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Fist of Legend (1994) review: One of Jet Li's finest movie





Fist of legend is a reinterpretation of Bruce Lee's "Fist of Fury (1972)" (also known as The Chinese Connection), featuring Jet Li as the protagonist, Chen Zhen.

Considered one of Jet Li's finest movie, what sets this version apart from Bruce Lee's original one is the depiction of the sino-japanese relationship: while fist of fury's (Chinese connection) Japanese characters were caricatural villains partaking in numerous immoral activities, the Fist of legend portrays the Japanese in a more humane way.

Although the setting lends itself for a revenge plot, Fist of legend is more about justice and honor than killing and revenge.

Year of release:   1994 Original Title:  精武英雄
Directors: Gordon Chan                   Original language:   Cantonese 
Actors: Jet Li
Chin Siu-ho
Shinobu Nakayama
Billy Chau
Yasuaki Kurata
Paul Chun





Character with martial arts training

Chen Zhen (陳真) played by Jet Li (李連杰)
Orphan raised by Master Fok (or Huo, in Mandarin), who considers him a son. Highly loyal to his friends, he does not hesitate to do whatever needs to be done to bring justice.
Fok Ting Yan (霍廷恩) played by Chin Siu-ho (錢小豪)
Son of Master Fok, he takes over the martial arts school after his father's death.
Master Fumio Funakoshi (船越文夫) played by Yasuaki Kurata (倉田保昭)
Hailed as the best martial artist of Japan, Funakoshi's reputation comes not from his fighting abilities but from his virtuous character and wisdom.
General Fujita played by Billy Chau
Main Antagonist of the movie, general is a highky skilled fighter who would do anything to serve the interests of the Japanese emperor.


When Chen Zhen is a student of the Jing Mo (Jing Wu) school sent to Japan for his studies. When he  hears about his master's death, he hurries back home, where he learns har his master was killed by a Japanese karate master in a duel. Back in China, he finds himself caught in the escalating racial tensions between the Chinese and the Japanese.



Training scenes

Unlike other martial arts movie, the protagonist here trains to maintain and improve himself, as opposed to aquiering new skills.

The training methods brought forward by Chen Zhen are unorthodox by traditional kung fu standards. His method of body conditioning include casual western exercise such as jogging, rope jumping, one arm chin-ups and push ups. Despite embracing new methods, it is shown that Chen Zhen still values more traditional training methods such as form practice, target striking and sparring exercises.


The training is believable and and would be beneficial for real martial arts training. Even more surprising is that Jet Li seems to be able to do all those physically demanding exercises



Fighting scenes

The fights in Fist of legend are realistic enough that wire enhanced movements easily go by unoticed. As usual, Jet li's movements quick and are sharp, making the fight scenes a pleasure to watch. The fight choreography, imagined by Yuen Woo-Ping became an inspiration for many subsequent Hollywood productions, including the Matrix and Kiss of the Dragon

The movie does suffer from the "waiting attackers syndrome" in which multiple enemies wait their turn to attack our solitary protagonist, but the one on one fights more than make up for this minor annoyance. All one on one fights are really more duals, bound by honor than fights to the death. Although there are no holding back, fighters in one on one fights never mame or seriously hurt their adversary, except perhaps the final fight. Most brutal strikes from the protagonist are executed when he is outnumbered.

As a logical aftermath of having been in contact with the exterior world or as a nod to Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do, we see Jet Li use an array of different fighting styles. We see Chen Zhen use Chin Na movements, traditional Fok style kung fu incorporated at times with boxing stances. Viewers are even treated to a capoera style finishing kick.




Historical value

This movie takes place in Shanghai, during the Japanese occupation, in 1937 (shortly before world war II). The movie somewhat accurately portrays the political environment of the era in Shanghai, where a lawless Shanghai was controlled by foreign forces.

Jing Wu, the school Chen Zhen and Ting Yan belonged to did indeed exist, but in the form of an martial arts association named Chin Woo (also written Jing Wu) athletic association (精武體育會)  , with access to different styles and teachers.

