This is the 2nd installment of an uber blog I have written about Yuen Wu Ping’s choreography in Fist of Legend. The first installment contained some introductory remarks about how important the choreography is in this movie and then focused on the character of the villainous General Fujita (played by Billy Chau).
Veteran martial arts performer Kurata Yasuaki portrays the likeable but wily old Samurai, Funakoshi, with an air of easy, natural, understated authority, and with a wry, sometimes impish, twinkle in his eye. During the course of the film, Funakoshi shows himself to be a man of honour whose actions are nevertheless informed by political awareness, cunning and strategic nous.
Fist of Legend’s narrative revolves around the aftermath of the murder of Huo Yuanjia. Huo’s erstwhile student, Chen Zhen (played by Jet Li), and his fellow students at Ching Wu, find themselves suddenly without their sifu, and, in their grief, flounder in the absence of their master’s steadying influence. Huo’s son, Ting An (played by Ching Siu Ho), loses himself in dissolution and the other students bicker amongst themselves. Chen shows a little more backbone but even so retreats into tenseness and emotional distance. He shows that he has been thrown off kilter by giving in to anger to break a sign promoting one of his dead master’s most adhered to precepts of tolerance.
It is interesting in this film, which has its narrative set in train by the death of a master,that one of the most important fight scenes is about Chen being taught a lesson. A common narrative theme in many a kung fu movie is that involving a young man whose father or sifu is killed and who, in order to save himself, needs to flee into the wilds. There he meets up with a master who brings his martial arts up to the level needed to exact vengeance. Fist of Legend could be said to reference this narrative theme. Chen’s beloved sifu is killed. He does flee his home in the face of persecution, which takes the form not just of the threat of attack from the Japanese soldiers but also the racism shown towards his lover, Mitsuko (played by ???), by his fellow Chinese. In most kung fu movies with this theme, the martial arts education usually comes about after myriad scenes showing torturously demanding training sequences. Legend does slyly reference the theme of learning and training throughout the film. For example, the first fight scene happens in a classroom during an engineering course being taught at a university in Kyoto, and Chen fights wearing the black student suit that is his garb for much of the film. Chen’s second fight scene happens straight after a training session at the Noguchi dojo. Legend does show a training sequence at Chen’s old school Ching Wu, but in this scene Chen is shown to be the trainer and not the student. In his first 2 fight scenes he defeats his opponents easily and demonstrates that they have nothing to teach him, and these fights are a show case for the high level of his martial arts. Chen does not seem to have a lot to learn but his fight scene with Funakoshi indicates that, in fact, he does. Even Chen admits this at the end of the duel – “It seems I have a lot to learn about fighting” he states candidly.
The scene in question is the duel between Chen and Funakoshi in front of Chen’s sifu’s tomb (where Chen has gone to live with Mitsuko). There is a lot going on in this scene. Funakoshi has ostensibly turned up to fight Chen to protect the honour of his niece and family (Mitsuko has broken all kinds of taboos by shacking up with Chen). However, as the fight progresses we see that Funakoshi’s initial gruff threat to make Mitsuko into a widow is just a cover for his real purpose – he wants to take a look at this young man and see what makes him tick. This is not just for the sake of Mitsuko, but also because Funakoshi is aware that Chen is likely to be targeted by the sadistic and ruthless Fujita (of whom he does not approve). The fight presents Funakoshi with the opportunity to test and probe not just Chen’s martial arts technique, but his attitudes and character. By the end of the fight the 2 men have developed a genuine respect and even liking for each other. The fight allows them to find a common philosophical ground.
In this fight scene Yuen allows himself one of the few overtly theatrical flourishes in his choreography – during their fast and furious fight Funakoshi and Chen bind their eyes and continue to fight blindfolded. This is initiated by Chen, who adopts his blindfold when he realizes that he has an unfair advantage over Funakoshi who is struggling with grit being blown into his eyes by the wind. The gesture demonstrates, both to the viewer and Funakoshi, that Chen is an honourable soul.
Once blindfolded, Chen and Funakoshi have to extend their senses of hearing and touch in order to locate and fight one another. Their physical searching and groping towards each other intensifies the viewer’s sense that, philosophically, they are also reaching out towards each other and trying to come to a reckoning. This idea is also supported by the fact that the witty choreography of this fight shows the combatants mirroring and repeating some of each other’s movements.
Funakoshi just wins the fight, and, after he and Chen have sincerely praised one another, he gives Chen essential advice on the necessity of being an adaptable fighter. When Chen wistfully asks “Are you going back to Japan?” we get a sense of just how much he has appreciated his lesson at the hands of this likeable old devil. It is a very brief, but telling and almost poignant, moment.
The third, and last, installment in this blog about the action in Fist of Legend concerns itself with the character of Ting An and the demonstrations of Ting and Chen in front of the campfire.