Venice 2010 Review: LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN

Editor's Note: Rob sent me this attached to his copy for this article - 'I'd be grateful if you could emphasise the quick and blackberry based nature of these knee-jerk reviews, as they are no doubt less polished'. I went to the prestigious Sala Grande cinema tonight hoping to see Robert Rodriquez's blood-and-guts epic Machete. Predictably, that film had sold out earlier in the day. Eager to sample the main venue, however, I settled for Legend of the Fist: the Return of Chen Zhen. The martial arts epic, which is directed by Andrew Lau (Internal Affairs) and stars Donnie Yen - both of whom where in attendance tonight - was cheerfully a very good swap. The first ten minutes equals anything in recent memory in terms of adrenaline pumping action. We begin in France during WW1, where a group of Chinese allied to the French are under fire from a German position. Few films tackle The Great War over it's deadlier sequel and this is probably the most exciting take I've seen, as scores of biplanes bomb our heroes and Yen outruns machine guns and scales buildings, gleefully hacking away German soldiers. Yen's choreography would make Bruce Lee proud. Fitting, as the film is a sequel to Lee's own Fist of Fury (my favourite of his movies) and neatly links into that film, remaining true to the character and spirit of Lee's original hero. The fights here are amazing, only spoiled by Lau's reluctance to pull back and hold still. Too many fast cuts and close-ups are employed, and they serve to detract from what are often jaw-dropping set pieces. It is also a pretty cinema literate film. Casablanca is one of my all-time favourites, so when a Jazz bar of that name plays host to a scene where French music disrupts the Japanese national anthem (to the joy of the Chinese patrons), I knew I was in film-geek heaven. There are also references to other Lee movies, like Enter the Dragon (with Yen employing the famous nunchuks). The film is everything you've come to expect from a Chinese blockbuster, such as Hero or Curse of the Golden Flower. It is big, with high-end production values and full of action. Like those films it is also set in the past, albeit a more recent one (the bulk taking place in 1930s Shanghai - like some of Showtime, a film I saw earlier in the day). This enables the film-maker's to produce something subversive and conformist in one neat package. It is pre-revolution, which allows the film to depict a less moral China (a salacious and jazzy westernised China) , yet it also undermines authority figures (incompetent and corrupt policemen are figures of fun here). It is possibly a little less than humanist, with a Darth Vader like Japanese General dispatching his own men and proclaiming that women are "sex tools for men". The Japanese, and the Germans at the beginning, are cartoon villains dispatched in colourful and often bloody ways by our hero. It feels a bit like watching a cut of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where Indy doesn't get on that flight out of Shanghai. Certainly the sets and the characters wouldn't feel out of place in that context. There are pacing problems, as a scene of rape quickly follows a scene of comedy, as does a scene of civilians exploding on a tram. Lau is also too fond of flashbacks and tacky slow-mo and like Saving Private Ryan, the film plays its strongest hand early on and never gets as good again. But what a hand! Not a must see, but well worth catching when it hits our shores, with its high-octane mixture of war movie, martial arts, historical epic and, even, gangster picture. There isn't a more fitting way to celebrate Bruce Lee's 70th year. Venice Film Festival Coverage So Far: Venice 2010 Review: SHOWTIME; Quirky Chinese comedy that€™s STEP UP/STREETDANCE with Time Travel! Venice 2010 Review: BLACK SWAN best film of the year €“ left me devastated, excited, tense and emotionally drained (full review pending)
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, GamesIndustry.biz and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.