This second part wrap-up for this year’s Lunar New Year is delayed due to me getting wrapped up in completing the surprisingly great remake for the original Dead Space (more than once) and comparing it with the 2008 classic. I also try to do blog entries on days when I’m free and also in a good enough state of mind, not helped from how my sleeping patterns make that less likely. Sleeping in can do a number on one’s enthusiasm, making one paradoxically tired with even a headache or two.
Afterwards, I will likely do a review of the new Dead Space and by the point that’s finished, It’ll be time perhaps to talk about the third Ant-Man film and whether or not it promises a renewed focus for the MCU. But for now, here are three Hong Kong classics, two from the 90s with our boy Jet Li and one from the 70s that helped inspire one of those two.
Once Upon a Time in China (1991)
Image from IMDB (If these two aren’t careful, they’ll be navigating Jacob’s ladder next.)
I would like to take the time before delving into one of Jet Li’s most essential movies to complain about having no access to another of his must-see titles, the sequel to this film in fact. No place I searched or had available featured Once upon a Time in China II i.e. the only other OUATIC entry that is really worth watching if IMDB has any say. Some consider the second movie even better than the first and a lot of that has to do with Jet Li going up against a young DONNIE YEN. I mean, come on, it shouldn’t be hard to stream or rent that!
Amazon Prime, which I saw the first movie for free on that service, has all the movies in the six film saga except Once Upon a Time in China II. Even the two movies that didn’t star Jet Li, the fourth, the fifth, (The minor fall, the major lift) are there for you if either you have a Prime subscription or $4 for each flick to rent. Why? No idea.
At least the first movie is here and it’s a doozy. Being able to actually view a crisp image finally for the marathon was a plus and the Tsui Hark helmed feature is beautifully shot with an emphasis on the both beautiful yet occasionally haunting streets of urban 19th century China, the wind bellowing through alleyways with people Chinese, British and American. While the film didn’t bother to tell us which of the many, many metropolises this was set in (me and my Dad eventually concluded it was Hong Kong), it’s actually Foshan which admittedly is part of the Province Hong Kong neighbors, Guangdong.
The choice of locale is just as well a historical reflection of the main character portrayed by Mr. Li, a figure for which there is concrete evidence he existed unlike Fong Sai-Yuk and the Tai Chi Master. I mean, this guy was around in the 19th century and there are photographs of him. The film ends with Wong Fei Hung with his school of martial arts and loved ones taking part in the Western practice of photography. It’s a humorously done final scene which puts a lynch-pin on the movie’s themes of how to balance the good of the old with what good there is in the American-European imported new.
History (or Wikipedia) tells us that Fei Hung was a double dipper in talent, being both a beloved physician and of course a master martial artist in the Hung Ga style of Kung Fu. A person who can heal you as much as kick your ass. Of course as is often the case, Wong Fei Hung acts both for himself and for his school’s reputation as a peace-maker, only using his art to defend or fight a foe who will not accept any other path forward but to fight.
The set-up of Wong Fei Hung, regardless of the historicity, is fantastic for both a kung fu movie and as an audience guide to a particular, conflicted period in Chinese history. The nature of China as we know it now: authoritarian, brutal to undesirable peoples like the Uighur Muslims, imperialistic on a global stage that disturbingly parallels my own country is all but opposite in the late 19th century. For a good period of time, the Chinese were the underdogs, one of the most noteworthy peoples to be exploited and abused by powers beyond their shores.
This would get worse come the 20th century with the nadir being Japanese advances into their territory starting with Manchuria. It would get worse and worse as the 1930s went on with the Rape of Nanking and other similar atrocities precipitating the Pacific theater of WW2. But I’m getting ahead of myself as the next two movies are both about that.
It could be the English subtitle translation but it was hard to get a grasp on the plot. What ties together a story where Wong and his school become embattled in politics of the time involving Chinese gangs, European powers and a jealous rival martial arts master is the theme of how to proceed as a Chinese culture when it seems that the times demand such a culture evolve or die. In spite of being the creators of gunpowder and explosives, technologically China was lagging behind from others hence the reason it became a land carved up by stronger powers. The dying decades of the final Chinese dynasty, the Qing, is a time of sheer irony in how clinging to tradition made China ill prepared to hold its ground against those that would exploit them.
Wong Fei Hung, for all of his martial prowess, comes to realize that guns even in flintlock form trumps fists and feet. It’s not made clear when in the 19th century the movie plays out but I’m fairly certain it’s at least after the 1860s and the period of the American Civil War. That there are public displays promoting Chinese workers to come over to America to work on my country’s burgeoning railroad system suggests it could be well enough after. So, close to but not at the time of the Boxer Rebellion. Among other things, it was a catastrophic failure for a Chinese Nationalist movement to expel foreign powers from their land. I doubt this was the whole truth of the war that made up the Rebellion, but it became notorious for how many Chinese rebels believed they had attained the ability to deflect gunfire. They did not.
