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Fist of Fury vs. Fist of Legend

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Fist of Fury vs. Fist of Legend: A Movie Comparison

 Written May 10th, 2014

 “If you’re going to remake a film, it should be better than (or at least different from) the original…” — Jeff Vice, Deseret News Movie Critic

If you’re like me, whenever you find yourself with free time (which a lot of times is never due to university), and you’re relaxed—or, more precisely, just taking a physical break from competition in this case—you decide to check out the movies.  Final exams are coming up for me, and with the little free time I’ve had, I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Amazing Spider-Man 2—next Friday, I plan on seeing the much-hyped Godzilla with some close friends.  So how is that relevant?  Well, actually, aside from the fact that I’m talking about movies in this write-up, it’s not.  And on days when I afford to stay up until 6:00am, I get to write about them.  That’s right—I’m talking about movies this time.  This is will not be the usual, serious, thought-provoking write-up that I usually try to come up with.  Maybe the next one will return to a serious tone (cross your fingers).

With that, I would like to introduce a new segment, entitled “A Movie Comparison”, which compares movies that, given the opportunity, I will continue to write about on occasion (don’t worry, if you don’t like these, you won’t see many of them too often).  Given that this is a Wushu site, I will try to make these film choices relevant and focused mostly on Chinese, kung fu/action, or even other martial arts movies of interest.  For those of you that are familiar with the Nostalgia Critic, I am directly ripping off this internet celebrity’s segment, “Old vs. New.”  In it, he compares an older movie to a remake, and determines which one is better, based on multiple factors.  Before I begin, I would like to note that this is my opinion and ONLY my opinion, and is not set in stone (though those of you who have been reading my write-ups probably already knew that).  Also, I think this should be obvious, but given that this is a movie comparison, I would like to forewarn that it will naturally contain spoilers of both films, so please be aware of that.  So, without further ado, let’s go ahead and take a look at this very first edition’s choices of “A Movie Comparison”: Fist of Fury and Fist of Legend.

Background History

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The original film, Fist of Fury (not to be confused with Fists of Fury, the US title of Bruce Lee’s previous film The Big Boss) starring Bruce Lee, is also known in the US as The Chinese Connection, and most accurately by its original name in Chinese, Jingwumen (精武门; jīngwǔmén, simply “Jing Wu School”).  Whereas many Chinese film releases go by two names, an original title in the homeland and an international one, older releases such as Bruce Lee’s films, this one included, were victim to lack of translation as well as liberality of their distributors, which results in the three titles phenomenon you see here.  It was released in 1972, and was directed Lo Wei, a director infamous for his tumultuous working relationships with both martial arts movie stars Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.  During the making of this film, it is alleged that Bruce Lee and clashed with Lo Wei many times over the creative choices of the film, and was frustrated by a lack of freedom and control in the filmmaking process.

The remake, Fist of Legend starring Jet Li, is known in Chinese as Jingwuyingxiong (精武英雄; jīngwǔyīngxióng, literally “Jing Wu Hero”).  It was released in 1994, and was directed by Gordon Chan.  This particular film is famous for its action and martial arts choreography, courtesy of Yuen Woo-ping.  Yuen Woo-ping is perhaps best known for his work in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (卧虎藏龙; Wòhǔcánglóng), and it was his work in Fist of Legend that got him noticed by such directors as the Wachowski Brothers (now known simply as the “Wachowskis”, due to one of the brothers having a recent sex change), who would use him to choreograph the fight scenes in The Matrix trilogy.  And apparently, the people making the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie are looking at this movie for martial arts inspiration (oh gawd).

Both films follow Chen Zhen, a fictional Chinese martial arts hero who seeks out justice for the wrongful death of his master, Huo Yuanjia (also known by his Cantonese name, Fok Yuengap), by Japanese oppressors.  It is interesting to note that Jet Li would later go on to play a fictionalized version of Huo Yuanjia in Fearless, known originally in Chinese as simply Huo Yuanjia (霍元甲; Huòyuánjiǎ).  As is well known by many Chinese martial artists, Huo Yuanjia was a real master of the traditional Chinese martial arts style of Mizongquan (迷蹤拳; mízōngquán, Lost Track Fist) and founder of the famous Chin Woo (精武; jīngwǔ, Jing Wu) Athletic Association, and his real portrait is used in both films.  Both films relate that Huo Yuanjia was a master who fought foreign challengers, and was poisoned by the Japanese prior to the plot, though whether or not either is true has only been just speculation.  However, it is understandable that the direction of both films builds upon the Chinese patriotism against foreign oppressors started by Huo Yuanjia’s fame, which has become a classic motif in many kung fu movies.

