TIFF 2010: LEGEND OF THE FIST, THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN Review

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TIFF 2010: LEGEND OF THE FIST, THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN Review
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Andrew Lau's Legend of the Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen fits very neatly into the current wave of Chinese language films that trade largely on nationalist sentiment to achieve popular success. Recent entries such as Bodyguards And Assassins, Founding Of A Republic and the Ip Man pictures are all prime example of the phenomenon, all of them being films make Chinese nationalism and pride a principal element. The Ip Man pictures have demonstrated that it is quite possible to play this card while also doing a solid job on characterization and narrative to create a solid, entertaining picture. Legend of the Fist, however, seems to have little beyond the patriotism card in its deck.

Donnie Yen plays Chen Zhen, the popular figure famously portrayed by both Bruce Lee (Fist of Fury) and Jet Li (Fist of Legend), a figure famous for resisting the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Both the Lee and Li incarnations were forceful but intimate stories, tales woven around very personal motivations and the close relationships of its characters. Chen Zhen was part of a close knit community, and his story was one that was immediately relatable. Andrew Lau's incarnation - set roughly a decade after the Lee / Li versions aims to be bigger.

No longer a brash young man, Chen has served a stint in the first World War returning home under an assumed identity to lead an organized resistance over increased pressure from the Japanese occupying forces. He is more cautious, more aware of the big picture, but still just as deadly as he seeks to root out the Japanese and those who collude with them to the detriment of the Chinese population. To aid this mission he inserts himself into the workings of a popular night club, one frequented by higher ups of all sides - Chinese, British and Japanese - presumably to learn what's what and plan a strategy.

And here's where we have the first sign of a significant problem. We have to presume why Chen is interested in this club at all because it is never, ever made even remotely clear what he is doing there, why he thinks it is important, or even what his over arching goal is. He is a hero completely lacking in motivation and purpose other than disliking the Japanese. This lack of motivation only becomes worse as the film progresses.

As the story progresses, Chen is taken in by the shady owner of the club - played by Anthony Wong - as a partner - again for reasons that are completely unclear - and strikes up a relationship with Kiki, the beautiful hostess and singer played by Shu Qi. What is meant to be the key moment of the film is a meeting between rival generals that occurs late in the first act - one of the generals is dating one of the club's other hostess girls, which provides us our connection to it - the peace talking generals ambushed by Japanese forces after their meeting in an attempt to put them back at each others' throats. And it is during this attack that Chen Zhen - still seeking to hide his identity - dons a hero costume in the window of a nearby movie theater and becomes something of a folk hero.

The potential upside here is obvious: Donnie Yen playing a legendary masked hero in a gorgeously realized 1920s Shanghai is pretty damn appealing. And yet, this becomes the film's second major problem in that it completely fails to capitalize on the hero element of the film. Yen dons the costume rarely and seems to do very little active hero work, even when the Japanese brazenly publish a Death List of people they have marked to be eliminated and then proceed to do so. This would have been an obvious structural hook for the movie - to save the people on the list - and is something that the Japanese general openly dares Chen Zhen to do. But he doesn't. He sits by passively as the names on the list are killed off one by one, doing little more than berate the police for not protecting them. And what's the use of a hero that does no hero work?

It's a surprising question but it's only one of many that have no answers. How do the Japanese know who Chen Zhen really is? We will never know. Why does Wong's gangster character kill two Japanese soldiers in the process of capturing a double agent and declaring her his big bargaining chip only to turn her back over to the Japanese and do exactly what she asked him to do in the first place in the very next scene? We'll never know that, either. Where did this resistance organization come from? What do they do? What are their goals? How did Chen Zhen come to lead them? None of that is addressed in the slightest. Virtually every aspect of the film's plot has a significant hole in it, some aspects have several, and it is shocking in the extreme that nobody pointed this out while the film was still at script stage.

But what of the action? Much will be forgiven if the film delivers on that level. First, the opening parkour inspired sequence on the battlefields of WWI France are absolutely astounding. The first sequence in which Chen Zhen dons his hero costume is also very, very solid. But, unfortunately, it's pretty much a steady decline from there with the final fight sequence being an enormous letdown, the 'climactic' final showdown between Chen Zhen and the evil Japanese general being anything but climactic. If anything it's just barely half assed, the final fight shot so close, edited so rapidly and over so quickly that there was no point at all in hiring martial artists to perform it.  The close-in camera and rapid editing, combined with a notable preference to shoot Chen Zhen from behind, is so prevalent in fact that I am firmly of the belief that Donnie Yen was body doubled extensively throughout the action sequences of the film. It is clearly a body double in the parkour sequences and if the tell tale signs are read accurately - there being only one reason why you would shoot your hero character from behind in a fight film - it is quite possible that Yen has been doubled in something between thirty and forty percent of the Chen Zhen action sequences. Could it be that age and injury have finally caught up to Yen and are now having an impact on his on-screen capabilities?

For those not particularly familiar with the unique skills of Donnie Yen and the canon of Hong Kong action films which this aims to draw from, Legend of the Fist will likely be seen as a decent but middling action epic. But for those who understand the character, the concept and the vast potential of the concept this cannot go down as anything but an enormous disappointment.

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen

Director(s)
  • Wai-Keung Lau
Writer(s)
  • Gordon Chan (screenplay)
  • Chi-Sing Cheung
  • Koon-nam Lui
  • Frankie Tam
Cast
  • Donnie Yen
  • Qi Shu
  • Anthony Chau-Sang Wong
  • Bo Huang
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Wai-Keung LauGordon ChanChi-Sing CheungKoon-nam LuiFrankie TamDonnie YenQi ShuAnthony Chau-Sang WongBo HuangActionDramaHistory

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