Release date April 22, (USA)
Directed by Andrew Lau
Starring Donnie Yen
Rating 2 out of 5
Chen Zhen once defended his master, school, and style of kung-fu as portrayed in the seminal Brice Lee martial arts film Fist of Fury (1972). The character was later resurrected in a loving remake of Lee’s classic starring Jet Li in Fist of Legend (1994). Donnie Yen (Ip Man) later fleshed out the character a bit more in the Hong Kong television series Fist of Fury (1995). Yen continues the role in the wordy international release Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. This time, however, the character gets a major change of scenery to go along with Tolstoy-length dialogs over-filled with Chinese Nationalism.
Originally the story of Chen Zhen was a simple one: Honored student returns home to his master’s school. Master’s school is being bullied by a local occupying Japanese martial arts school. Japanese bullies call school and nation “Sick man of Asia.” Chen Zhen (Lee) gets a bit miffed and destroys 456 Japanese students, some rogue muscle, and a Japanese martial arts master in some of the best (and one-sided) martial arts ever put on screen. Simple. Fist pumping. Awesome. The nationalism is there, as it is in most historical Chinese martial arts films, but it was part of the story naturally and in the right doses.
The Return of Chen Zhen is a mishmash of mismatched action cinema pieces created with what seems like cowardly begging (otherwise extreme jingoism) of the Ministry of Broadcasting, Television and Film and the Ministry of Truth and Propaganda of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in China. All scripts have to be approved, more or less, by the Communist Party in China. If a film’s makers gets backing from one of the primary film financiers in the country, then they are dealing directly with the military. It can be a tough road, there is no doubt, so what can a filmmaker do to increase the odds of his film being backed, approved, and distributed (many studios don’t budget for distribution)? By pandering to nationalism, of course. Even if a movie gets approval, it still has to out wit the censorship ninnies. Censorship in China is vague and strange. Some of the loose guidelines:
- Films are often censored for showing some of the harsh realities of Chinese life: men gambling in messy rooms, people cleaning their bed pans in the street. The censors feel that this reveals the undeveloped, negative side of China and would be damaging to China’ reputation abroad. Films that deal with contemporary problems such as corruption, land grabs and environmental problems are also sure to get axed.
- Taboo subjects include explicit sex, nudity, graphic violence, gambling, adultery, ghosts and criticism of the Communist party. Sometimes films are cut for the oddest reason. On action movie, for example, had a scene removed in which a policeman is zapped to death by an electric eel in a swimming pool because it depicted a “unrespectable” way to die. Films that please the censors often turn out to be yawners that no one is interested in seeing.
- Directors must not produce films that depict hardcore sexual activity, rape, prostitution or nudity. “Vulgar dialogue or music and sound effects with a sexual connotation” are also out; Any content involving “murder, violence, horror, evil spirits and devils and excessively terrifying scenes, conversations, background music and sound effects” is banned. The list forbids films that “distort the civilization and history of China or other nations … or … tarnish the image of revolutionary leaders, heroes, important historic characters, members of the armed forces, police and judicial bodies.” *
Therefore the safe road to travel is one that grovels at the feet of the Military Industrial Complex. The Return of Chen Zhen travels that road wearing a helmet while guided by giant padded bumpers which assures a straight path. That is a shame because the director, Andrew Lau, knows how to make a marvelous movie as evidenced by Infernal Affairs, the film which was the inspiration for – and superior to – Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.
The Return of Chen Zhen opens with Chen Zhen putting time in on the front during World War I. The leveled war-torn buildings, period military clothing, and whizzing bullets lets the viewer know right away that this is going to be a drastic departure from the antiquated portrayal of small village China as seen in the Lee and Li films. Zhen, however, is much the same. In a company of scared farmers, Zhen, the folk icon, is their protector - using every opportunity to unleash impressive hand-to-hand carnage on soldiers too reliant on their guns to anticipate or fight against a threat like Zhen. Although Zhen is mostly successful in defending his company in the last days of their tour, one failure gives him the opportunity to fake his death and return to China undercover where he hopes to rally his countrymen in fighting to rid his country of its Japanese occupiers.
Zhen returns to Shanghai and finds a job at a popular nightclub that boasts Chinese, Japanese, and European clientele – perfect for a spy looking to ignite a little subterfuge. Zhen is aided in part by a resistance whose members hide out as workers at various jobs in the city. Tensions escalate as the leader of the local Japanese occupation, Colonel Chikaraishi, prepares a final blow to the Shanghai resistance by publishing a Death List. The Death List contains names of Chinese resistance and foreign sympathizers and, if carried out in full, would mean and end to the resistance in Shanghai and possibly all of China.
Zhen, still working at keeping his well known identity a secret, swipes a “Black Mask” costume from a shop and saves a Chinese General whose name was at the top of the Death List. From that moment the “superhero” Black Mask is born. So, yes, this is both a Chen Zhen movie and a superhero movie. I assumed Black Mask was a Chinese folk legend based on real people or events similar to Wong Fei-hung or Huo Yuan Jia. This belief was based largely off the existence of a Jet Li superhero-like movie called Black Mask from 1996. However, I can’t turn up any reference to a “Black Mask” character from the rich Chinese folk traditions, so the new assumption is that these two are unrelated and the names lose something in translation. Either way, the outfit is also similar to Kato’s from The Green Hornet.
From this moment on, the movie becomes a mess that plays like random snippets saved from the editing room and pieced together by several different editors and directors. Or maybe two teams were placed in two rooms with no communication with each other; one team made the first half of the movie from existing footage, the other team made the second half, and then the two parts were put together and shipped to the theaters. Whatever the reason, a pretty taunt and fun action flick turned into a tepid propaganda piece with nationalistic dialogs as verbose as an Ayn Rand “conversation.” That noise you just heard was the movie’s engine ceasing as black, acrid smoke pours from its gears.
The next 45 minutes of The Return of Chen Zhen is mired in near soliloquies and shockingly little action. The Black Mask is seen often gazing from rooftops like Batman and there is a brief montage of the hero saving some (but not all) from the Death List, but otherwise the movie is boring while trying to bear the weight of its obtuse message.
The ending sequence and thankfully more action finally rise a bit from the ashes to deliver some decent kung-fu, but whereas Li’s homage to Bruce Lee in his earlier movie was nearly pitch perfect, Yen’s imitation of Lee’s Zhen is nearly comical. Yen, normally a stoic martial artist, whoos and whaaas like Lee while debuting (to my knowledge) some forms from Lee’s Jeet Kune Do. I did get chills when Yen opened a chest with a button tunic and nunchaku inside (if you have not seen the nunchaku scene from the 1972 original and you have made it this far in the review, then stop and find that movie now!), but Yen, a fantastic martial artist, does not have the nunchaku skill to pull off believable choreography as compared to Li and especially Lee.
The ending is rushed, the boss fight is weak, the credits roll and… Disappointment. A criminally wasted opportunity.
Dale’s score: 2 out of 5
General reference: FactsandDetails.com
* reference: Independent.co.uk