Originally portrayed by Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury [Jing wu men] (1972), Chen Zhen is a fictionalised mashup of two disciples of Chinese martial artist Huo Yuanjia (1868-1910), the co-founder of Shanghai’s Chin Woo Athletic Association, who achieved folk hero status for his public bouts taking down foreign fighters. Screenwriter Ni Kuang saw the name Chen Zhen in Huo’s obituary and, liking the sound of it, pinched it for his story – creating a character with a number of parallels (possibly unintentional) to another of his followers, Liu Zhensheng. The character has undergone a number of revivals over the years, most recently being reinvented as a pulp action hero played by Donnie Yen in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen [Jing wu feng yun: Chen Zhen] (2010).
But before getting to that, it’s worth going on a quick trawl through the cinematic history of Chen Zhen. Having spent several years in Hollywood but never quite cutting through to the level of success he deserved, Bruce Lee came up with the concept of the martial arts/western TV series Kung Fu (1972-75) as a personal vehicle, only to see to the lead role handed to a Caucasian actor who had no martial arts training (David Carradine), with the studio refusing to credit Lee due to their claim that they had already come up with the same idea independently – a claim which doesn’t hold much water since they had apparently told Lee they wanted it to be set in the modern day rather than the Old West. Returning to Hong Kong, Lee was astonished to discover that he had become famous for his role as the Asian sidekick Kato in The Green Hornet (1966-67), a Batman (1966-68) spinoff generally referred to there as “The Kato Show”. His newfound local fame led to four films with Golden Harvest, the last of which was interrupted in order to make his international breakthrough film Enter the Dragon (1973) – although sadly he never had the opportunity to capitalise on his success, dying one month before its release.
Lo Wei’s Fist of Fury was the second of Lee’s films for Golden Harvest, set in 1930s Shanghai at a time when the Chinese people were being oppressed by the Japanese. Returning to Shanghai to marry his fiancée, Chen Zhen learns that his old master Huo Yuanjia has died and the remaining students are being harassed by the members of a rival Japanese dojo. After experiencing heapings of racist abuse in a variety of situations, Chen discovers that his master was actually poisoned and takes on the rival dojo single-handed, defeating all of the students and killing their master. Chen surrenders to a Chinese policeman only to be confronted by armed Japanese soldiers, with the film ending on a freeze-frame accompanied by gunshots as he launches himself at the soldiers.
Fist of Fury was a huge success, but the death of Bruce Lee (and the character of Chen Zhen) didn’t exactly leave much room for a sequel. During the mid-1970s race to find “the new Bruce Lee”, Lo Wei attempted to establish Jackie Chan as his successor in New Fist of Fury [Xin jing wu men] (1976), in which Chan played a street kid befriended by Chen Zhen’s fiancée. In the wake of this film’s relatively poor reception, Bruce Lee look-alike Bruce Li (real name Ho Chung-tao) starred as Chen Shan, Chen Zhen’s brother, in Fist of Fury II [Jing wu men xu ji] (1977) and Fist of Fury III [Jie quan ying zhua gong] (1979).
Chen Zhen himself finally returned to the big screen in the form of Jet Li in Gordon Chan’s Fist of Legend [Jing wu ying xiong] (1994), a remake of the original set once again in 1937 Shanghai. It’s a worthy successor to the original, taking some liberties with the story but overall faithful in spirit, if more nuanced in its consideration of race relations. The Japanese antagonist of the original has been reinvented as General Fujita, a violent madman who is detested by the pacifist Japanese ambassador. In this version of events Chen tries to avoid killing Fujita rather than deliberately setting out to murder him, and the Japanese ambassador colludes in faking Chen’s death to satisfy the Japanese authorities and prevent the outbreak of war. This changed ending presumably owes a debt to TV series The Fist [陳真] (1982), starring Bruce Leung, which saw the Mayor of Shanghai faking Chen’s death – although where the TV series had him temporarily retire to Beijing, Jet Li’s character heads to Manchuria to continue the fight against Japanese oppression.
Those paying attention to the dates mentioned earlier may have noticed one glaring error with the chronology of the films – Chen Zhen’s teacher Huo Yuanjia died not in the 1930s, but in 1910. This is not, as far as I’ve been able to determine, an error made by the various TV versions of his story. Although Fist of Legend was more successful internationally than it was in the domestic market, its revival of the character may have been a factor in the commissioning of TV series Fist of Fury [Jing wu men] (1995), which saw Donnie Yen play Chen Zhen for the first time. Given 30 episodes to work with, the show starts with Chen’s arrival in Shanghai prior to his first meeting with Huo Yanjia (here named Fok Yuen-gap in line with the earlier TV series The Legendary Fok [Daai hap Fok Jyun Gaap] (1981)) and ends the same way as Bruce Lee’s original.
Which finally brings us, fifteen years later, to Donnie Yen’s return to the role in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. Although initially conceived as a sequel to Fist of Legend, given that it opens in 1917 the absence of a time machine in either movie rather undermines this – it makes more sense to think of it as a sequel to Yen’s TV series minus the final scene. The film kicks off with an action sequence set in the trenches of World War I, where Chen has escaped his fate by joining the 140,000 Chinese labourers sent overseas to assist the British and French in lieu of troops. During the course of this set piece, which establishes Chen’s action hero credentials while maligning the Allied Forces as the sort of people who’d withdraw their troops without concern for the lives of their civilian support personnel, Chen’s best friend Qi Tianyuan is killed in action. Chen and his companions agree to take advantage of this sorry event to fake Chen’s death, with Qi’s sister back in Shanghai – Qi Zhishan (Zhou Yang) – a willing collaborator in the ruse.
