoshi metes out this lesson during his duel with Chen, and finds that Chen is both an intrepid and challenging opponent alongside being a humble and ready learner.
The somewhat taciturn hero Chen adheres to a code of honour that is perfectly straightforward to him, but this adherence requires him to deal with some tricky consequences. “When he fights General Fujita in the climactic scene, he wears the black Japanese student uniform we first saw him wear in Kyoto, fighting for enlightened Japanese as well as his fellow Chinese. This profoundly complicates his heroic trajectory, pushes him into inaction and reflection rather than the patriotic certainties of Bruce Lee’s Chen (in Fist of Fury, which inspired this film). In this sense, Jet Li’s quieter, more reserved, presence is in perfect accord with the revised Chen.” Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, p. 156
Chen’s loyalty to his master and his school sees him unflinchingly cutting open his master’s manky corpse to provide a liver to a pathologist for analysis while all other onlookers cringe in nauseated horror. Ironically, this same loyalty leads him to abandon his school as he wishes to remove himself as a cause of tension between himself and his master’s son. Although he is an upright young man who comports himself with correct decorum at all times, he lives in a defacto relationship with a despised Japanese woman. Apart from the genuine affection he feels for Mitsuko, he also does this because his moral code dictates that she deserves it as she has sacrificed her reputation by lying in court in order to give him a much needed alibi. “… Chen is cast into the wilderness, branded a traitor by his fellow Chinese. But he is shrewd, adaptable and sufficiently mobile to survive the film. Unlike the Chen of the 1970s, he is a pragmatist, not a martyr.” Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, P. 156
These qualities make Chen an interesting and admirable protagonist to engage with. Having these qualities, and by thoughtfully negotiating the complicated situation he finds himself in, Chen is an ideal character to use to test out “generic heroism within a more fully developed political arena.” The character of Chen, through his own actions and in his interactions with a cast of well rounded characters, comes to represent the possibility of straddling 2 cultures healthily, and the necessity of transcending personal biases and interests.
(1) “Rarely has the division between the ‘director’ and ‘martial arts director’ created such a sense of two ‘films’ pulling in different directions. Gordon Chan’s sober historical drama almost seems to edge towards a kung fu film where the hero realises that fighting cannot solve any of the conundrums about identity, loyalty and belonging that he faces, while Yuen Wo-ping’s kung fu “clinic” pulls the film back to spectacle and heroism. Only in the Chen / Funakoshi fight (appropriately a stalemate) do the two converge. But this ‘flaw’ is also one of Fist of Legend’s points of interest as it tests out generic heroism within a more fully developed political arena.” Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, p. 156
The next blog I will post about this movie concerns its plot structure.