Monday, April 18, 2011

The Return of an Icon, Chen Zhen: Legend of the Fist

They were the forgotten allies of World War One. The Chinese government sided against Germany and even supplied men to the cause, whom the allies used as common trench-diggers. However, when the Germans advanced, Chen Zhen knew what to do. Returning to a China occupied by foreign powers, the legendary hero brings the war to the Japanese military in Andrew Lau’s Legend of the Fist (trailer here), a selection of the 67th Venice Film Festival, which opens uncut and undubbed (the way God intended) this Friday in New York.

Cleverly disguised with a pencil-thin mustache, Chen Zhen has assumed the identity of playboy Qi Tianyuan. As a cover, he manages the nightclub of the super-connected Liu Yutian, while serving as the eyes and ears of the Chinese nationalists. Many in Shanghai have acquiesced to the Japanese strong-arm tactics. However, the masked Chen Zhen’s well publicized acts of resistance begin to stir the populace. Of course, the Japanese are not amused. With the stakes rising exponentially, neutrality will no longer be an option.

It is surely no accident Chen Zhen’s club is called the Casablanca. There is definitely gambling going on there, as well as all sorts of espionage. Chen Zhen is no Rick Blaine though. He is a patriot through and through. Not even Kiki, the club’s gorgeous canary, will distract him from the fight.

Donnie Yen is probably the top action star working anywhere in the world today. Certainly, nobody in Hollywood can rival his martial arts cred and easy-going screen presence. After building a name in America as Bruce Lee’s future master in the Ip Man franchise, Yen is the logical choice for Chen Zhen, a role once played by Lee, as well as the likes of Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Also serving as the action director, Yen totally delivers the martial arts goods. Happily though, he need not carry the entire picture.

Indeed, Shu Qi makes a truly scorching femme fatale as Kiki, even performing a hot and swinging rendition of the Carmen aria. As Col. Chikaraishi, Kohata Ryuichi is just an okay villain, but Johnnie To regular Anthony Wong adds class and character to the proceedings as Liu Yutian.

Fist is one of the few successful retro historical action movies since Indiana Jones’ heyday. Art director Eric Lam’s 1920’s period details look great and the Yen’s fight sequences are consistently inventive. If anything, the film is slightly off balance, with best action scene coming up top, as a flashback to WWI, but at least it’s in there.

A first-rate production with a charismatic cast, Fist is the sort of film that makes fanboys of us all. Really, the only problem with it is its timing. The film is a blast, but its Japanese villains come at a time when many Asian film lovers are doggedly raising funds and awareness for Japan as it copes with the aftermath of the recent earthquake and tsunami. (Again, Hollywood and the Obama administration are welcome to jump onboard anytime.) Regardless, Fist is definitely recommended when it opens this Friday (4/22) at the Village East, as is supporting the Red Cross here and the Japan Society’s relief fund here.