Better Protagonist: Chen Zhen

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The fictional character of Chen Zhen has become something of a martial arts hero, representing Chinese national pride, specifically against the Japanese, through kung fu movies.  He has been played by Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Donnie Yen, but was originally the creation of screenwriter Ni Kuang specifically for Fist of Fury, with Bruce in the starring role.  And you can tell.

In Fist of Fury, Chen Zhen is a very passionate character to say the least.  He is clearly infuriated by the bullying actions of the Japanese that step on his fellow Chinamen, and actively seeks retribution for their actions.  I would even go as far as to say that in character, Bruce is passion.  He is the embodiment of hot-blooded defiance, anger, and justice against oppressors and bullies, which resonated with Chinese audiences and made him famous in Hong Kong.  But the portrayal of Chen Zhen in this film also shows a wider range of Bruce’s acting ability.  In the plot, Chen Zhen is forced to go into hiding from both the local Chinese police and Japanese, as his initial actions against the Japanese cause backlash to his friends and the Jing Wu School.  Part of his strategy involves adopting many momentary, yet impressive, disguises that range from an unassuming old man handing out newspapers to the very policeman (played by Lo Wei) searching for him, to a goofy telephone repairman that sneaks into the Japanese school, first to gauge his fighting situation, and to investigate his enemies’ intentions.  And, in what is Bruce’s only known kissing scene as an actor, Chen Zhen’s character offers a more vulnerable, romantic and tender side when he is alone with his love interest, which compliments the raw aggressiveness and fuming rage seen in the rest of the film.  These little instances in the film are, in my opinion, underappreciated, as they show just how good an actor Bruce was.

As for Jet Li’s portrayal of the character in Fist of Legend, Jet Li is, well, Jet Li.  Throughout the majority of his career, Jet Li has always been typecast as a stone-faced, infallible fighter who always wins.  He is no different in this film.  This perfect image seems to prevail even in dramatic situations, where Chen Zhen is clearly written to be emotionally conflicted—yet in the end, Jet’s stoic demeanor wins over all efforts to be believable or plausible as a human being.  This is not to say that Jet is completely incapable of emotion in his films; much later in his acting career, Jet showed quite of dramatic depth as an actor in such films as Fearless (which happens to be one of my most favorite films of his, next to this one) and The Warlords (头名状; tóumíngzhuàng).  However, here, there is little to no contrast in emotion in this role, and as a dramatic actor, Jet Li unfortunately falls flat.

The death of Bruce Lee’s character is also so much more powerful than that of Jet Li’s.  At the end of Fist of Fury, after finally exacting revenge on the villains responsible for his master’s death, Bruce’s character chooses to return to Jing Wu.  He decides to turn himself in to the authorities, on the condition that the Jing Wu School is left alone and free of harassment and offense.  The final shot of the film involves Bruce’s character screaming his signature shriek and charging towards (the camera) his executioners, and freezes as he goes into a jump kick—only the firing of gunshots are heard, and then the credits roll.  The exact nature of his demise is not seen and left to the imagination, which arguably makes the death that much more powerful.  The final scream in the film followed quickly by crackling gunshots gives me a feeling of goose bumps that is unequaled from watching any other film.  It sums up the power and emotional impact that the character has on an audience member like me.  By contrast, Jet Li’s character in Fist of Legend fakes his death, in order to be a scapegoat to prevent war between the Chinese and Japanese; the gunshots are only briefly heard for a few seconds, and a draped “body” is seen carried in a procession of Chen Zhen’s friends and companions.  He then continues on his journey, and the film ends (In in the original Chinese film, he states his intention to continue fighting the Japanese occupation in other areas of China, whereas in the English dub, he claims to find consolation “with the woman [he] love[s].”).  This rather rushed resolution of the character leaves much less of an impression on me, compared to that of Bruce’s powerful exit.  Part of this may be the due to the fact that Bruce was an actual actor since childhood, and thus had a better sense of how to emote, as opposed to Jet, who was a Wushu champion turned actor with little to no formal acting experience.  So, the first round goes to the oldie.fofw.fw

Better Supporting Cast

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Contrary to popular perception, a film should NOT be carried by the weight of one lead actor.  Otherwise, it may as well just be one-man (or a one-woman, don’t want to leave out the other gender) show.  Instead, the lead should be complimented by other supporting roles that make a complete plot, and by extension, a more enjoyable movie.

