Image from YouTube (The Asian equivalent of Ali vs Tyson, also never to be.)
As this Chinese New Year comes to a close, do I begin another two part deep-dive into Asian cinema, focused on a Hong Kong phenomenon and his connection to a legend everyone knows, even if they’ve never seen a single work of his.
Most Westerners got their exposure to one Jet Li through the fourth but apparently not to be final Lethal Weapon movie in 1998. As a villainous yet impeccably dressed Triad enforcer, Li had the chance to kick, punch and nearly kill Mel Gibson’s Riggs and Danny Glover’s Murtaugh in front of an international audience. I must wonder how the Chinese audience felt seeing a risen star of theirs handing these prevalent buddy cop figures their asses, though Gibson did have the last laugh through a gruesome though improbable method of dispatching Li, via AK to the chest underwater.
It was his first villain role on top of first feature done outside HK. He would have a fairly successful set of films (financially) in the U.S., one costarring DMX featuring the song that would define him for many, “X gon give it to ya”, as later heard in Deadpool and online memeing over the fantastic Remake of Resident Evil 2. His only critically well-regarded non-Hong Kong movie was 2005’s Unleashed (Danny the Dog) costarring Morgan Freeman and it almost made it onto the list if not for some version of Tai Chi Master being found to view.
These selection of films involving Jet Li are all from the early to mid-90s, considered by more than a few I imagine to be his heyday. I had covered him in last year’s Chinese New Year celebration through his debut film: 1982’s Shaolin Temple. His list of worthwhile films between Shaolin Temple and the dawn of the 90s are meager and one of those films is a sequel to a movie he had no involvement in, The Swordsman. Both of those are worthwhile from what I’ve heard so hopefully I’ll check them out next year’s time.
For this first part and in perhaps the interest of time, I will not separate the entries by film but put them all together. All forgiveness for implying as such and this could well be the poor quality of the YouTube screen I had to put up with, but these three Li titles all kind of run together for me. They were all released the same year, my birth year of 1993. They are all based on Chinese folk heroes for which their historicity is questionable. These are Fong Sai Yuk 1, 2 and Tai Chi Master.
Image from YouTube (Would it surprise you terribly that context is required with this image?)
Fong Sai Yuk is a possibly real or inspired by actual people folk hero who was around during the Qing dynasty, the last era of the Chinese Emperor system of government. That period lasted from 1636 to 1912 so the Heavens help you with narrowing down when exactly Fong’s story is supposed to happen.
The U.S. versions of this and its sequels are called “The Legend“, which I think is clearly a terrible rename as it ponders the question “Which legend?” If there is one thing China has no lack of over its long, long, long history, it’s legendary figures. Maybe the distributors for Western markets feared that audiences wouldn’t be able to spell or pronounce “Fong Sai-Yuk” or would make fun of it, much like I believe some have done for Chow Yun Fat. Whatever the reason, the horrible lack of imagination I’m not surprised us Yankees have shouldn’t deter you from finding any version to watch these movies, as among showcasing Jet Li’s incredible talent, it gives you a taste of Wuxia, where martial arts action goes to 11.
The best international example of Wuxia comes from two of the highest grossing Chinese language films ever in America: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, the latter starring Jet Li. These films depict martial arts and Chinese swordplay with essentially superpowers. You see Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Li performing feats that are simply impossible in real life, leaning into the idea you are not so much seeing an accurate representation of old Chinese combat but a fantastical, legendary some would call it exaggeration. Crouching Tiger and Hero are largely serious movies featuring moves and abilities that go, as Dragonball’s Goku would say, even further beyond.
Fong Sai Yuk’s movies and Tai Chi Master are action comedies where the impossibility of what the martial players, good or evil, do is played for both spectacle and laughter. I remember of the Sai-Yuk films, fuzzy as they are due to the atrocious visual quality via YouTube, battles where fishing poles at a dock are used as both balancing boards and offensive weapons, being gradually cut down by Fong and his opponent’s punches and slices. In spite of the comedic use of Wuxia, it’s also used for tension more effectively than you might think.
The story of Fong Sai-Yuk, from what I can parse through the fuzzy subtitles for the first movie and the awful English dub, is that of a young martial artists master who lives, like me sort of, with his parents. His mother Miu, played by Hong Kong veteran actor and producer Josephine Siao, is possibly as good an ass-kicker as her son and does it all while being the expected doting mother.
