The Weinstein Company’s Dragon Dynasty label has done justice to Jet Li’s kung fu masterpiece FIST OF LEGEND with this long awaited DVD release. This film from director Gordon Chan and action director Yuen Woo-ping which inspired the fighting action in THE MATRIX has been in dire need of a great DVD release ever since Ritek’s Taiwanese release went out of print years ago and it’s finally here and worth the wait.
Let’s get technical comparisons out of the way. This version blows the previous Dimension Films release to smithereens and is superior to any Asian prints previously on DVD. The picture is greatly improved, original Cantonese and Mandarin audio tracks have been added to the optional English dub and optional English subs have been added. The previous choice of collectors has been Ritek’s release because it actually had original Cantonese audio, unlike the Dimension release and included a three-minute deleted scene where Chin Siu-ho is smoking opium. The DD release does not restore this scene to their print but the scene is included on their bonus disc along with four other deleted scenes.
As for bonus content, DD scores big time with exclusive interviews with Gordon Chan, Yasuaki Kurata and Chin Siu-ho. There is also a featurette that focuses on Kurata’s stunt fighting school and Bey Logan’s typically informative and enjoyable audio commentary. If you’re a collector or even a casual martial arts movie enthusiast who would like to own only a handful of the best kung fu movies, I honestly cannot think of any reason not to go out and buy this title. Even if you’re satisfied with an older release, the extras make this version well worth picking up.
A restored picture on this print looks fantastic and is a huge improvement over the previous Dimension Films release, as well as earlier overseas prints. In addition to being presented in the 16×9 format, the print’s colors are stronger, the image is sharper and print degradation is virtually imperceptible.
Three audio tracks are provided and include 2.0 Cantonese and Mandarin, as well as the 5.1 English dub version that was originally produced for the Weinstein’s Dimension Films release. I don’t have the Ritek version available for comparison but the 2.0 soundtracks sound fine to my ears. If any downsampling of 5.1 Cantonese tracks took place I couldn’t tell. The English track has better sound quality and includes an original score by Stephen Edwards who incidentally happens to be the composer for Isaac Florentine’s NINJA (2009). Remade scores for Asian films are often criticized for being too stereotypical in their use of Asian riffs but when comparing the two side by side, I would have to say that Joseph Koo’s original score is actually more stereotypical and arguably less appropriate at times. For instance, during the fight between Jet Li and Yasuaki Kurata Koo inserts electric guitars whereas Edwards sticks with more of an orchestral percussion theme.
Audio Commentary with Bey Logan - TWC’s Asian acquisitions head, Bey Logan provides yet another informative and insightful commentary to a Hong Kong action movie. In addition to the usual facts on actors, set locations and insider details Bey makes some interesting observations about the fight choreography, from Jet Li’s close-range fighting style to the limited wirework and the filmmakers’ attempts to hide it. He also draws comparisons to similar films including FIST OF FURY 1991, NEW FIST OF FURY and the original FIST OF FURY, which incidentally was the first movie that Bey ever did a commentary for. A couple trivia gems that Bey discusses includes mention of the Japanese film that inspired Jet Li’s opening fight and the film’s influence on subsequent Hollywood action movies.
Exclusive Interview with Gordon Chan (36 minutes) - Wonderful, wonderful English-language interview with Gordon Chan who is a charming, self-effacing individual with great memories to share of working on the film, working with the cast and crew and discovering to his surprise, the latent critical and commercial success of the film once it finally began to be distributed overseas, years after its disappointing local run. Chan is the right man to talk about this film and this genre because unlike Yuen Woo-ping, he’s not a martial arts moviemaker and has a wider perspective on the genre. He just happened to be the guy that ended up directing one of the best kung fu movies ever made and the amazing thing is that he didn’t even know it. Chan’s work since has been average with consistently dependable action but I have newfound respect for this filmmaker and I had to say, based on his instincts with FIST OF LEGEND, he needs to be making more martial arts movies. As of this writing, he recently capped the martial arts-tinged period horror movie PAINTED SKIN, starring Donnie Yen. If he approached that film the way he describes his approach to FIST OF LEGEND it will undoubtedly be a success, at least among genre fans.
Something else I have to comment on is Chan’s recounting of Yuen Woo-ping’s first impression of the indoor sets with the low ceilings that can be seen during the match between Billy Chow and Jet Li. Chan was determined to minimize wire use and the presence of low ceilings guaranteed that Yuen would not be able to use vertical wirework during this long sequence which undoubtedly took weeks to shoot. Yuen was up to the challenge but according to Chan was also quick in pointing out the added work he would be forced to do. This observation is important as it suggests that Yuen’s style really has become closely tied with wire use and even in this film where it is toned down, stuntmen are clearly pulled horizontally by wires and hoisted in open-air shots involving various kicks. This is by no means a criticism of Yuen Woo-ping but it is a reminder that he does not represent everything that Chinese kung fu fighting is about. We may yet see a time when truly grounded kung fu fighting, of the standard of Lau Kar-leung or even higher, makes a comeback although I would not be surprised to see it come from somewhere other than Hong Kong.
