Friday, October 22, 2010

OPENING NIGHT – LEGEND OF THE FIST – THE REAL AND REEL HISTORY


That loud sound around the Ultrastar Cinemas Mission Valley Hazard Center last night was not a swarm of hazardous Africanized killer bees but the opening buzz of Day 1 of the 2010 San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Martial arts and Asian history are uniquely intertwined so it’s no surprise that the opening night film featured Donnie Yen starring in the West Coast premiere of LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN, based on the true-life hero that Bruce Lee played in FIST OF FURY (aka CHINESE CONNECTION, 1972). Yen also played Chen in the 1995 acclaimed Hong Kong TV series FIST OF FURY, where similar to Bruce Lee, Yen played the avenging student who died while discovering the truth about who killed his teacher Huo Yuen-jia.

This updated version evolves around the continued adventures of Chen set seven years after the end the TV series, where Yen reprises the role of the presumed dead Chen as he returns to Japanese-occupied Shanghai to protect the lives of Chinese dissidents who are targeted for assassination by the Japanese military.

On a side note I did the DVD commentary with Yen when the TV series was condensed down into a 2-hour film. Yen was quite frank in discussing the fight choreography, choices made for camera speed and what Lee meant to him

During the “intermission” of the first screening of the film, I couldn’t help overhearing at least 20 or so people chatting about the film as they were trying to decipher any sort of historical aspect to the reality of the movie, the time period, who was the “master” and the Ching Woo school that Yen’s character kept reflecting about.

It also was quite apparent that none of these filmgoers remotely knew that Yen’s character was based on the same character Bruce Lee portrayed in FIST OF FURY and thus also had no clue as to the cinematic history of the film and characters.

So here’s some cool stuff to think about.

Historically, after the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), China was a fractured country that was sliced up, divided and handed out to European, Japanese and American powers. The Japanese would play a large villainous role in Chinese history from this point on, so much so that a rift of hatred formed and grew out of the treatment Japanese forces inflicted on the occupied Chinese.

When Lee made FIST OF FURY, he was making a bold statement about Chinese pride and the Chinese resentment toward Japan. It took the clout of Lee to overcome Hong Kong's fear of producing anti-Japanese films. The Mandarin title CHING WU MEN reflects the film's significance. “Men” means “gate” or “door,” and in martial arts circles, it represents a gate to knowledge. So Ching Wu Men means entry into the Ching Wu martial arts school, which was created by Shanghai martial art legend Huo Yuen-jia.

Although three films have spotlighted Huo’s life, LEGEND OF A FIGHTER (1982), FIST OF LEGEND (1994) and FEARLESS (2006), FIST OF FURY focuses on the events after his death.

Set during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in 1909, FIST OF FURY revolves around Huo’s student Chen (Lee), who arrives late for the funeral and seeks to avenge his master’s death. Eventually Chen does and dies in the process.

Which brings us to the real Huo Yuen-jia. Born in 1868 in Tianjin, because he had jaundice as a child, Huo was forbidden to learn kung-fu from his father, for fear that his illness would make him a weak fighter and bring dishonor to the family's style.

However, refusing to heed his father's wishes, Huo dug a hole into his father's training area and for ten years watched how his father trained his students. In 1890when a stranger defeated his kung-fu brother, Huo showed his abilities by subsequently beating the stranger. It was Huo that brought mi zong chuen ("lost trail" fist) into prominence, a Shaolin style of kung-fu based on deception.

This part of Huo's history was brought to life in the Yuen Woo-ping directed LEGEND OF A FIGHTER (1980), which starred Liang Chia-ren, a non-martial artist that gave an outstanding performance. The movie also reflected Huo's true martial spirit. Of interest, Huo’s martial arts teacher in this film was played by Yasuaka Kurata, who was the same actor who played the brother of the lead Japanese general villain in LEGEND OF THE FIST, where we see Yen as Chen kill the brother in a flashback sequence.

Based on the disappointment of a fellow Chinese martial arts practitioner who in Huo's eyes had never learned the true meaning of humbleness and that guns seemed to be negating the practical uses of kung-fu, in 1909, Huo established the Ching Wu Physical Training School. His credo was that martial artists should try to do their best and diligently train their minds and bodies in order to perfect one’s self spiritually. Huo also did not name his school a martial arts school as to not attract attention to the school from the Japanese.

By late 1909, because Huo's bout with jaundice was losing he sought the help of the only local doctor familiar with the disease, a Japanese doctor. Through the doctor, Huo's expertise in martial arts soon spread to the local Japanese martial arts schools, which inevitably lead to a confrontation between Huo and Japan's top judo teacher in Shanghai. Due to Huo's ailing health, his lead student Chen took on the challenge and won.

However, the victory was short lived when in shame, ten Japanese students charged Huo. Even in his poor health, Huo defeated each student, including the teacher by breaking all of their hands. It is believed that perhaps in a fit of revenge, either by choice or was ordered to, that Huo's Japanese doctor poisoned Huo while administering medicine. However, the exact circumstances were never fully determined.

And now you know the real story.

Tonight my wife Silvia and I have a booth in the lobby where we’ll be giving free Qi Readings, and I will also be giving out free raffle tickets…the prize being an autographed copy of my debut book THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO THE MARTIAL ARTS MOVIES OF THE 1970s. So drop by the booth to find out about your physical, mental and emotional health and film out a raffle ticket for the book.

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