Unfortunately for Fist of Fury, the supporting cast left no lasting impression on me.  Despite the fact that there were known faces like Nora Miao as the love interest, as well as James Tien, I couldn’t even be bothered to remember their character’s names (did Nora Miao’s character even have a name?).  This is because throughout the film, all of these characters are grouped together in Jing Wu, and are barely highly as individual characters.  At most, their roles as individuals are peripheral in nature compared to Chen Zhen’s.  The only supporting character I found worth remembering was the slimy translator for the Japanese named Wu, played by Paul Wei, who naturally plays his role well.  However, other than this, the rest of the supporting cast as actual characters were just not memorable to me.

Fist of Legend, on the other hand, had an established ensemble that added to the plot, and each separate character made an individual impression in the movie, even if it was only for a brief moment.  Huo Tingen, the son of Huo Yuanjia in the movie and played by Chin Siu-ho, has a complex friendship and rivalry with Chen Zhen that eventually comes to a head, and ends in the two reconciling.  The Japanese love interest in this movie, Yamada Mitsuko played by Nakayama Shinobu, is also much more memorable; despite being a spoiled Japanese schoolgirl, she does many things that both directly and indirectly contribute to the forward momentum of the plot—she provides an alibi for Jet’s character in court, and effectively lies about having sex with him in order to help free him of treason.  And, realizing that Chen Zhen is willing to sacrifice his connection to Jing Wu to be with her, Mitsuko ultimately leaves him, leaving a message that she will wait for him in Japan.  The addition of other “good” Japanese characters, such as Funakochi Fumio, who is the uncle of Mitsuko and played by Kurata Yasuaki, as well as “bad” Chinese characters, such as the Jing Wu student and traitor that assisted in Huo Yuanjia’s poisoning, provides some three-dimensionality that Fist of Fury lacks.

The villains in both movies are also another area of discussion in the supporting casts.  The head of the Japanese school in Fist of Fury, designated only as Suzuki, is not nearly as memorable as General Fujita in Fist of Legend.  Other than being revealed by Wu as the culprit behind Huo Yuanjia’s poisoning, Suzuki’s role throughout the majority of Fist of Fury is mostly just dialogue and he barely does anything else besides get killed by Bruce’s character near the end.  General Fujita, played by former kickboxing champion Billy Chow, carries an intimidating air about him the second he appears onscreen; the brief look he shares with Chen Zhen near the beginning of the movie already foreshadows the final fight they have at the end of the movie.  He is portrayed not only as a cold, ruthless killer, but also a scheming tactician that plots to shut down the Jing Wu School; as an example, he breaks the back of Akutagawa, the master who fought Huo Yuanjia that was beaten by Chen Zhen, and who also confronts Fujita about Huo’s poisoning.  The death is subsequently used to frame Chen Zhen for murder.  And when Fujita is finally forced to step up and fight himself, he shows that he is more than willing and capable of fulfilling his intentions.  Overall, the all-around cast in Fist of Legend has more of an impact and effect on the movie’s plot, than that of Fist of Fury’s.  So, this round goes to the new.

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Better Action/Fight Choreography

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Let’s be honest, what makes martial arts and action movies are the fight scenes.  If they don’t entertain even in the slightest, they fail to hold the audience.  And with two different films with two radically different styles of choreography, it’s easy to determine an opinion based on personal preference.  But this one took a bit of thinking on my part.

The first fight between Bruce’s character and the Japanese school in Fist of Fury is iconic.  The fight with the Russian also remains to be one of my favorite fight scenes of Bruce’s—it showcased many of Bruce’s skillsets, from his high spinning kicks from Tan Tui (弹腿; tántuǐ, Springing Leg), short traps and strikes from Wing Chun, and even feints and jabs from Western boxing (the Russian is even featured with a nice arm bar on Bruce).  I can also say that in general, the building of atmosphere and tension leading up to every fight scene in this movie is masterfully done.  At first, I would have given this one to Fist of Fury, because the grounded nature of the fights is what appealed to me the most about Bruce’s films.  Keeping in mind that both Bruce Lee and Jet Li have been childhood heroes of mine, in my opinion, Bruce Lee is not only a better actor, but much more of a real martial artist than Jet Li.  I can confidently say that no Asian martial arts actor cold ever reach his level of ability, let alone his level of fame, influence and recognition.  However, this is really my Bruce bias coming into play, and for the sake of being fair in only comparing two movies, and not their actors, I have to overcome that.

