A loving homage to the 1973 Bruce Lee kung fu classic Chinese Connection, updated with increased production values, a Romeo and Juliet-style romantic subplot, and a more temperate view of the Japanese enemy. A martial arts protege (Jet Li) leads his classmates in revolt after their teacher is poisoned by the invading Japanese. The final fight scene is arguably one of the best of all time. Fights choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping, action director of The Matrix.
This is by far my favourite retelling of Jing Wu Meng’s Chen Zhen, this time acted by Je Li with an awesome display of his superb martial arts skills. This version is unique for 2 reasons: 1) this is the only version with a happy ending where Chen Zhen gets thru this alive, 2) the Japanese in this movie are not all portrayed as bad. His Japanese love interest and her uncle are both shown in a very positive light Don’t read this if you do not like spoilers. And believe me when I say this is the best version of the Chen Zhen story.
The story starts in Japan where Chen Zhen is studying in a Japanese college at a time of rising Japanese militarism and aggressive actions by Japanese on China with the aim of annexing the country. Pro-military blackguard societies sprung up in Japanese schools centred around martial arts dojos and supporting military imperialism, harassing and intimidating anyone who dares to urge caution or peace. The college’s Black Dragon Society enters the classroom with the intent of kicking Chen Zhen out of the school but they ended up on the floor. When Chen Zhen was informed that his master Huo Yuen Jia of Shanghai’s Jing Wu Men was killed by a Japanese in a duel he immediately returns home in time to attend his master’s funereal. .
The first thing he did after paying his repect to his late master was to look for Akutagawa Ryuichi who had fought with his master. He had to trash all the Japanese in the dojo before he was able to meet Akutagawa Ryuichi. Here, Jet Li did much to honor Bruce Lee’s original version of this scene with the multiple kicks. When he did fight Akutagawa Ryuichi and defeated the Japanese easily. Chen Zhen was puzzled as this Japanese’s skill was already way below his level but yet managed to beat Huo Yuen Jia in that match. Based on that he decided to exhume his master’s body for an autopsy as he suspected his master was poisoned. True enough, the doctor he’d brought along confirmed that Huo Yuen Jia was indeed poisoned. The hunt is on for the poisoner hiding in Jing Wu Meng.
Huo Yuen Jia’s son Huo Ting Yen is the chief instructor and head of Jing Wu Meng but he felt inferior to Chen Zhen’s skill and intelligence, plus he was involved with a prostitute.
The Japanese Akutagawa Ryuichi was killed by General Fujita when he questioned the underhanded poisoning of Huo Yuen Jia. The killing was then blamed on Chen Zhen of Jing Wu Meng. While Chen Zhen was out on his morning exercise the armed Japanese came and a fight ensured at Jing Wu Meng with many injured. The fight was stopped by the arrival of the sympathetic local police inspector. At about that time Chen Zhen came back and he was taken back to the police station for questioning. His trial was rigged with false witnesses attesting that they saw Chen Zhen killing the Japanese. The arrival of a crucial witness turned the course for Chen Zhen. This witness is Yamada Mitsuko from the same Japanese college as Chen Zhen. She falsely testified that he had spent the night with her so he couldn’t have killed the Japanese. While her lies saved Chen Zhen it turned Huo Ting Yen and fellow students of Jing Wu Meng against him for consorting with the enemy Japanese. This caused a fight between Huo Ting Yen and Chen Zhen and while Chen Zhen was defensive in the earlier part of the fight he fought back, not using Huo family Mi Zhong style, but with a mixed style incorporating western boxing and Japanese karate. I believe this is the very first instance where mixed martial arts was performed in a movie. Huo Ting Yen was no match for Chen Zhen but Chen Zhen decided not to stay on in Jing Wu Meng as they did not welcome his Japanese girlfriend. They were not able to get any lodging at the hotels as they didn’t want the Japanese girl staying there. Thus, they ended up staying in a caretaker’s hut next to Huo Yuen Jia’s tomb.
Meanwhile, the Japanese came with a challenge to Jing Wu Meng from the head of their clan in Japanese. This is Funakoshi, uncle of Chen Zhen’s girlfriend. Huo Ting Yen was demoralised by his loss to Chen Zhen and had taken to frequently being away and hiding in the brothel with his prostitute girlfriend, and so was not present to receive the letter of challenge. It was his girl friend who eventually turned up at Jing Wu Meng to informed them of Huo Ting Yen’s whereabout. They managed to convince him to return and his girlfriend was redeemed from the brothel and became his 2nd wife. At this time, the poisoner turned out to be the family cook who was blackmailed by a fellow student to poison Huo Yuen Jia in order to save his son who was imprisoned in Shanghai for murder. The cook was eventually killed to silence him.
Funakoshi arrived in China and immediately has a runned in with the Japanese general. He stated that he is just a martial arts master and not a politician and cannot be pressured upon by the military. He goes to look for his niece and Chen Zhen. In the fight between the 2 men, there was no clear winner as both were evenly matched. They trade blows as well as insults making this fight segment a joy to watch.. Again, Chen Zhen is using mixed martial arts in this duel with his elbows and flying knees of muay thai. Funakoshi abandoned his karate style as it wasn’t able to counter Chen Zhen’s unconventional fighting style and imitated him with the dancing feet and punching fists of the western boxer coupled with swinging elbows and rising knees and low kicks of muay thai. A strong wind dances up and blinded Funakoshi and Chen Zhen decided to use blindfolds so as not to have an unfair advantage. The fight ended when both realised that there can be no clear winner in this match as both are evenly matched.
Huo Ting Yen came to where Chen Zhen and his girlfriend are staying and secretly taught Chen Zhen his family’s secret Mi Zhong style which is not taught to non family members. He did this because he wanted Chen Zhen to carry on the Jing Wu Meng tradition in case he doesn’t make it back from the duel against the Japanese.
Mitsuko, realising that Chen Zhen’s heart is still with Jing Wu Meng but he cannot return to them because he has to take care of her, then decided to return to Japan. Chen Zhen is now freed of his responsibility to her and decides to go with Huo Ting Yen to fight the Japanese. Funakoshi, the original challenger has decided to return to Japan as he does not agree with the military’s imperialist plans against China. Thus, when Huo Ting Yen and Chen Zhen arrives at the place they find General Fujita waiting for them. Huo Ting Yen went up first against the Japanese but he was no match and ended up seriously injured. Chen Zhen takes over the fight A long brutal fight with the Japanese general being almost indestructible and Chen Zhen, at one stage having his arm dislocated, dredging up skills he never knew he had to finally defeat the Japanese general in unarmed combat. Turning his back on the defeated Japanese, Chen Zhen gathered up Huo Ting Yen to leave the dojo when they were attacked by the Japanese general wielding a samural sword this time. Chen Zhen was forced to kill him with his own sword. On their way out they were stopped by Japanese soldiers only to be saved by the arrival of the local policemen who refused to let the Japanese take Chen Zhen. The situation was defused by the Japanese ambassador who was also against Japanese imperialism and regarded Chen Zhen highly. He ordered the Japanese soldiers to withdraw and conspired wth the Chinese policemen present to fake Chen Zhen’s execution by using a body substitute. This way, Japanese demands for Chen Zhens life to forfeit for the death of the Japanese general was met and they did not have any excuse to launch their attack on China.
Wonderful version with fantastic fighting. Best of all, Chen Zhen survived.
Fist of Legend