A well-timed release

Action movie capitalises on anti-Japanese mood to earn big at box office

A well-timed release

Doing her bit for anti-Japanese relations: Shu Qi as Kiki in the Shanghai-based kung-fu film

It’s better to be lucky than smart,” goes the saying, and given its plot, the Legend of the Fist certainly vindicates that aphorism.

The film makers could not have timed its release in China any better had they possessed a crystal ball, a time machine or a clairvoyant. On the assumption that the producers didn’t have reliable access to any of the above, the only conclusion that can be drawn is they have been phenomenally lucky.

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zen (to give its full name) is a movie set in 1930s Shanghai. However, what has turned it into box office dynamite is the fact that its hero spends most of the movie beating to a pulp Japanese soldiers.

Talk about tapping into the zeitgeist. Japan’s detention of trawler captain Zhan Qixiong last month sparked an outcry from China – the island waters he was fishing are claimed by both nations, and the Chinese demanded his release, claiming it was a gross affront to the nation’s sovereignty. Nationalist sentiment was soon venting on the Chinese internet, with memories of past Japanese wrongs rekindled and talk of pending wars discussed (see WiC78, ‘Gunship diplomacy?’, Talking Point).

In the following weeks the diplomatic spat escalated, with China demanding an apology even after Zhan’s release by Japan (see last week’s China Ink). Chinese leaders talked tough, and the country’s tourists cancelled their planned trips to Honshu and Hokkaido. Clearly any outlet for anti-Japanese feeling was going to go gangbusters in this atmosphere.

Into this cauldron enter Chen Zen, kung-fu master. The role was originally played by Bruce Lee in the classic 1972 film Fist of Fury – and saw the martial arts icon take revenge on the Japanese for poisoning his teacher and master, Huo Yuanjia. The bad guy in that flick was Suzuki Hiroshi, who Chen Zen dispatches to his death with a dramatic flying kick in the climactic scene.

The new movie casts Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen in the Chen role (one he is familiar with, having famously reprised the Bruce Lee character in a 1995 television series). However, in this updated version of the story, the film’s anti-Japanese theme is further heightened. The action takes place as an increasingly belligerent Japan is stirring up trouble in Shanghai. This time the bad guy is the ruthless Japanese intelligence chief Colonel Chikaraishi who orders the assassination of 100 prominent Chinese in the city.

Chen tries to save as many as possible, fighting (and beating) scores of Japanese in the process (it’s hard to keep an exact count of the exact number of vanquished). Not helping Japanese PR is likewise a scene in which Colonel Chikaraishi’s equally evil subordinate rapes a woman he (wrongly) thinks is Chen’s sister. Little wonder, that an article in the Beijing Youth Daily debates whether the film is an “incitement to Sino-Japanese hatred”.

Perhaps that’s why audiences have lapped it up. The ifeng.com reports cinemagoers have been “applauding and cheering” as Chen beats his Japanese foes, both en masse and in single combat. The Wuhan Evening News quotes student Hu Xiaojun as saying: “This film is really exciting! I watched it three consecutive times!”; it quotes office worker Gui Xueyin as praising the number of Japanese Chen beat up, and saying “In this particular era, patriotic films are always worth a watch.”

The Legend of the Fist earned Rmb20 million on its first day, and has been filling theatres ever since – it’s on track to be one of the year’s biggest box office hits, in part thanks to its fortuitous timing.

The producers, Andrew Lau and Gordon Chan, are playing down their luck. Lau, fending off a question about whether Legend encourages extreme anti-Japanese sentiment, says such accusations are far-fetched. “When we started filming,” notes Lau. “How could we know that the Diaoyu Islands incident would occur?” Instead he spins the moral of the film as being about “self-improvement and never giving up”.

However, Lau’s not beyond a bit of nationalism himself, telling the newspaper that Japan’s release of the trawler captain only confirms what Chen Zhen says in the film: “As long as we unite, no country, no one can bully us.”

Not all Chinese are impressed. Zhu Dake, a professor of cultural criticism at Tongji University, likened such nationalistic films to “quenching thirst with poison”. He told ifeng.com that they also reveal deeper fissures within Chinese society, that go beyond sheer dislike of Japan. Zhu reckons kung-fu films have a broader appeal to the Chinese psyche because the people so distrust their government and believe their society unfair – hence the love of watching a lone fighter getting justice “by the fist”.

Other commentators have focused on what the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily calls the “ridiculous” plot elements. The strange reappearance of Chen (missing for seven years when the film begins) and his Batman-esque decision to wear a mask get short-shrift. But perhaps the flakiest part of the plot is the fact that the supposedly invulnerable hero is easily nabbed by the Japanese. Equally bizarre is that after they torture him, they release him (and thus gain revenge on Colonel Chikaraishi).

To be fair, Chen’s love interest in the movie does inject a smidgeon of complexity and historical perspective. Kiki turns out to be a Japanese spy. Played by Taiwanese actress Shu Qi, the nightclub singer role was originally slated for Zhang Ziyi (but given that young starlet’s brushes with controversy in the past year, she may have wisely decided that getting cast as a Japanese agent could well backfire).

At the end of the day, you can quibble with the plot, but in a kung-fu film it’s the fighting that counts. When the movie was unveiled at the Venice Film Festival last month, it wasn’t nominated for any awards but jury chief Marco Mueller exclaimed (on three separate occasions): “I love it very much” and added: “It is unique, fantastic and will be the favourite film for the world’s Chinese kung-fu lovers.”

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