The fact of the matter is that most, if not all of these attributes, are owed to Bruce himself, and not to the actual film.  Arguably one of the best and worst things about the fight scenes in Fist of Fury is that they were carried by Bruce’s display of skill, and only Bruce’s display of skill.  As an example, the fight where the Japanese school ambushes and attacks the Jing Wu School, where Bruce’s character isn’t present at all, also lacks the fast pace, raw intention, and charisma that Bruce had—in fact, some parts of that fight are even laughable.  And even in the scenes that did include Bruce, none of the opponents succeeded in actually making an impression opposite to Bruce, with the exception of the Russian; in the end, they were all just fodder for his unstoppable wrath.  It almost looks as if Bruce was the only one with any martial arts skill in this film (again, with the exception of the Russian), which was probably the case, and the completeness of the fight scenes ultimately suffer for it.  The lack of impression I got in the fight scenes of this movie, however, should not take away from Bruce’s own ability.  He made other great movies, with great fight scenes.  Most of them just weren’t in this one.

I have come to the observation that not only does Fist of Legend has more entertaining fight scenes.  There were also some real martial arts injected into this movie, for those that know where to look.  Even at the start, the movie wastes no time displaying the kind of action it has.  The first fight scene is featured at the beginning, where Jet’s character seems to be showcasing some onscreen qinna (擒拿; qínná, grappling) with joint locks, manipulations, throws, and vicious, bone-breaking finishes against Japanese students that shows what kind of action the audience is in for.  The standoff between Chen Zhen and Huo Tingen showcases Jet adopting some boxing methods to overpower Tingen’s Chinese martial arts, which seems to pay homage to Bruce’s own onscreen style and fighting philosophy.  The match between Chen Zhen and Funakochi also seems to incorporate techniques that range from modern boxing and kickboxing to Aikido; there is even a brief moment where Jet seems to be executing the popular fanquan (翻拳; fānquán, “turning”/“flipping” punch) technique from Fanziquan (翻子拳; fānziquán, tumbling or “rotating” fist, literally “turning/flipping fist”), which is said to be Jet’s favorite style of Wushu.  Also, the final fight between Chen Zhen and General Fujita has got to be one of the longest fights in movie history—my dad once joked that they should take a water break.  As is typical in most of Jet’s films, there is some degree of wire fu in this one, but I can more than forgive this, when not only does it show some more grounded and realistic fighting on Jet’s part, but it actually makes him look somewhat believable as a fighter.  Again, this is not meant to take anything away from Bruce or what he did in his own movies, and Jet clearly does not carry the same charisma that Bruce clearly had.  But when it came down to it, I was just more entertained by the fight scenes in Fist of Legend than in Fist of Fury.  This one was hard to decide, but I have to give it to the new one.

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Better Story

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Despite the given importance of all the other aforementioned elements in these movies, plot and storytelling is, in my opinion, arguably the most important element in what makes a film good, and even better than another film.  Granted, both of these movies are Hong Kong martial arts movies, which are more known for their vitality in the eponymous martial arts and action, and not in the story.  But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what kind of movie I’m watching, it’s still a movie—it should still tell a good story, and if it does just that and makes the movie-watching experience enjoyable, then it does its job.  So, this is the big determining factor in my comparison.  Which movie has the better story?  Which movie is really better?

Fist of Fury’s plot was a simple one which was easy to follow.  Bruce’s character returns home to find his master dead, and suspects foul play, which leads to his drive to seek out the truth and revenge.  In the face of Chinese oppression on the part of foreign bullies, not only does he weed out the villains, from the Jing Wu School’s cook, to the translator Wu, to Suzuki himself, but he also becomes a hero and symbol of fierce Chinese nationalism against foreign oppressors.  This has subsequently become a good and bad thing.  One of the unfortunate things that came with the creation of Chen Zhen’s original character and story is the vindictiveness against Japanese, which was fueled by anti-Japanese sentiment of many Chinese from the Sino-Japanese Wars that lasts to this day.  It can easily be argued and supported that the sole reason why Fist of Fury was successful as a movie was because it struck such a chord with Chinese audiences at the time of its release, with appeals to Chinese ethnic pride against foreign oppressors, especially the Japanese.  Watching this from a more mature perspective now, I found that this overtone ultimately took away from the overall enjoyment of the movie.  The demonizing of foreigners and the Japanese, which has become a standard formula adopted by many kung fu movies that followed, has grown to be very tiring for me to watch.  I’m not saying that the Japanese, or even other foreigners like the British, didn’t do horrible things in history—they did, and I wasn’t around during those times to understand the pain of those that were oppressed.  I am by means an apologist for those that committed the atrocities during the foreign occupation of China.  But in this day and age that I live in, where the current generation in general is trying to move past prejudices, the anti-foreigner and anti-Japanese tones I see in Chinese films like Bruce’s tend to make them dated and not as appealing to a wider audience; they’re just a turnoff for me now.

