By Richard von Busack
Much of Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zen is golden superhero garbage, with Donnie Yen dressed in the black livery and visor mask of Kato from the Green Hornet, walloping most of Shanghai.
Director Wai-keung Lau (known as Andrew Lau) makes a kind-of sequel to the 1972 Bruce Lee Fist of Fury. It’s a mix of western tropes and kung fu mayhem. My favorite moment of culture clash: after hours at the Club Casablanca, Yen drowns some heartache with a glass of whisky, while tickling out a minor-key version of “The Internationale” at funeral-march tempo on a grand piano. Of all the gin joints in all the towns in the world, that agent of imperialism had to come into mine.
Well he might brood: Yen’s Chen survived a little known chapter of history—historian Xu Guogi describes it in Strangers on the Western Front. Some 140,000 Chinese troops, badly armed, were sent to WWI to perform manual labor for the Allies.
Now a vet back in China during the 1920s, Chen sees trouble everywhere: the Japanese military (led by ultra-sadistic colonel Ryu Kohata) is planning to start WWII 20 years early. A Zorro-like movie is in Shanghai. Chen steals the hero’s costume from a window display and becomes a masked avenger, inspiring both the public and the supine local police to take a stand.
The film crashes out of the gate with Chen’s bayonet attack on a battalion of the Kaiser’s men. It finishes with a articulated take down of an entire dojo (flashbacks of the villain’s evil come during the final duel, just in case we forgot his atrocities).
Very satisfactory mayhem, certainly, but there’s a troubling undertone to the way the film broods over encirclement and national humiliation, more so than perhaps any Chinese martial arts film to date.
We keep hearing how western powers loved a divided China…yet no Hollywood film about that period was complete without a scene of a plutocrat in a white dinner jacket, complaining about how the Chinese civil war was interfering with trade. Legend of the Fist amps up the geek-fodder (torture scenes and slow-strangulations); meanwhile it tries to denounce the satin clothes, neon decadence and western trinkets the camera loves so dearly.