Exclusive Interview with Chin Siu-ho (23 minutes) - This Cantonese-language interview (subtitled in English) is a continuation of the same one that DD put on their release of THE TAI-CHI MASTER. Following the same background info on himself that Chin discussed previously, the interview segues into previously unreleased footage of his comments regarding FIST OF LEGEND. Chin has a fair amount to talk about with regard to the film but as with his talk on THE TAI-CHI MASTER I was most impressed with his thoughts on where kung fu cinema needs to go in the future. Chin describes some of the knocks he was willing to take during the shooting of FIST OF LEGEND to emphasize the need for martial arts stars to be willing to suffer for their art like more of his contemporaries did in the 1980s. He suggests that combining modern filmmaking standards with traditional fight choreography could result in the best martial arts movies and I cannot agree with him more. He makes no mention of FEARLESS but that film still bares the Chinese opera influence of Yuen Woo-ping and Chin clearly draws a distinction between that and the Lau Kar-leung style that he prefers. For an example, imagine a big-budget kung fu movie directed by Johnnie To with action direction and action editing by Lau Kar-leung when he was in his prime in the late 1970s. Then get a few talented leads and a lot of stuntmen in there with the willingness to beat on each other for three to four months of shooting and we would have another masterpiece.
Exclusive Interview with Yasuaki Kurata (30 minutes) – This is the first time that I have heard Yasuaki Kurata speaking in an interview and he comes across as extremely personable, outspoken and funny. He actually says his first impression of Hong Kong action directors was that they were “morons” for spending so much time shooting action for each movie. With charm to match his wit, he follows by saying that he came to understand the desire to make the best action films in the world. Kurata covers a lot of ground in 30 minutes, including his background, early years in Hong Kong and work on FIST OF LEGEND. He has some very nice things to say about the film, Jet Li and director Gordon Chan. Best of all, he looks and sounds like he’s ready to go right back to Hong Kong and shoot another FIST OF LEGEND. In his commentary Bey Logan suggests Kurata represents what Bruce Lee would be like at this time had he lived. I don’t know about that but I do know that Yasuaki Kurata is one of a kind and I’m glad he is still with us, running his action school and still making action film appearances.
School of Hard Knocks (27 minutes) - Dragon Dynasty brings their roving camera into Yasuaki Kurata’s own Kurata Action School where students are trained in screen fighting techniques by the sensei himself, along with his senior students/instructors. On display is instruction by Kurata on proper sword handling and basic use, prearranged fight sequences with up to five participants, reactive flips and falls, and a sampling of the culture and philosophy that underpins Kurata’s training regime. This footage follows DD’s previous look at Jung Doo-hong’s Seoul Action School in South Korea on their release of THE CITY OF VIOLENCE. This is something that TWC’s Bey Logan is pretty good at doing. Years ago he produced several documentaries on Jackie Chan and his stunt team while Jackie was still at the top of his game. It’s great to finally see some of these other screen fight training clubs and stunt teams getting some exposure and I’m extremely thankful that Kurata was kind enough to have his class disrupted so we could see what he does off screen.
Look at Fist of Legend (10 minutes) - DD’s new favorite commentators, filmmaker Brett Ratner and film critic Elvis Mitchell weigh in on FIST OF LEGEND. In the past, Bey has done some of these and I’m sure he and the DD team would rather have other independent folks talk about the movie, especially since Bey already does the commentary. It’s a good call because Bey only has so much time in the day and ends up recapping everything he talked about in the commentary. However, I’m really struggling to find the value in these segments, particularly with the current guest speakers. Ratner is a lightweight filmmaker with limited knowledge of Asian cinema that does not represent the interests of fans and Mitchell, while perhaps more informed, makes a number of odd observations that appear to be attempts to over-analyze minutiae. I cannot believe he would state that Jet Li, “almost doesn’t exist from the nose down,” when making a case about the expressiveness of his eyes. What?! I know that Li has a great way of showing genuine intensity but I really don’t think anyone is concerned with his eyes when he’s slamming Kenji Tanigaki’s face into the floor. If you want to talk about martial arts actors with piercing gazes look to Kwan Tak-hing. He could bore Buddhist Palm prints into opponents with his peepers.
Mitchell does make an interesting observation on the ownership that diehard Western fans applied to Jet Li with this release and their subsequent disappointment with his rise to fame in Hollywood. This is an aspect of kung fu fandom that is very much alive today and applies not only to the actors of this genre but also any of their quality films that are released overseas, hence the aggravation that some folks often voice towards Dragon Dynasty when their releases, while good enough for average viewers, often fail to meet select fans’ high expectations. Mitchell is also alluding to something deeper in the culture of martial arts movie fandom and that’s this misguided notion that knowledge of these films should be kept secret from the ignorant masses. While not a widespread problem, it’s amusing because it almost seems as though some people are trying to apply the “closed door” philosophy of traditional kung fu instruction to kung fu movies. The truth is that at some point all fans started out as “noobish” as Brett Ratner and chances are they owe a debt to some other film geek who paved the way for their enlightenment.
Deleted Scenes - There are five deleted scenes including the three-minute opium smoking scene with Chin Siu-ho that appeared on Ritek’s out-of-print DVD. This is the only deleted scene that I would argue belongs in the movie because it would give Chin’s character added reason for having problems managing his school following his father’s death. The rest are short and inconsequential.
Trailers – Includes the original theatrical trailer and the Dimension Films trailer for FIST OF LEGEND.
Format: Region 1 NTSC DVD
Aspect Ratio: 16×9 Widescreen (1:78:1)
Audio: Cantonese 2.0, Mandarin 2.0, English 5.1
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Length: 103 minutes
Release Date: 2008.09.9
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Chin Siu-ho • Dragon Dynasty • DVD • Fist of Legend (1994) • Gordon Chan • Yasuaki Kurata