On Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (2010)

Book coverI bought this film recently on one of my antique mall splurges or at the Lutherans for Life garage sale. As it was on the top of the stack–which, in this case, means atop the old cabinet that holds our video games now that the old repurposed stereo that formerly could hold all of my unwatched videos is too full for any more–as I was saying, as it was on top of the cabinet, it took some precedence over the things behind the glass that formerly protected probably a sweet hi-fi thirty or forty or fifty years ago. But on a recent boyless night, I popped it in.

So: It’s a Chinese film from 2010. Chen Zhen served in a Chinese contingent in World War I (although they did not number it that then), but he returns home and, in the 1930s, ends up in Shanghai. He takes on a role at a nightclub and works to antagonize the Japanese who are moving in as he serves in the resistance. Of course, previously, he had beaten one of their dojo’s students (to be explained later), and there’s an element of revenge for the Japanese bad guy, the son of the previously beaten sensei.

As an actioner, it’s not bad. Direct-to-video quality. But as a cultural artifact….

You know, gentle reader, ever since I dabbled into Sinophilia, I’ve found source material from the middle of the twentieth century on to be suspect, so I’ve had to wonder. In this film, which is subtitled, we’ve got soldiers running away identified in the subtitles as French, and we have men on the take identified as British, but, c’mon, man: in the IMDB entry, we have only actors identified as American soldier.

Alright, so they’ve hidden within the subtitles that the bad guys are the Americans.

So the hero who rises above his station to malign the British French Americans wears a cap and mask like Kato from The Green Hornet. And Jet Li in The Black Mask. And this film borrows a bit from Casablanca, not om the least in its dueling songs–Chinese songs versus a Japanese song–early on.

And from whence is Chen Zhen returning? Well, the character was originally played by Bruce Lee in 1972’s Fist of Fury–this is where Chen Zhen tears up the Japanese dojo to avenge his sensei. Then, it appeared in a couple of sequels. Then, Jet Li played the character in 1994’s Fist of Legend (Li would also play Zhen’s teacher in 2006’s Fearless). So the endless cycle of reboots and sequels to a particular character, with some continuity and some discarded elements, is not an exclusively American thing.

So, as I said, it’s an okay martial arts film, but more interesting as a cultural artifact. And something to make one feel superior to one’s peers–watching foreign films with subtitles–as long as one does not consider that martial arts films are not European art house films.

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