Fok Yun Gaap (Huo Yuanjia 霍元甲), the deceased founder of Jing Wu school in the fist of legend was also a real historical character. He did take part in the foundation of the real life Chin Woo athletic association (精武體育會) but did so as part of a group of people. It is alleged real life Jing Wu association used late Fok Yun Gaap as a icon to serve as inspiration for its student.

Door sign of the fictional Jing Wu school

Chen Zhen's character on the other hand is the product of writers imagination. There are no basis leading us to believe his character was in any way inspired by the life of any of the students of Jing Wu.




There are definitely worthy martial arts philosophy quips in Fist of legends, but they sometimes differ, depending on which version of hte movie you get your hands on. In the US release, it seems the Cantonese to English translation had their own set of philosophy. Anyone who understands Cantonese will quickly realize what the characters say and English caption don't match, especially in the pholosophical sections of the movie. The following section is based on the philosophy from the original Cantonese version. This transcript is a (very slightly) modified from the original English subtitles from the Hong Kong release.


Basic training and philosophy.

At 00:27:12 in the movie
[Chen Zhen]   Fancy moves not necessarily effective. Learning Kung Fu is not about memorization. Challenge has one objective: beat the opponent. You need: reflexes, speed and power! Simple and direct offense will work best. To attack an opponent... first learn to take an attack.
[Other student]   But we can hit him before they attack!
[Chen Zhen]   But if your attacks don't have enough power, You can hit him ten times but he will not go down. He hits you once and you'll go down, because you cannot take the punishment.

Chen Zhen showing other students a powerful kick

The most powerful martial arts

At 01:04:00 in the movie
[Fumio Funakoshi]   Tell me, what is the most powerful fist (attack)?
[Chen Zhen]   Concentrate all your energy on one focal point,
then hit!
[Fumio Funakoshi]   Wow, this is really powerful. But I've never seen stones don't hit back. Our opponents are human beings that can move, so how can there be a most powerful strike? 
[Chen Zhen]   You can theorize anyway you like. Why don't we try it?
[Fumio Funakoshi]   How about the best defence?
[Chen Zhen]   Attack! Why waste energy defending, when you can attack? Strike the opponent in the shortest time possible!
[Fumio Funakoshi]   Seems like Huo style is similar to Karate,  based on attacking first.
[Chen Zhen]   All you do is talk, you don't understand, do you? Hard without soft only wastes energy. Soft without hard can't strike either. Old Master, how do you teach your students?
[Fumio Funakoshi]   Has your master taught you that bad temper is the weak point in a match. Young Man, you are disadvantaged with your attitude!
[Chen Zhen]   My master never talked that much. Are you going to fight?

Chen Zhen and Fumio Funakoshi, fighting blind-folded

The true purpose of martial arts

At 01:12:24 in the movie
[Fumio Funakoshi]   It's over!
[Chen Zhen]   Are you alright?
[Fumio Funakoshi]   It's not easy to be so young and so talented! Very rare!
[Chen Zhen]   Having much energy for such an age is also rare!
[Fumio Funakoshi]   Chinese say: "The Old fear the strength of the Youth" It's true.
[Chen Zhen]   But, I have lost!
[Fumio Funakoshi]   I adopted your fighting style. Chinese martial arts always emphasize on personal well-being, not the battles. You allowed me to witness this principle.
[Chen Zhen]   The objective of matching is to beat the opponent. 
[Fumio Funakoshi]   Wrong, young man. The best way to beat the opponent is to do it with a gun. The goal of Kung Fu is to maximize one's abilities to the highest level. To achieve that, you must understand life and the universe. I have to go. Take care.
[Chen Zhen]   Aren't we fighting?
[Fumio Funakoshi]   Fighting is for beasts. The fight ended in a draw.










Last Updated on Monday, 26 December 2011 20:07  

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