Dir: Andrew Lau. Hong Kong/China. 2010. 105mins


Chen Zhen lives to fight again in Andrew Lau’s first foray into big-budget martial arts cinema. Reprising one of Bruce Lee’s most famous roles is never easy, but Donnie Yen has the stepping stone of Jet Li’s earlier reincarnation of kung-fu fighter Chen Zhen in Fist of Legend (1994) to bounce off, and he and Lau launch into the task with a great deal of verve.

The film’s nationalist agenda, as well as its star cast and tasty period setting, should help to make it big in China, and results in Southeast Asia should be peppy.

If the result is more solid and workmanlike than ravishingly poetic, that’s probably deliberate: period martial arts epics have retreated, for good market reasons, from the crossover high water  mark set by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, and are focusing these days (as Red Cliff demonstrated) on cleaning up in Asia, with sales elsewhere being seen as the icing on the cake.

The fact that US distribution rights to Legend of the Fist have been picked up not by a big studio distributor but by niche operator Well Go, is telling in this respect. Ip Man, Well Go’s current Donnie Yen title, is being released first on DVD and BluRay, with a theatrical release being promised at some later date; and Legend of the Fist is likely to follow a similar trajectory. However, the film’s nationalist agenda, as well as its star cast and tasty period setting, should help to make it big in China, and results in Southeast Asia should be peppy.

Martial arts warrior Chen Zhen is an entirely cinematic construct,  created by writer Ni Kuang for the Bruce Lee vehicle Fist of Fury. Originally set in the twilight years of the Qing dynasty (which ended in 1912), the action has been moved forward here to the 1920s in order to set the standoff between Chinese and Japanese martial arts schools in Shanghai in a context of rising Japanese militarism and Chinese nationalist resistance.

The four scriptwriters begin by dusting off the little-known historical episode of thousands of Chinese workers being forcibly sent off to fight alongside French and British forces in the First World War. Chen Zhen (Yen) is one of them, and it’s his experiences on the French killing fields that mould his Chinese nationalist pride.

Nothing else in the film quite matches the exhilaration of the pre-title sequence, in which Chen Zhen and his companions attack a German position in a war-ravaged French town. After the war, going under the name of Ku, Chen Zhen befriends Liu Yutian (Wong), the good-hearted gangland owner of decadent Shanghai nightclub Casablanca, where sultry torch singer Kiki (Shu Qi) – who is not quite what she seems – performs nightly.

But Chen is secretly a member of an underground group dedicated to resisting Japanese expansionism in Shanghai, and he adopts the identity of a Masked Warrior – borrowed from a cheesy Hollywood film playing at a downtown cinema – to foil Japanese designs in a series of tasty fights (all choreographed by Yen himself).

Lush photography, a surging orchestral score and rich period detail creates a nicely tenebrous atmosphere of a tension-ridden city waiting uneasily for the match that lights the touchpaper. Western characters – like a bigoted police chief – are mere ciphers – but leads Yen (poised and elegant with his Gallicised look and manners) and Shu Qi fill out their roles, abetted ably by supporting players like Chen Yen’s main antagonist, Japanese colonel Chikariashi (Ryuichi).

Production companies: Media Asia Films, Enlight Pictures, Shanghai Film Media Asia present a Basic Pictures production

International sales: Media Asia Distribution, www.mediaasia.com

Producers: Gordon Chan, Andrew Lau

Executive producers: John Chong, Zhang Zhao, Zhang Guoli

Screenplay: Cheng Chi Sing, Gordon Chan, Lui Koon Nam, Frankie Tam

Cinematography: Andrew Lau, Ng Man Ching

Production design: Eric Lam

Editor: Azrael Chung

Music: Chan Kwong Wing

Main cast: Donnie Yen, Shu Qi, Anthony Wong, Huang Bo, Kohata Ryuichi