Again, it was made harder to place the exact time though I suppose looking at Fei Hung’s lifespan would give us a better idea. When you see the type of guns used by American or British troops in the movie, it further confuses. If it was the American Civil War era or nearabouts as my dad thought due to the blue look of the uniforms, then why are their rifles semiautomatic? That was a breakthrough in gun design that at the very least was reached near the civil war’s end. Then there is the dress of one of the villainous Americans, the enforcer for a General Wickens revealed to be trafficking Chinese over to America.
The guy is dressed 40 to 50 years in the past if this is the mid-latter 19th, like he was around for the War of 1812 if not earlier. Well, he’s the only American dressed that way so maybe it’s unique to his own sensibilities. Speaking of unique, he’s the one whitey who knows kung fu like our Chinese protagonists though sadly Li doesn’t get to duel him. In terms of potential anachronisms, nothing beats the Jesuit priest who is possibly the only Westerner not a douche to our heroes. His overall appearance is I imagine accurate to the time period until one lingering, in-your-face shot during an action sequence shows off the decidedly 20th century bottom of his sneakers. For a highly regarded piece of historical fiction, that is an oversight that’s staggering.
Wong deals with various burning fires, figuratively and eventually literally when an antagonistic gang lights his school on fire. It’s his handling: as professional yet directly as possible that allows me not to get lost in what to follow, though by movie’s end, it all comes together from disparate parts. A finale where Wong and several of his students infiltrate a harbor run by the Americans and harboring the trafficking ring. A gang consisting of aimless, wayward Chinese have decided to work with those heinous Americans and a homeless Martial arts master who ends up Wong’s main opponent for the movie, becomes their leader. That leader wants above all else to beat Wong in a fight to prove he’s the better master and hopefully get the respect that allows him a permanent roof over his head too.
I suppose the idea behind that Chinese gang and their hobo leader is that they are taking a darker approach to adapting to the new world where America and Europe are on top. If you can’t beat em’, join em so long as they get something out of it, even if their innocent countrymen and women are horribly mistreated in the process. Wong, in confronting this doubtlessly talented but morally broken master, perhaps comes to a Hegelian conclusion in learning and bettering himself from his enemy: he had the right idea but the wrong methods, hence why when he is ultimately torn down by both American and British gunfire in the chaotic yet exhilarating finale, he honors his passing and mourns his death.
This may speak much of me being a Caucasian viewer of a story meant to appeal to a Chinese audience with a multi-generational memory of things past, but another anchoring element of Once Upon a Time in China is obviously the fight choreography and it is as exaggerated as it is beautifully executed. Not reaching the insane heights of absurdity of the Fong Sai Yuk movies or Tai Chi Master, it is out there to nearly a fault though measured by how more real it looks and comes across. In that, not unlike a Jackie Chan movie, many set pieces seem to involve unnerving risk.
Take a scene early on occurring in pouring rain, the homeless master Wong will eventually battle several times is trying to make some money by breaking two spears with the weight of his throat. I should mention the spear-tips are aimed at his throat. The master effortlessly breaks the spears without slashing his jugular and in turn coins sprinkle the ground. An incredible feat that seemed impossible to me, let alone to actually film with movie trickery (which could’ve happened but you never know with HK cinema) and yet it’s done. The poor guy is yet barely subsisting for all his effort. It’s not just proving he’s the best around, it’s that he wants something a lot more tangible than respect.
For many and this is certainly the case with me, the standout set-piece is a multistage battle inside a grain warehouse that is near the ship where General Wickens is docked, the lair of the gang that preys upon Wong’s school. It goes from Wong and friends trying to outrun and outlast a whole bunch of goons on multiple levels of the building to one’s desperate escape from being tied on a rope suspended on the ground all so he can prevent a lead female character’s rape to a battle against the rapist to Wong showing up and he and the hobo master doing battle.
It’s a lengthy battle that’s almost too long, but it’s so amazing as it changes up what the two get up to in the battle that even if I did notice that it was running long I didn’t really care. It’s like Jackie’s last battle at the end of Legend of Drunken Master, which goes for over ten minutes but is breathless in intensity, up to and including Chan walking on live coals. The standout display of both stunt-work and martial acrobatics is the use of ladders as you see in the header. A single image doesn’t do it justice and like again a Jackie Chan feature you’re almost if indeed more worried for Li and costar’s safety than what is occurring in the fictional fight.
