In 1937, a young student (Li as Chen Shen) is participating in educational classes when grim news arrives. His mentor who is the leader of his martial arts clan known as the Hua’s (they train at Jing Wu Men) has been killed. Despite being involved with a beautiful Japanese woman (Shinobu Nakayama as Mitsuko Yamada), Chen Shen decides to abandon his schooling to return to Shanghai to pay his respects and to investigate the circumstances surrounding Master Hua’s death.
When Chen Shen arrives in Shanghai and visits his friends and brothers at Jing Wu Men, he is resoundingly greeted with fanfare and respect. In the absence of Master Hua, many are reluctant to follow his son Ting’en (Siu-Hou Chin). Ting’en is a masterful fighter but he is not nearly as dynamic and effective as Chen Shen. Nevertheless, he has seniority and thus he is the rightful successor according to tradition. From the moment Chen Shen walks in, he violates many preset rules and inadvertently creates a rift between the Hua Clan’s disciples. Gradually, Ting’en’s leadership is challenged and his status is undermined. He seethes with jealousy but still maintains his obligation to defend and support Chen Shen until their eventual clash occurs. Both are honorable men in their own right.
Chen Shen does not believe that Master Hua could have been defeated by Master Akutagawa (Jackson Liu). To prove his theory, he journeys to Akutagawa’s Black Dragon dojo and soundly defeats him with a modicum of effort. This leads Chen Shen to the inescapable conclusion that Master Hua was poisoned. His theory will be vindicated later in the film as we come to find out the family cook poisoned the Master’s crocodile meat. Time to shed a few crocodile tears!
While their rivalry plays out and Chen Shen is uncovering the truth, the struggle between the Japanese military and the Chinese martial artists becomes a powder keg with a fuse waiting to be ignited. The leading Japanese General Fujita (Billy Chau), nicknamed the “Supreme Killer” is maniacally pulling the strings from behind the scenes. Not only does he want the Japanese martial artists to defeat the Hua Clan and other endemic Chinese societies, the General also wants to establish greater control over the Chinese people. Supremacy may be gained through stamping out all symbolic forms of resistance.
Given the clash of cultures and the tension between the Japanese and the Chinese, the stage is set for the return of Mitsuko. When Chen Shen is on trial for falsely committing murder, she intervenes on his behalf and testifies as to his whereabouts on the night in question. He is vindicated but his reputation is spoiled. Ting’en sees this as an opportunity to expel Chen Shen from their order. He forces the honorable artist to choose between his faithful lover Mitsuko and remaining at Jing Wu Men. Naturally, given his sense of honor and duty, Chen Shen rejects the society and moves into the countryside to be with his lover. Meanwhile, Ting’en is consorting with a prostitute from a brothel. He later incorporates her into the Hua society after buying her freedom. This is quite contradictious and hypocritical.
Rather than focusing on the inner-workings of the plot scheme, I would like to discuss the final fight scene between the two Hua leaders and General Fujita. Fujita practices destroying challengers by palming nails through boards, by kicking holes through bricks, and he looks fearsome in the process. The General’s first opponent is Ting’en who is easily dismantled and outclassed within the span of a minute. The next 10-15 minutes (I cannot offer an approximate time frame) are filled with brilliant, rock solid maneuvers that only experts at the top of their profession can pull off. Jet Li and Billy Chau fight through broken window panes, a myriad of furious punches, dozens of different styles of kicks, a plethora of Wushu defensive tactics, and the action is unrelenting. Their stamina and the realistic choreography is impressive and a tribute to both men’s abilities.
Many have called Fist of Legend Jet Li’s hallmark film. I too believe it is his magnum opus even if for his karate more so than his acting. The Chinese’s basic human desire for freedom from oppression is shown with great attention to detail and emotion. The character Chen Shen exhibits an indomitable spirit that symbolizes the Chinese people’s desire for independence. It is clear that a clash of cultures caused many heinous crimes to be committed and many atrocities occurred as a result of Japan’s oppressive rule. Movies such as Ip Man and Fist of Legend are expressions of China’s desire to remember her checkered and difficult history. If you are craving for a martial arts film and have even a hint of a taste for Wushu, I implore you to watch this classic. Fist of Legend is just that, a classic that packs a punch.
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