“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
This masterful quote refers to some of the complexities that make Fist of Legend such an interesting and satisfying film to watch. The film is a reinterpretation (rather than a slavish remake) of the story of martial arts hero Chen Zhen (played by Jet Li) that was originally told in Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury. The earlier film’s narrative is “… simplistic and purely driven by revenge, but the story was crafted to appeal to Chinese audiences on the most base, jingoistic level” (David West, Chasing Dragons, p 128). As Hunt alludes in the quote at the beginning of this blog, the later film sought to cover more complex themes.
“Director Chan invests his script with shadings and nuances absent in the original, so that the new version is less a simplistic xenophobic tale of virtuous Chinese versus the evil Nipponese and more a statement against militarism and intolerance regardless of nationality.” Paul Fonoroff, At the Hong Kong Movies, p. 442
That Fist of Legend does this with some measure of success is a testament to the sophistication with which the film is crafted, including the way the film’s narrative is structured and the depth of the characterizations.
As stated in the opening quote there are 2 distinct elements to Fist of Legend’s narrative – the “sober historical drama” and the “kung fu ‘clinic’”. What is striking is how well these 2 elements sit together. I take Hunt’s point about there being a pull between them, but I feel that this pull was a creatively strategic and carefully and deliberately negotiated tension, rather than something that slipped out of control during the filming process. Perhaps it helped that, apparently, during the making of this film, there was a harmonious working relationship between director Gordon Chan and choreographer Yuen Wu Ping. In an interview about this film(1) martial arts actor, Kurata Yasuaki (who plays Funakoshi), states that Chan and Yuen never quarreled, and that there was a clear delineation between who controlled the dramatic and the fight scenes. In another interview(2) Chan states that he regarded Yuen Wu Ping as something of a mentor. When discussing Fist of Legend, American film director Bret Ratner points out that Chan started off as a screenwriter, and that his sense of storytelling and structure has stood him in good stead as a director(3). Yuen Wu Ping has a reputation as a master choreographer, and deservedly so, but I also think he’s a fine director. Films like Tai Chi Master, Drunken Master and Iron Monkey show that he has great skill in using action set pieces to construct a well paced and coherent narrative.
So the making of this film was in the hands of 2 willing collaborators who brought different story telling skills to the making of Fist of Legend. As a result the story flows easily from a fight scene to a dialogue scene and then back again. The fight scenes are great set pieces in themselves but they sit comfortably within the plot and seamlessly perpetuate any atmosphere generated by the dramatic scenes (and vice versa). American directors need to take note: Fist of Legend is one of the martial arts films that is proof positive that movement can develop and add nuance to character, narrative and atmosphere, and underline thematic content(5). As a screen writer and director, Gordon Chan has worked on other martial arts movies(6) and in Fist of Legend the action scenes are allowed to exist as equal partners to the dialogue driven scenes – not just in the amount of screen time they occupy but in terms of the dramaturgical weight they carry. This is something that American directors haven’t figured out how to do and is why they fail to create adequate vehicles for the talents of performers like Jet Li or Jackie Chan(7). For example, in Fist of Legend the early fight scene at the Noguchi Arena is a terrific set piece in its own right. It is a great display piece for little Jet’s technique as a screen fighter as he takes on hordes of testosterone charged Japanese, and it is a reference point to Fist of Fury (which also has a fight scene in a similar setting at about the same point in the plot). But this scene also functions to propel the narrative forward: Chen proves that none of the men he fights were good enough to kill his sifu. This makes him suspicious of foul play and motivates him to demand the autopsy that uncovers a murder. A later fight scene features a duel between Chen and the samurai Funakoshi in a graveyard. This is the “stalemate” referred to by Hunt above, and this action scene manages to explore the philosophical differences between its 2 combatants and proves to be a pivotal point of character development for Chen as well as being visually eye catching. Film critic Elvis Mitchell commented (8) that in The Fist of Legend there is a real sense of Chen’s emotional arc being worked out as this character has to get past his own sense of self reliance and connect more with other people. The fight with Funakoshi gives Chen a chance to do this as he and Funakoshi use martial arts to find philosophical common ground, and Yuen Wu Ping uses choreography to depict this happening.
The emotional tone of the film is intense – whether they are at love or at war its characters are all playing for high stakes. So it is notable that this film never has the sense of becoming bogged down in lugubrious or emotionally laboured scenes. It is as if by embracing the discipline of producing a martial arts film, and thereby opening the film up to the kinetic dynamism and quality of focus that highly skilled physical performance demands, the makers of Fist of Legend have managed to avoid this pitfall.
The well controlled pace of Fist of Legend is reasonably brisk overall, although Chan is not afraid to allow his characters some slower scenes in which to experience tenderness, reflection or melancholy. In preparation for writing this blog, I rewatched the movie and listed all the scenes in order to see if I could detect any overall narrative rhythms or patterns. I was surprised at how short the dramatic scenes were in comparison to most of the fight scenes. Chan has done well to keep the viewer’s perception as one of watching a film that is briskly paced, rather than hurried. The dramatic scenes never feel rushed or desultory but, still, the most time that any of the characters have to interact with each other is during the fight scenes. Fist of Legend is an honest to God chopsocky for grownups – it uses the medium of martial arts to explore complex themes. I have devoted a whole (long) blog to the choreography in which I explore how useful it is dramaturgically, and I will start posting excerpts from this next.
(1) The Way of the Warrior in the Special Features section of the Dragon Dynasty DVD release of Fist of Legend.
(2) The Man Behind the Legend in the Special Features section of the Dragon Dynasty DVD release of Fist of Legend.
(3) Yes, I know the man is an ass and I don’t like seeing him pop up in the Special Features sections (4) of classic kung fu movies any more than you do but in this one instance he actually has a point.
(4) in this case: A Look at Fist of legend with Director Brett Ratner & Critic Elvis Mitchell in the Special Features section of the Dragon Dynasty DVD release of Fist of Legend.
(5) As any dancer or physical theatre practitioner knows full well.
(6) He has screen writing credits for The Defender and Hitman, for example, and co-wrote and directed the recent Return of Chen Zhen starring Donnie Yen.
(7) “American film makers have gotten to the point where they create their fights in the editing room. Those types of sequences are just designed for a visceral, flash-cut impact, and the audience’s brains are never really engaged… Hong Kong action directors actually bring narrative arcs into the fights, and tell a little story within the fighting”. Larry Wachowski (director of The Matrix movies, American Cinematographer Magazine, Probst, 1999, p 34.
(8) A Look at Fist of legend with Director Brett Ratner & Critic Elvis Mitchell in the Special Features section of the Dragon Dynasty DVD release of Fist of Legend.