It arguably has the finale peak too early as the latter battle onboard the American ship is not as thrilling and Jackson the American fighter is given an anticlimactic if still harsh finish though that could’ve been intentional. When two masters fight, that’s when s**t’s the realest it will get after all.
I imagine some American and European viewers may take umbrage with the mostly negative portrayal we’re given in this movie. I in turn should bring up that if there was any real world dichotomy of good vs bad to be had in this historical scenario, hate to tell you, we were more the baddies than not. Hell, just the treatment we should be aware of for Chinese migrant workers that the film alludes to should tip you off that this Hong Kong film has a point even if it’s bias could blind it in terms of nuance. That’s what the corrupted master and Chinese gang members are for, to show collaboration with inequitable dealers of power.
As I brought up with the humorous final scene of a triumphant Wong with his school and friends getting a photo taken, our hero recognizes that some things must and will change if China will survive. He adopts a Western coat and jacket with top hat to show he’s not truly against Western influence inherently. So long as what still works about China’s culture can co-exist. In other words, it’s maybe even more an allegory of Hong Kong reconciling its nature as a place that is East and West, in spite of the movie’s Foshan setting.
If it were to be applied to all of China, then I would certainly say that it would learn lessons from the West and change into what it is now. Tragically, not all the teachings from my side of the world were for the better, as we are currently witnessing as I type this up. Those same European-American colonialist ambitions wouldn’t in time just affect China, sooner than them would they affect Japan. And that leads us into our next two movies, one a classic of Bruce Lee and the other a Jet Li remake of that same classic.
Fist of Fury (1972)
Image from Tubi (East vs Hired muscle from West…ern Russia I imagine.)
Fist of Fury and its remake Fist of Legend are both about the notorious death of Huo Yuanjia, a legendary practitioner and teacher of martial arts. He dies at the even then too early age of 42 and there are many theories as to what killed him though it was officially arsenic poisoning. For the purposes of narrative conflict that will lead to kung fu fighting, both films go with the “assassination” theory.
The year of death for Yuanjia is 1910 and while never brought up in the film, it is set then with his best student Chen Zen (Bruce Lee, duh) seeking vengeance for this cruel murder perpetrated by a rival Japanese school of martial arts. The Jet Li remake will take place in 1937 and still feature Yuanjia’s death in spite of the nearly 30 year difference in time, all for it to make a pertinent point about Japanese imperialism among other matters.
Japanese imperialism or supremacy over others especially the Chinese is certainly part of Fist of Fury and very one sided about it. Despite its 1910 historical setting, this movie carries the weight of Chinese memory over Japan’s invasion into their territory and the horrors that came with it. Early into WW2, British Hong Kong was captured by the Japanese Empire in a series of dire defeats of the Allied powers and their own claims in the Pacific. Due to pre-existing, possibly ancient mutual dislike for both peoples, the Japanese treatment of the Chinese was not good to say the absolute least.
Then again, their treatment of any occupied people up to and including British, Filipino, Korean and Americans was hardly decent either. I could be wrong, but the Japanese held special contempt for the Chinese not unlike the Nazis holding special spite for the Jews and Russians. The filmmakers of Hong Kong cinema remembered and so did the children born and raised in that period, such as Bruce Lee.
Unlike Fist of Legend, which takes a more nuanced yet pained approach to Sino-Japanese relations, Fist of Fury is one sided on the matter and it could be the English dubbing but almost cartoonishly so. By 1972, WW2 had been over only 25 years. To put that in perspective, the events of 1997 were as recent. There is much more pain and resentment left over in that time and so as a show of both Bruce Lee with his style’s quality, it becomes an underdog story of a victimized people standing up against a force that tried to destroy them.
That being said, it could be argued that in spite of the one-dimensional villainy of the Japanese school and ambassador that represents them, it is also a cautionary tale against taking revenge. Even though we enjoy and wish to see movies like Fist of Fury for its martial arts entertainment, the story and ultimate fate of Huo Yuanjia’s fictional top student Chen Zen ends in tragedy. That whole “dig two graves” chestnut.
Chen returns to learn of his master’s passing and tearfully and angrily tries to dig up the grave of a Sifu who left too early. He soon learns that it was a conspiracy to off this symbol of Chinese martial prowess and soon begins a one man mission to take out the leaders of the Japanese karate school. Unfortunately, in this officially neutral period between China and Japan, him doing so would disturb the peace for the Chinese and European officials.