Fist of Legend not only has a better story, but also sends better messages to audiences with its overtones.  To start, Chen Zhen is a student studying abroad in Japan, supposedly to gain knowledge that China at the time lacked.  When Chen Zhen returns to Jing Wu, he also shares some of the knowledge he gained from studying in Japan, including calisthenics and more practical fighting ideas, which improves upon the shortcomings of Chinese martial arts training.  This development of the character alone shows an open-minded attitude that is not present in most other Chinese stories.  And rather than being motivated by simple revenge, Chen Zhen is motivated to just find out the truth behind Huo Yuanjia’s death.  And in comparison to Fist of Fury’s treatment of the Japanese, Fist of Legend is a little more “fair” with its inclusion of Japanese characters.  The proportion of good and evil characters in the movie is distributed on both Chinese and Japanese sides, which demonstrates that it is the nature of individuals, not ethnicities, that determines their position.  There is a small subplot involving the Jing Wu cook, who is revealed to have been the one that poisoned Huo Yuanjia, and is guilty of his actions; in the original Cantonese dub, it is established that he was blackmailed with the safety of his son, whose fate is left ambiguous.  In the English dub, it is stated through his dialogue with the Jing Wu traitor that he did it for money (alas, the liberal differences of dubbing).  He is killed shortly afterwards by the traitor to cover up the plot, who himself is executed by Fujita.  The Japanese as a group are not completely trapped in the role of villains.  Rather, it is the schemes of the film’s singular villain, Fujita, that force the conflicts between the Chinese and Japanese groups, and that ultimately forces Chen Zhen to fight and kill Fujita out of necessity, not anger.  The scenes with Funakochi also carry over great philosophical and political statements, at least in the original Cantonese version.  In the midst Funakochi’s match with Chen Zhen, where Chen Zhen admits defeat, Funakochi demonstrates and also explains how he adapted to Chen Zhen and the fighting situation to win, which is in turn brilliantly transmits the message of Bruce Lee’s own philosophy of Jeet Kune Do (截拳道; jiéquándào, the Way of the Intercepting Fist) arguably just as well, if not better, than Bruce’s own films.  After their match, Funakochi also further relates to Chen Zhen that the practice of martial arts is about personal and spiritual development, not about defeating one’s enemy (“The best way to defeat your enemy is to use a gun.”) as Chen Zhen initially states.  Also the discussion between Funakochi and the Japanese ambassador after their chess game, about the sleeping elephant and the poisonous insect, is an interesting analogy of China’s then-current state and position in relation to Japan.  All in all, the bold combination of open-mindedness, three-dimensional plot and characters in Fist of Legend allowed me appreciate and elevate it to a higher level as a film than that of its predecessor.

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So there you have it.  Of these two classics, Fist of Legend is, in my opinion, the better movie.  This is really one of those rare cases where the remake happens to come out better than the original.  What makes this such an entertaining thing to think about, at least for me, was the time and effort it took to do so.  Upon further analysis, I found that there were good and bad things about both movies, and each one did something better than the other.  In the end, I found that there was just a lot more to Fist of Legend than Fist of Fury.  In a review of Fist of Legend by Jeff Vice, Vice says, “If you’re going to remake a film, it should be better than (or at least different from) the original.  And surprisingly, Fist of Legend manages to do just that.”  I couldn’t agree more.  I’ve watched both Fist of Fury and Fist of Legend as a child, and Fist of Legend has always been one of my favorite movies of all time, let alone one of my favorite martial arts movies period that stars Jet Li.  Currently (at least at the time of this writing), that it is one of the few films to hold a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, and although I don’t always agree with the consensus of Rotten Tomatoes, I do believe that it rightfully deserves that score.  Fist of Legend is the better film.  This is my first edition of “A Movie Comparison.” 

Hope you enjoyed it!

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