Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen is flashy and fun, and a nifty showcase for Donie Yen
Using not one but two world wars as backdrops, Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (Other name: HUYEN THOAI TRAN CHAN) is an exhilarating kung fu romp. The movie is playfully sweeping, but its pivotal action sequences all focus on a single man: iconic hero Chen Zhen, here play by martial arts supernova Donnie Yen.
The fictional Chen is an enduring figure in Chinese action cinema, and the role has previously gone to both Jet Li and Bruce Lee. In fact Legend of the Fist is sort of a sequel to Lee’s 1972’s Fist of Fury. In which Chen attack a Japanese martial arts dojo in Shanghai, exacting revenge on the men who murder his master.
According to the new movie, Chen then escaped to France as one of many Chinese brought to Europe as laborers during World War I. These workers weren’t suppose to fight, but when Chen and his cohorts find themselves on the front lines. Our hero has no choice but to take out a German machine gun nest, solo and unarm. It’s an action sequence in the classic Hong Kong style — ridiculous, yet elegant and stirring.’
After the excitement, Chen returns to Shanghai, assuming the identity of a friend who die in the war.
Disguise only by a fake mustache (and occasionally a mask). Chen settles in at the Casablanca, one of those wonderfully cinematic 1930s Shanghai nightclubs. That where Chinese, Japanese and European patrons mingle, flirt, drink and sometimes fight. The place is run by the quietly subversive Liu (Anthony Wong, who’s among Hong Kong’s most reliable character actors).
Chen plays the piano and falls for hostess and singer Kiki (Taiwanese stunner Shu Qi, charming in one. That of her less challenging roles). With Sino-Japanese antagonism on the rise, it’s fairly obvious that Kiki doesn’t share Chen’s dedication to a free and independent China. Although it takes Chen, who’s supernaturally alert to other dangers, a long time to notice.
Legend of the Fist was helme (and photograph) by Andrew Lau, who co-direct the much grittier Infernal Affairs. The source for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. Naturalism, though, is nowhere on Lau’s agenda this time: Shot on sets and render in shades of blue, pink and mist, the movie looks as if it wants to be a musical. Even the Japanese army’s “death list” is color coded: red for dead, blue for fled.
While Kiki sometimes coos a number, the film’s two most-heard tunes are “Auld Lang Syne” and “The Internationale,”. That neither design for hoofing.
But there’s a little Gene Kelly in the gracefully choreograph action scenes. That often render in montage, and a bug-eye local police inspector (Huang Bo) serves as comic relief from the movie’s villain, ruthless Japanese Col. Chikaraishi (Kohata Ryuichi).
The violence gets bloodier as the story proceeds, and Lau’s depiction of roundups, torture and executions does convey the brutality of Japan’s invasion of China. The movie is only slightly interest in history, however. Ultimately, all of Shanghai’s resistance comes down to a single man. Who returns to the dojo for a showdown with Chikaraishi. The Japanese ogre is, of course, the son of Chen’s adversary from years before.
If charge with not taking World War II very seriously, Lau and his collaborators would have to plead guilty. But Legend of the Fist is flashy and fun, and a nifty showcase for Yen. The movie’s fight choreographer as well as its star. Only historical literalists could be alarm that the movie ends with Chen Zhen on the road, apparently head toward a sequel.