Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen
by Del Harvey
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Donnie Yen is perhaps the most exciting martial arts star in China today. He has succeeded Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, and to prove it, he has taken over a role which each of those previous stars tackled - Chen Zhen.
The Chen Zhen character is a mainstay of Chinese and Hong Kong cinema and television. While each iteration features a different backstory and characters, they generally share some similar traits ‐ Chen Zhen, a member of the Jingwu Athletic Association (a martial arts school), upset by the mistreatment of Chinese citizens by the occupying Japanese and/or the murder of his master, storms the Hongkuo dojo full of Japanese students and masters… and single‐handedly takes them all out.
In 1920s China, the nation is divided by infighting. Japan has become the most powerful force in Asia, taking over Northern Shanghai. With the city torn in half by international conflict, the popular nightclub “Casablanca” has become a hotbed of spies, mobsters, English officials and the Japanese military ‐ all looking to gain control of the country, with little regard for what happens to its citizenry.
Into this den of intrigue enters Chen Zhen (Donnie Yen), who has returned to China after fighting alongside the Allied forces in Europe, bringing some dark secrets from his past along with him. During the day, he’s known as “Qi”, and appears to be just another wealthy playboy. But at night, he takes to the street as a masked warrior, determined to subvert the Japanese invasion while becoming entangled with the sultry Kiki (Played by Shu Qi), who has a dangerous secret of her own. When his past catches up to him, Zhen is faced with near impossible odds ‐ but his skills are formidable, and he’s up to the challenge.
Legendary Kung Fu hero Chen Zhen is an iconic cultural mainstay in China and Hong Kong, having spawned both record‐breaking feature films and a TV series. Over the years, martial arts legends such as Bruce Lee (FIST OF FURY) and Jet Li (FIST OF LEGEND) have played the popular hero. In LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN, Donnie Yen continues this rich historical legacy with a brand new take on the urban myth, courtesy of director Andrew Lau, best known for his INFERNAL AFFAIRS trilogy.
Combining the best of today’s martial arts and superhero action with the classic spy thrillers of the past (and adding a healthy dollop of film noir on top), LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN is the rare action film that truly gives the audience something they’ve never seen before.
The character first appeared in the 1972 Bruce Lee film, FIST OF FURY. Also known in the US as both THE CHINESE CONNECTION (in a half-°©‐hearted attempt to capitalize off the popularity of the recent hit THE FRENCH CONNECTION) and THE IRON HAND, FIST OF FURY was Bruce Lee’s second film following THE BIG BOSS (also known, quite confusingly, as FISTS OF FURY). Lee starred as Chen Zhen, a student of the Jingwu Athletic Association, who returns from abroad to find has master, Huo Yuanjia, dead.
FIST OF FURY spawned a sequel, NEW FIST OF FURY (1976), which starred a then 21 year old Jackie Chan (who played a small role as a student in the original FIST OF FURY) in one of his first leading roles. However, there are very few connections to FIST OF FURY, with Chan playing a young boy who meets Chen Zhen’s fiancée and somehow becomes his heir apparent. Between Chan’s unfamiliarity with Bruce Lee’s style of martial arts, his being forced to play it straight and therefore unable to utilize his strengths as a comedian, and a storyline bordering on completely incoherent, NEW FIST OF FURY is widely regarded as a poor attempt at “Brucesploitation”, and its failure at the time nearly derailed the fledgling career of Jackie Chan, who was performing under the stage name “Sing Lung” at the time (which means Becoming A Dragon, in a blatant effort to market and position Chan as Bruce Lee’s heir apparent).
A remake of FIST OF FURY, this updated version starred Jet Li as Chen Zhen, and was directed by Gordon Chan ‐ who is credited as a writer and producer on LEGEND OF THE FIST. While the story is nearly identical to FIST OF FURY, the film featured much harder‐edged action, choreographed by Yuen Woo‐ping, which focused more on realism than fantastical wire-°©‐fu (though there is plenty of wire work to behold). The film was an immediate hit with fans of the genre, and the action scenes are largely considered to be the main influence behind 1999’s THE MATRIX and the Wachowskis’ decision to hire Woo‐ping as action director. Unfortunately, fans would have to wait nearly fourteen years for a DVD version in the US that did not alter the film substantially using “dubtitles” and contained the original Cantonese soundtrack.
While LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN is most closely related to the 1995 television series, in which Donnie Yen played Chen Zhen, the character of Chen Zhen was originally made famous in a classic Bruce Lee film, which spawned an excellent Jet Li remake… and a very questionable sequel.
LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN is presented in the original Cantonese version with English subtitles.
To visit the official site and watch a trailer for this exciting new release, click here.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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