Fist of Legend is chockablock with spectacular fight scenes. Choreographed by Yuen Wu Ping and starring Jet Li pitted against notable kung fu cinema screen fighters Chin Siu Ho, Kurata Yasuaki and Billy Chau, Legend is one of 8 or so movies Li and Yuen have worked on together. Some of their other collaborations, such as Tai Chi Master or Once Upon A Time In China 1 and 2, saw Yuen constructing somewhat theatrical choreography on Li that exploited his dance-like personal movement dynamic. Heavy use of wire-fu, one of Yuen’s favourite choreographic devices, also abounds in the 3 aforementioned movies. Although he apparently allowed Yuen free reign in choreographing the fight scenes, Fist of Legend director Gordon Chan did ask of Yuen that the choreography for this particular film reflect a more realistic, and less fanciful, style of fighting (1). Accordingly the fight scenes have a harder hitting and more brutal edge to them than those featured in other Li / Yuen collaborations. Overtly theatrical flourishes are few and far between – the most notable exception to this is during the Chen / Funakoshi duel (which I discuss in more detail below). Yuen’s beloved wire-fu is sparingly used. In fact some commentators and fans claim that it isn’t used at all. This is not quite true – on my DVD I can see wires just a couple of times, and I suspect they may have been used to stabilize the execution of isolated movements rather than to replace natural movement with the ‘supernatural’. So with wire fu relegated to the role of OH & S measure, and Yuen reigning in his usual overtly theatrical aesthetic, the choreography of Legend does indeed look more like what film commentator Leon Hunt refers to as a “kung-fu clinic”(2).
But it would be a mistake to assume that what Chan and Yuen are delivering to us is nothing more than lots of footage of blokes beating each other up (albeit with penultimate martial arts skill). It bemuses me how often fans of this genre confuse real life martial arts with screen fighting, taking displays of the latter as evidence of prowess, or even involvement, in the former (3). For example, I cannot find any evidence that Jet Li has ever been involved in a real life fight and, as a devout Buddhist, I assume he would never want to be. Li’s experience in training in martial arts was to facilitate his participation in the sport of wu shu as a child and teenager, and from this he morphed into being a martial arts performer (literally a martial artist) in films. His athleticism, the comprehensiveness of his training, his expertise in manipulating various martial arts styles to get the dramatic effects he wants, cannot be doubted. But all of his enormous talent and commitment are bent towards a performative, as opposed to a pugilistic, end. Li’s films prove that he is a great screen fighter, but we have no evidence as to what he is like as a fighter. He wins his fights in his movies only because the narratives of these movies dictate that the characters he plays should. Whatever he genuinely brings to his performances in terms of elite ability and superior training is enhanced to super human appearance by a team of skilled directors, choreographers, cinematographers, editors and awesome stunt performers. I will not labour this point any more in this blog (4). I actually just wanted to lead into the main thrust of this essay: for all that the choreography in Legend leans toward looking more real and less theatrical than, say, the choreography in Tai Chi Master, this choreography is still an exercise in dramaturgy rather than one of documenting combat. I know that many fans revel in the tough guy “a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do” flavor of the fight scenes in Fist of Legend (and if that dings your bell then go ahead and revel away). But a real achievement in the crafting of this film is the sophisticated use of choreography to help define character and further narrative.
One way in which the choreography fulfills its dramaturgical purpose is through giving the various martial artist characters in the film distinct styles or movement dynamics. For example, in his book, Kung Fu Cult Masters, Leon Hunt describes Li’s character Chen Zhen as being “shrewd, adaptable and sufficiently mobile to survive the film”(p. 156) and this is reflected in the ultra defined, swift, crisp and brutally efficient movement dynamic with which Li performs the martial arts of his character.
Billy Chau performs the role of arch villain Fujita with beetle browed and cold eyed intensity. He is a burlier and much taller man than Jet Li, and this contrast in physicality contributes to a sense of Chen being in genuine danger from Fujita during the film’s climactic duel. Gordon Chan says that he cast Chau because he wanted someone who looked virtually unbeatable in the part (5). In his commentary on the film (6) Bey Logan describes Chau’s Fujita as a “martial arts Frankenstein’s monster”. Fujita is portrayed as a kind of kung fu beast as he is shown in some scenes punching nails through wood with his bare hands and punching, kicking and head butting his way through slabs of concrete. He dispatches the unfortunate Akutugawa by breaking Akutugawa’s spine on Fujita’s knee. As mentioned above Li’s Chen Zhen has been shown to be martial arts adept. The first 2 fights Chen participates in during the movie show him as a lone fighter pitted against large groups of beefed up martial artists. Chen defeats them easily and each fight is a detailed essay in resourceful violence. In these fights Yuen has created a display case for Chen to prove his expertise. It goes to follow, then, that for Chen to appear to be in danger during the final climactic fight, Fujita does indeed have to be made out to be a kind of martial arts monster. The choreography Yuen assigns to Fujita capitalizes on Chau’s long limbed athleticism and creates an impression of power and unparalleled brutality.
Chen’s (eventual) victory over Fujita is a testament to his determined spirit and strategic cunning as well as his technical expertise. One of the few theatrical (or slightly more fanciful, less real looking) flourishes that Yuen allows himself in the choreography in the final fight scene is Chen’s use of his belt as a weapon against Fujita. The sense of theatricality suggested by the use of this prop is further underscored by the choreography at this stage of the fight. Li’s Chen is given some leaps and graceful wu-shuesque movements to perform. Using the belt as a weapon is a clever touch – it shows us that Chen has effectively absorbed Funakoshi’s lesson about adaptability, and demonstrates that Chen has become an inventive fighter; and it is this that finally allows him to prevail over the near unstoppable Fujita.
Because it is so long, this blog is being posted in installments. The next excerpt will deal with a terrific character – the likeable and crafty old samurai Funakoshi (played by Kurata Yasuaki) – and his standout duel with Chen Zhen.
(1) The Man Behind The Legend, Gordon Chan interview, special features, Dragon Dynasty release of Fist of Legend.
(2) “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
(3) Li is a mother fucking bad ass. Brett Ratner said this in an interview on one of my DVDs. I rest my case.
(4) Instead read this great blog: DORKORAMA’S BLOG
(5) The Man Behind The Legend, Gordon Chan interview, special features, Dragon Dynasty release of Fist of Legend.
(6) Audio Commentary, special features, Dragon Dynasty DVD release of Fist of Legend.