Unlike Wong from Once Upon a Time in China, who wishes to make peace and only use force to break up fights or if left with no other choice, Chen wants a fight. He wants to take the sign that the Japanese school “gifts” his school that reads “Sick man of Asia” and literally smash it in front of them. Not unlike most video game heroes to come, he prefers the direct approach to airing grievances.
Early on after learning of the plot that killed his master, does he do just what I stated above. He breaks the sign, takes off his shirt to showcase Lee’s iconic physique and proceeds to own the everlasting s**t out of dozens of Japanese students. He’s so good, he even grabs two students by their shoulders and swings them around like they were dummies. That’s only because they clearly were.
Image from Wifflegif (He was the best but even the best can’t do that.)
Chen’s journey for justice though it is clearly vengeance in how he goes about it and expresses it alienates those in his school and his kung fu proficient girlfriend Yuan-Li not because they necessarily disagree but fear the repercussions of what he will do, namely for the school’s survival. Eventually, Lee makes it on to the Japanese school’s grounds and goes about one of the two final battles ( or bosses if you would prefer to call them), the first against a Russian karate master who is built as big as you would imagine a strong son of Mother Russia would be and then the corrupt, malicious sensei Suzuki.
It’s worth noting that there is no disdain or hatred shown towards Petrov unlike the Japanese characters. He is simply a guy who while on friendly terms with Suzuki holds no real ill will towards Chinese as far as I could tell. Chen certainly does kill him but hey on a quest of revenge it’s kinda hard to dispatch obstacles non-lethally you know. It’s really the early battle in the dojo (with the swinging dummies) and this battle against Petrov that are the highlights of the movie for me, where you get to see Lee’s iconic presentation of his art best. These are the moments that would help define not just Lee but how an entire generation or two would view martial arts period.
Jackie Chan and Jet Li among others would advance the use of martial arts onscreen well beyond Lee through higher budgets and more risk taking utility of stunts but it should be appreciated how well Lee and this movie come across in spite of how quite cheap it clearly is. How about those Shanghai city street scenes which are so obviously sound-stages. Still more convincing than the dummies.
In terms of action that doesn’t involve Lee, there is also a splendid battle royale between the Chinese and Japanese schools as the latter comes to them in a battle that martial arts excluded wouldn’t be out of a place in a rumble between the Jets and Sharks or Capulets and Montagues. There are ultimately star crossed lovers here through Chen and Yuan-Li but not quite like how the Bard would write it.
The most famous single moment in the movie does involve Bruce Lee springing into action but it’s not for a fight. It is a last act of defiance and the price of his quest for vengeance being paid for. You probably know it so I don’t think I need to describe per se but let’s just say that in relation to Bruce Lee’s own untimely death a year later, this final scene which ends in freeze frame does take on an unintentionally morose meaning. Lee never got old, never had the chance to retire comfortably if he wanted. He is immortally always poised ready to fight, ready to leap into it.
Many consider Enter the Dragon Lee’s best and most important movie and in times of audacity and scope I can’t argue against. But in terms of a movie that feels quintessential to what Lee was in life and how he came across after death, Fist of Fury is the Bruce Lee movie. If only for how the last shot of this movie does more to immortalize him here than Enter the Dragon.
Fist of Legend (1994)
Image from Dailymotion (When is a belt a weapon? Whenever you want it to be.)
By the 1990s, if nothing else the people of Hong Kong or artists from the sorta City-State were ready to take another approach to their frayed relationship with the people of the Land of the Rising Sun. Ugh, say that three times fast.
Unlike the one-sided attitude of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, Jet Li’s Fist of Legend acts I would hope more like real life and makes it…complicated. There is mutual racism between the Chinese and the Japanese that uneasily live in the 1937 Shanghai Settlement, a stopgap for a geopolitical issue that would be resolved in blood. Lots and lots and lots of blood.
This version of Chen Zen played by Li is attending school in the country that has and will continue to subjugate and fight a brutal war with his own. He gets along in the sense that he doesn’t cause trouble with any of the Japanese students and only uses force to protect himself. He has found love with a Japanese woman at the school to the point that his feelings about the Japanese people when prompted about it are totally mixed. He does love Mitsuko but big surprise that the times and powers that be look down on such a thing. Hate to say it, but such sentiment is still a problem nearly 90 years after the events of this movie.
Fist of Legend is often called one of Li’s best movies and I can kinda see that. It didn’t quite have the thrilling set pieces of OUATIC nor the Wuxia nuttiness of Fong Sai Yuk or Tai Chi Master. It is from what I have consumed the most adult, realistic movie, more concerned with what it has to say about the relations between the two Asian countries a layman would be most likely to name.
