Thursday, June 3, 2010

The 25: Part 11: Fist Of Legend

(The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)

If there’s a genre that I write about with a frequency that’s the complete inverse of my interest it’s the Kung Fu film. Oh I’ll get a review in every now and again. But there’s no denying that I watch a lot more of these films then I write about. I could claim that there are only so many ways you can write about people hitting each other, but that would be a lazy stupid thing to say.

The Kung Fu genre can be as rich and effective as any genre. And yet it is virtually the only one that is still okay to be ignorant of in the critical community. Despite the efforts of the like of Tarantino, Yimou, and Ang Lee, it is still more or less acceptable to think that these movies are crap and leave it at that. Try engaging in a conversation with a non believer about the artistry of the Shaw Brothers sometime. Go nuts. It’ll be fun.

When certain critics complain about people staying lazily in genre film, not exploring the films of other countries and eras, they miss that the surest ways to start exploring the films of different countries and era’s is to be a fan of genre film. Every genre fan eventually starts to run low on their drug of choice, and start going further into the outreaches of cinema. Either to the frontiers of the foreign or the recesses of the old. Genre becomes a kind of known reassuring river guiding the film fan deep into unknown territory of time and country.

I’ve linked to Devin Faraci’s excellent essay on the Horror fans before. But I think the same is just as true if not more so, for Martial Arts fans. Being a martial arts fan means you’re willing to search for the bootleg, it means your willing to go through the swap meet and dig through dealer boxes, or drive half an hour to that one video store that has your fix. It means going to the extra mile to see what you care about. Otherwise you won’t see it. It’s valuable training for any would be cinephile. And the man who made me a Martial Arts fan was Jet Li.

I had seen other martial arts movies before. But Bruce Lee’s film’s didn’t make an impression me, as his films need to be watched for their cult of personality, more then their relentless pacing and crack timing. I’d seen some of Jackie Chan’s stuff as well but his goofy streak was always too much for me. I never really liked Chan much until later, when the true implications of “Holy Shit He’s actually throwing himself through plate glass and hitting the concrete." sank in.

Li though, Li was perfect. Cool, charismatic, genuinely funny, with an astonishing unfakeable athleticism. His movies My Father Is Hero, Tai Chi Master, and especially the first Once Upon A Time In China, are films I have a great deal of affection for. But it all started with a bootleg copy of Fist Of Legend (This was before Dimension dedicated itself to releasing and fucking up as many of Li’s films as they possibly could.) The Bootleg featured a photo of Li on the cover dressed in his school uniform, hands behind his back, in front of gigantic Chinese Flag, looking for all the world as if he was about to personally enforce a new five year plan. It was kind of awesome.

Fist Of Legend proves the perfect showcase for Li’s talents. A melodramatic retelling of Bruce Lee’s Chinese Connection. It show’s Li equally adept at humor, pathos, and not unimportantly kicking yards upon yards of ass.

A career like Li’s tour in America showcases the trouble of race in modern Hollywood. Li never came close to utilizing the full range of his talents in an American film (In all fairness Forbidden Kingdom at least nodded to the fact that Li knew how to do shit other then glower).Its not as if Li ever played a character who was a racist caricature. No one ever made him put on prosthetic buck teeth and thick glasses, or had him play a house boy or a laundry man. But at the same time, Li’s entire American career is one big wasted opportunity, because in American movies Asian’s aren’t charismatic heroes but inscrutable ones. So instead of playing the fully rounded leading man roles he pulled off so easily with so much charisma in his homeland, Li got to stand around with Rappers and Jason Statham, sullenly saying as few lines of broken English as possible in dreadful movie after dreadful movie. Which is frankly not where his talents lie. When you can rank Romeo Must Die among the best of the film's Li made in America, you know things have gone terribly wrong.

It should be noted, that I think in this case it is a specifically top down problem. With executives fearful of demographics. It should be noted that both Fearless and Hero, which both showcased Li in a more rounded role, became minor hits at the American box office. The general audience seems more or less willing to watch anyone in anything. It’s the American studios, as the stupefying whitewash of The Last Airbender and Prince Of Persia show, that are out of step.

And yet it’s the kind of grass roots fandom that a film like Fist Of Legend represents to me, that can change all of that. It’s the average film fan who seeks this kind of stuff out, not just the hardened cineaste, and ultimately its they that affect the change we see in the multiplex.

(So There's not going to be much around here for the next month other then The 25 and Dennis Hopper films. So I hope you're enjoying them both. I reeeeeaaaaalllllyyyy would like to get The 25 done before starting The Christopher Nolan Blogothon. Get one albatross of from around my neck before putting another around. But then again I'd really like a pony as well. So we'll see how this goes.)


Franco Macabro said...

This is my favorite Jet Li film, and its the first one I ever saw. When I saw it, I was instantly a fan and searched out many of his films, but none was as great as this one!

Did you know that this film is a remake of Bruce Lee's The Chinese Connection? Lee's portrayal of the main character is a bit more vengeful, violent and out of control then Jet Li's cool and thoughtful performance. Highly recommend it if you havent seen it!

Bryce Wilson said...

I have seen it. Its a very cool film. Though I prefer this one (blasphemy I know). Li makes a more sympathetic hero, and freaking Funakoshi is in this one.

Still the original is very fun. Lee is completely out of control.

Franco Macabro said...

That scene where Lee goes crazy sayin: "Why did you kill my master?! Why? Why?!" and with each 'why' he threw a powerful punch at his enemy...damn! Awesome scene!

But Jet Li's fist of fury is awesome from another perspective, the fighting techniques are so well choreographed, they have this elegance to them. Plus, Jet Li appears to be a hero who is more in control of his action and isnt blinded by revenge.

Simon said...

Go. Jet. Li.

(by the way, Sister Dearest is being difficult. If you haven't gotten a banner by next week, you can pretty much give up hope. Sorry in maybe-advance)

Bryce Wilson said...

@FC Outlaw Vern has a great article on that film and Bruce in it.

@Simon: No big deal if it doesn't work out. Thanks for trying.