Fong finds love in Liu Ting-Ting, who is the daughter of an aggressive on the outside but soft on the inside ruler of the city Tiger Lui. A competition to win her daughter’s hand in marriage is announced: anyone that can get to the top of a raised gondola and defeat Tiger’s imposing yet regal wife Siu in combat. This is both paradoxically regressive and progressive a possibility of marriage I have ever seen: To win a wife, you must defeat a badass wife of someone else.
Fong opts out of the contest he is starting to win when he realizes that Ting-Ting is not present but that a servant girl has taken her place. In the first of several comic misunderstandings, his mother dresses as a man and pretends to be him, so Fong can get his bride. I should point out, in the original Cantonese dub I was listening to, not only does Fong’s mom not hide her middle-aged female voice, she doesn’t even disguise her face save for a hat, and no one sees through the deception until she “reveals” herself. It’s Mulan with zero effort and yet everyone gets duped. Maybe this being a comedy is meant to defend against this obvious contrivance and for my part, I was too entertained to actually care that much.
The bout involving Fong and Siu before he forfeits is a real show-stopper and almost has the film peak too early: It’s a battle of fists, feet and agility that goes from the gondola and adjacent scaffolding to almost the ground. I say almost as not unlike a tournament in early Dragonball, if someone reaches the ground, they lose. So, the battle goes to the crowd’s heads and shoulders as they literally battle on top of them. In an example of exceptional Hong Kong movie magic, what I’m seeing should be impossible also potentially fatal to a bunch of extras, yet I am still seeing Jet Li race across a sea of people via their heads to continue the fight to a near finish. Maybe the poor screen quality hides any wires or methods that made this possible, but already you see just the sheer effort and work a Jet Li film went through to build the legend of this actor. It’s this scene alone that is worth your time, but thankfully it doesn’t end here.
I will admit, the plots of all three films became a blur due to the way they were presented to me as a mix of betrayals, reveals, reunions and the like, all intermixed through Fong and his family both getting him acquainted and courted to the girl he’s after Ting Ting all while contending with his Dad being part of a rebellion movement called the Red Flower Society, who are against the tyrannical powers running the Qing dynasty at the moment . Turns out Fong’s dad was involved in both a political and cultural rebellion and that certainly complicates his original intention of simply getting the girl, with or without impressing her through wuxia antics.
As mentioned earlier, the use of wuxia, comically extreme as it is, is still effective as tension setter and builder. As much as you may be beside yourself during the duel atop the crowd’s heads, the film climaxes with Fong trying to save his insurrectionist Dad from being guillotined. The cruel enforcer for the Qing, called the Governor of Nine Gates, tells Fong he has until a rope holding the guillotine from swinging down on his father breaks from fire to defeat him. Fong does not manage to win the fight before it breaks off so now he must rotate between a vicious battle and holding the rope.
As genuinely funny as these films can and will get, they can be darkly serious without somehow ruining the tone. Fong’s underdog status is maintained despite his skill due to being given considerable challenge to match it, a cornerstone of martial arts cinema no matter how realistic or surreal.
Image from IMDB (I don’t care who you are, if you somehow see this on the street one day, Run.)
Fong Sai Yuk II is more of the same done more or less as well as the first with a whole new slice of set-pieces to keep you satisfied. It’s not unlike a John Wick sequel in that it’s not necessarily better than an earlier entry but you still manage to get what you wanted and occasionally and then some. Another reason I prefer English subtitles over dubs is not just authenticity, it can mess with the subjective equilibrium I get from these films. Studio Ghibli dubbing is often so good that I can prefer it over the original Japanese though it doesn’t hurt that lot of Miyazaki’s work occurs in a Western or Western-inspired locale. The anime Cowboy Bebop, often acclaimed as having the best English dub job ever is helped along by having a style and setting that is utterly multicultural, where Japanese may not be the first language for many of its world’s inhabitants.
That’s animation however. With a movie made by Cantonese speaking Chinese set within a specifically Chinese only period of Chinese history, it is extremely jarring hearing through the free YouTube version of this movie American voices coming out of the cast. The worst offender is whoever voices Fong’s Mom, who doesn’t come close to even vaguely resembling her intonations. It even sounds like someone just reading lines with no regard to what Miu the Mother is even doing in her scenes.
So, yeah this dubbing I put up with did affect my mood of what is still a fine same-year follow-up of the first. It is strange and the English translation could be responsible, but a lot of characters from the first movie who survived like both Fong and Ting-Ting’s dads don’t appear nor are even mentioned. At the end, after (SPOILERS) Fong and friends defeat the evil governor and his forces (shocking I get it), Fong accepts joining the Red Flower Society officially to both continue the fight and further master his abilities. I get why Ting Ting’s father Tiger Liu wouldn’t appear as he still has a town to run but isn’t Fong’s dad part of that society? Yet, he’s strangely absent.