Upon their return home, Chen becomes a pianist in a Shanghai nightclub (apocryphally named Casablanca in homage to the 1942 film) run by lovable patriotic gangster Liu Yutian (Anthony Wong), which provides cover for his activities with the underground anti-Japanese resistance movement due to its extensive clientele of foreign dignitaries. One night Chen follows the young General Zeng (Shawn Yue), son of a Chinese warlord, to secret peace-talks with his father’s rival General Zhuo (Ma Yue) only to realise that Japanese troops are lying in wait to sabotage the talks by killing Zeng and blaming his death on Zhuo. Concerned about breaking his cover, Chen makes the convenient discovery that he’s right outside a cinema showing a movie about a masked hero – and, even more conveniently, there’s a display window with a replica of the hero’s costume which just happens to be his size! Donning the outfit in record time – which, in a direct homage to Bruce Lee, looks exactly like the outfit he wore as Kato in The Green Hornet – he saves Zeng’s life and gives him a little speech about the need for China to come together against Japan before beginning a regular moonlighting gig as a pulp hero vigilante protecting the Chinese.
While Chen continues his exploits, he strikes up a relationship with Kiki (Shu Qi), who hits many of the classic femme fatale tropes – attractive nightclub singer fending off the attentions of her boss (good-natured) and patrons (less so), a damaged and conflicted individual with a drinking problem, and – most crucially – one of two spies within the nightclub secretly working for the Japanese. Although her interest in Chen is genuine, it’s not long before her superiors work out that he must be the masked vigilante, ordering her to report back on his movements and associates. Although he works out that she’s a spy, by that point the damage is already done – her superiors have enough information to make a brutal impact on his life. The final section of the film is basically a remake of the climactic confrontation in Fist of Fury set against the backdrop of the 1937 Japanese invasion as Colonel Chikaraishi (Kohata Ryu) – the leader of the forces Chen has been fighting and (by an astonishing coincidence) the son of the General he killed before heading off to the trenches – lures Chen to his father’s dojo, intending to re-stage the scene of his father’s death with a different outcome.
Donnie Yen, appearing here in the dual role of star and action director, is one of Hong Kong’s top action stars and notable for the lengths he takes to invest each of his characters with a fighting style suitable to their character. On record as stating that “Chen Zhen is Bruce Lee”, he avoids direct imitation of Lee for much of the film, choosing instead to honour the spirit of his approach by demonstrating a range of styles drawn from different traditions, much as Lee drew on a range of influences to create his own style of jeet kune do. It’s only in the final sequence that he allows Lee’s style to dominate – dressing in the same style of clothing, wielding nunchaku, emulating specific poses and movements, and making use of Lee’s characteristic vocal style. It’s a tour de force celebration of Lee’s oeuvre which makes no claims to originality but is nonetheless effective as a rousing conclusion.
Although I’ve noted that the setting of this film is more historically appropriate than the earlier versions, it’s got to be said that Legend of the Fist‘s version of Shanghai bears a greater resemblance to a historical theme-park than to any grounded reality. The Shanghai of the earlier parts of the film is all glitz and glamour, a hodgepodge of elements from the 1920s and 1930s thrown together in evocation of an era that never really existed as it’s been remembered through popular culture. As the Japanese gain power and the clock ticks down towards their invasion of China, the glitz and the colour palette begin to fade, colours becoming more and more washed out before finally transitioning to browns and greys. Gone, too, is much of the nuance added to Fist of Legend. The white Europeans are all either racist, incompetent, corrupt, or stupid – or some combination thereof – which, while blatantly stereotypical, does feel like a legitimate and justified perspective for Shanghai’s Chinese inhabitants. The Japanese characters are almost uniformly portrayed as evil, with Kiki being the sole exception – although even Kiki, while despising the results of her actions later in the film, is never really given the chance to redeem herself, continuing to carry out her orders regardless of her personal feelings and only achieving a vague sense of redemption through her pointless death. Apart from Kiki, only the Chinese characters are allowed any sort of complexity, and even then they are all – even the gangsters – unquestionably on the side of Chinese self-governance and unity, differing only on the means to achieve it. Having said that, there have been plenty of Hollywood films which are just as single-minded about American exceptionalism while reveling in much worse racial stereotyping – my feeling is that Legend of the Fist errs on the side of “simplistic” rather than “actively offensive”. (Japanese audiences may well feel differently, but the filmmakers have at least gone to the trouble of recruiting Japanese actors to fill out the cast.)
Director Andrew Lau has an eye for a skilfully composed image, having started in the film industry as a cinematographer and worked in this role with no less a luminary than the renowned Wong Kar-wai on As Tears Go By [Wong Gok ka moon] (1988) and Chungking Express [Chung Hing sam lam] (1994). Although my first encounter with his work as a director was the luscious wuxia epic The Storm Riders [Fung wan: Hung ba tin ha] (1998), he’s probably best known for the crime movie Infernal Affairs [Mou gaan dou] (2002) and its two sequels. Both Shu Qi and Anthony Wong, the most prominent supporting actors, have appeared in many of his films but have substantial careers of their own – Western audiences unfamiliar with their broader careers may recognise Shu Qi from the Jason Statham film The Transporter [Le Transporteur] (2002) and Anthony Wong as General Yang in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008). Among the smaller roles, Zhou Yang stood out to me for her performance as Chen’s sister, although she has one of the those tiny CVs which looks completely different depending on whether you check IMDB or HKMDB – a more detailed cross-check reveals that IMDB have split her career into two separate entries, crediting her for stunt work in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) as Zhou Yang but attributing her other acting roles, including a more prominent billing in Love You You [Xia ri le you you] (2011), to a supposedly separate individual listed as Yang Zhou. (Love You You appears to be her last work in the industry.)
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen is far from being a sophisticated film, but it looks gorgeous, has some great action sequences and is solidly entertaining – which is pretty much all I was looking for.