Don’t get me wrong, the action is fantastic, particularly a fight Chen has with an aging, blind and honorable Japanese martial artist that to make matters fair, he blindfolds himself to truly know who was the better fighter and the final fight with a Japanese colonel that mirrors the final battle of Fist of Fury. While both movies are R-rated, Fist of Legend feels more brutal because of the context behind it and just because the cinematography really makes you feel those being punched. If it seems somewhat familiar the choreography and framing of it all, that’s because HK legend Yuen Woo-Ping was behind it. He only did the same for the original Matrix movies. Woah.
In spite of how Jet Li fighting might be the main reason you would want to check out this film let alone any of his work, Fist of Legend is more concerned ultimately with what it has to say about a period in time between two peoples who happen to share a love of physical combat and through it self improvement. Shame that couldn’t be a unifier when instead they feud over who has the better style and with it superior culture.
Like before, Chen returns to Shanghai due to the sudden death of his master Huo Yuanjia that here occurred during a match with a Japanese opponent. As I brought up before, it is really strange this movie has a real historical figure who died at a certain point in time but is now transplanted decades in the future. Both movies use an actual photo of the fella so we have further confirmation he is who he is supposed to be.
Unlike Bruce’s Chen, Jet’s Chen is certainly justice focused, not viewing it as a matter of vengeance. He sees it as a protection of the school which I should’ve noted earlier is called “Chin Woo” and has managed to survive to this day. The movies portray Chen Zhen as the man who through his sacrifice would ensure its survival. Mild spoilers here, the fates of Chen diverge between versions. Like a legend, this fictional character has contrary reports of his fate. Funny considering the continuing debate surrounding his master’s end.
It’s not just a matter of seeing justice done for his sifu and upholding the art of an old Chinese practice, it then becomes a matter of what is most important to Chen as Mitsuko risks a hell of a lot heading over from Kyoto, Japan to be with him. Now he has an obligation to a person he loves. Chen in terms of prowess and decision making skills is a natural fit to take over as head of the school from his departed master and this is compounded when his master’s son and best friend Huo Ting’en is beaten in a match with him. And he’s not sure he wants the job what with Mitsuko and all.
There is a lot more for this Chen to chew on and work through compared to the mostly straight-forward path for Bruce’s take. Both films are of similar length and yet Fist of Legend never feels overstuffed. It even takes the time to have scenes between the Japanese characters alone discussing if the imperialistic path they’re taken is truly in their people’s best interest. The lead villain, General Go Fujita, obviously thinks so but the sensei of the Japanese school and Japanese Ambassador are deeply uncertain. One even makes a comparison to that of Japan as a mighty ant that’s awakening and angering a sleeping elephant that is China.
It’s often forgotten or not even known well that General Yamamoto after the attack on Pearl Harbor might not have made the famous statement about awakening a sleeping giant (The U.S.A) and filling it with a terrible resolve. That line is taken from the 1970 film Tora, Tora, Tora!, a movie that is otherwise respected for its painstaking historical accuracy to the event that brought America into WW2. Whether the General ever said anything remotely like that is not fully known, but he did have reservations over Japan attacking America that much is true.
Whether those lines were ever spoken outside a movie set or not, it did inspire a Hong Kong film to one day take that correct sentiment about not pissing off America and place it between China and Japan. Now, Japan’s impact on China was far greater, more brutal than the ultimate impact they had on my country. But, after awhile, whether they followed Chiang Kai-Shek or Mao Zedong’s banner into battle, they gave to the Japanese as good as they got.
Sure, I don’t know if China could’ve held on without Allied support, but it’s often under-observed at least in the West that one of the major factors in Japan’s defeat was that a crap-ton of resources and men were funneled into the battle for China. If Japan had an Eastern Front like Germany had against the Soviet Union, this was it. Both the military dictatorship that ran Japan in the Emperor’s name and Hitler both came to the same result, all because they were stretched too thin. That’s the problem with trying to conquer the world you know.
So, yes, it is comforting that a human face is given to the Japanese people It was the arrogance of the Japanese government and military, as is almost always the case that led to the evils they brought upon the Chinese. They inspired their people through propaganda and deceptions about traditions like that of Bushido to do what they would. Chen knows this having spent time in Japan and finding love through someone Japanese, and yet will the needs of his people, his school force him to overlook that truth?
Fist of Legend lives up to its reputation in being must see Jet Li faire, but it should be important to recognize that the prevalence of fighting is less here than in the other films I’ve seen of his. You’ll certainly get some great fights as you wanted, but don’t go into this particular movie thinking that is what this movie is truly about.
Next time: A look at the unwanted but ultimately welcome even strangely wonderful return of Dead Space.