While I’m at it, yes, this red flower society does remind me of the white lotus society from Avatar the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra. Beats me if that animated masterpiece’s creators took notes here.Anyhoo, the threat this time is internal rather than external as one of the society’s members wants to wrest control from the grandmaster and he will try to take down Fong and friends while he’s at it.
I actually forgot who the name of the dissident member was who successfully leads a coup that drives Fong out and nearly destroys the society. However, Fong makes his return, armed with a bunch of katanas from ronin who were involved in the coup attempt. In this sequence, which can feel as old Chinese as it is spaghetti western, Fong slowly walks down an alleyway filled with mooks, the wind blowing wildly, his head bent down. He then uses katana after katana in dispatching the guards before engaging the dissident in a final fight. Like last time, there’s a complication to take advantage of the wuxia genre.
Mirroring the climax of the first movie, Fong’s mom this time is about to be executed, this time by hanging. Fong must both fight and keep the many stacked objects above her mom from collapsing which would seal her fate. Of course, after her mom is freed, son and mother engage in a final fisticuff of much fury that ends up resolving the film quite nicely. The details of these movies are escaping me and I must apologize for my lack of detail. On the Kung Fu flip side, it will leave a lot for you to discover or maybe re-discover upon watching these pictures yourself.
Image from Kung Fu Kingdom (In Ancient China, one man making a difference seems to happen every other Wednesday.)
Tai Chi Master rounds out this Part One and it does so while both being more wuxia zany fun, while also giving us an albeit concrete crash course on tai chi as an art form that’s all about putting the body and it’s movement in focus with nature. Another way to describe it as a martial arts form where you take physics and its equal and opposite properties and make it your weapon of choice.
The film’s alternate U.S. title, Twin Warriors, is actually constructive here. Before Jet Li’s Zhang becomes the Tai Chi Master (the actual Zhang he’s based on is believed to be the actual founder of the tai chi style, but unsurprisingly we don’t truly know.), he is one of two young kids who grow up together in the Shaolin monastery. Both kids grow into adults full of potential but it is safe to say their life paths go down greatly different roads. One, Zhang, becomes a freedom fighter alongside an early Michelle Yeoh’s Qiu Xue, against an oppressive Ming dynasty governor (hope you can see how these movies blur together here on that alone) and the other, Tienbo, a rising leader in that oppressive regime, who soon commits awful deeds that can only be forgiven if he were to, I dunno, throw the Ming emperor down a giant shaft and in doing so saving Zhang’s life but that doesn’t happen.
Before Zhang becomes learns Tai Chi he first gets super messed up in a desperate assault on the Ming military camp. Zhang and friends get all but massacred with a handful of survivors. Considering that Tai Chi Master maintains the comic wuxia feel, the massacre at the camp of the freedom fighters is really jarring, even more so than dark moments that occur in the Fong Sai-Yuk movies.
Zhang suffers damage to the head after and even the treatments seem to make it worse. As the few survivors wonder what they can possibly do at this point, as Tienbo has ordered all their heads, Zhang incidentally discovers Tai Chi through his broken state. His moves that no one can deter in part with the pre-existing superhero like nature of wuxia movement and action, soon becomes the secret weapon they need to stop Tienbo. And how.
Zhang leads a counterattack that allows him a rematch with Tienbo and while this might spoil the surprise and the fun while at the same time, the former destroys the latter. I mean, at this point, especially in this genre of movies, once the hero has attained this hidden knowledge and ability to face his enemies with, it’s often game set and match. All that’s left is to see the inevitable result to it’s end. It’s not a problem because it’s Jet Li here that’s doing it. And it’s always fun to see an entire army of soldiers throw in the towel after their leader is defeated because they just know it’s pointless.
You did not get the best deep dive of these movies. I’m sorry but through a Wikipedia summary and what I did remember did this entry take the form it did. My form is lacking as they would say but I know I did well by you, my existing and potential readers, if I encouraged you to check these films out, maybe glean something different from me. Maybe you’re lucky to find a version of these three films that were of superior or even adequate quality. Trust me, when there is a film I view that I don’t recommend, you will know it when I suggest as much.
Thankfully for part 2 next time, all three films I saw were of at least above average standard definition and my time with them was better for it. Next time we see Jet Li in the first of a six movie saga, two of which didn’t have Jet Li in them and one that I really, really wish I had access to but didn’t. Also comparing two martial arts classics, one from the Dragon himself Bruce Lee and the other Jet Li’s bold yet thoughtful re-imagining.