“Chinese are not sick men of East Asia”
For a director whose only other film I’ve seen is the amazing Infernal Affairs, Andrew Lau’s (no, not star Andy Lau) admittance to Bruce Lee being his ‘super idol’ while introducing his newest work 精武風雲－陳真 [Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen] at the Toronto International Film Festival became quite the relevant tidbit. A far cry from the realistic cop vs. criminal thriller, Legend goes as far to the opposite end of the spectrum as it can, existing in a very Dick Tracy-esque, hyper-real world. Chen Zhen, an indelible character in Chinese cinema (played by both Lee and Jet Li in past incarnations), contains an almost supernatural ability in the field of martial arts. His punch is infinitely stronger than foes, the speed and precision with which he fights light years ahead, and the fearlessness in the face of unfathomable adversity immeasurable. Single-handedly defeating a German contingent during WWI—he and his countryman laborers for the Allies—his next task becomes uniting Shanghai in 1925, right when it’s on the cusp of Japanese takeover.
Thought dead by both sides of the tug-of-war for Shanghai, Donnie Yen’s Chen Zhen arrives in town under the guise of a fallen compatriot—a friend who died in his arms and who’s identity would serve to keep Zhen’s rumored death a reality. A hub for mob activity and attended by all sides, Japanese apologists and detractors alike, Casablanca becomes the Atlantic City style setting of much that goes on. Zhen befriends owner and well-connected businessman Mr. Liu (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) to infiltrate the mob’s ranks, positioning himself in a spot ripe for information on the enemy. It’s a mission of revenge on those who killed his teacher at the Hongdou Dojo and of civil responsibility to reclaim the city for China. Foiling an assassination attempt by dressing up as the Masked Warrior (suspiciously reminiscent of Kato from “The Green Hornet”) and warding off the Japanese covert soldiers, Zhen soon finds his job description as savior of Shanghai’s elite. The enemy general soon leaks an assassination list, allowing Zhen to help him rid the city of all those in power. If they can’t be killed, his counterpart will help them escape—either way, the path to full occupation opens wider.
But this back and forth isn’t the only intrigue going on. Amidst the tenuous allegiances throughout the nightclub, Zhen catches the eye of star singer Kiki (Qi Shu), soon beginning a love affair, introducing her to his old war buddies and accomplices in the rebel fight. Yet all involved eventually betray their hidden secrets, showing their lies to other characters or the audience, making the tangled web more intricate and overlapping. It’s all in the details, from scarred skin on the war laborers’ wrists courtesy of standard issued copper bracelets to the cigarettes and alcohol to the language spoken. I think there is a lot to be added if you can tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese. I couldn’t differentiate the two and that fact may have made it harder for me to figure out who was who and what side they were on. It all does come into focus once the climax approaches and characters start to perish—no one is safe, no matter how important they may appear to the plot. Lau and screenwriter Gordon Chan never shy away from doing what best serves the script, no matter how high profile the role is.
While the story continues on, there is also the aesthetic to appreciate. The backdrops to Shanghai are obviously fabricated electronically, their sharpness contrasting with the more subtle edges of what’s real; the effects are somewhat crude in their execution, bullet sprays in the dust and dirt during the opening battlefield scene too perfect; and the overdubbing of dialogue is completely off, most noticeable with Karl Dominik’s non-Asian speaking Chinese. But none of this is a negative. On the contrary, I felt it all added to the world created, even believing the unsynched words purposely pay homage to the older work of Lee and the comical English dubbing those films possessed. Everything happening is just a little left of real world authenticity, so going that much further helps create an off-kilter environment for the insane fight sequences and superhero-esque antics of Chen Zhen. Donnie Yen seems to embrace it all too, giving everything and never playing it tongue-in-cheek, no matter how crazy or impossible the stunt he’s performing. His Zhen is a country’s protector—tortured, beaten, and broken, but never backing down.
精武風雲－陳真 [Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen] 6/10 | ★ ★ ½
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival