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LEGEND OF A FIGHTER (1982) is a superb kung fu film directed by Yuen Wo
Ping, famous these days for his fight choreography for THE MATRIX and
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. It has a clever plot based on the
turn-of-the-century Chinese martial artist Huo Yuan Chia (Fok Yuen Gap
in Cantonese). Young Huo secretly learns kung fu from a Japanese tutor
who has his own hidden agenda, which is to learn Chinese martial arts
by secretly watching Huo's father, who has forbidden his son to study
the art. The tutor ingeniously incorporates the training into Huo's
book learning, e.g. using kung fu moves in the art of calligraphy.
Years later, after Huo has grown to manhood and become an expert
martial artist, his tutor comes back into his life through a twist of
fate which dictates that Huo face him, not as a student, but as an
opponent. It all leads to a heart-wrenching ending.
Leung Kar Yan, a mainstay of Hong Kong kung fu films, plays Huo as a
grown man. Yasuaki Kurata, a Japanese performer who made many Hong Kong
films (and appears as the Japanese master who fights Jet Li in the
countryside in FIST OF LEGEND), plays the Japanese tutor. Yuen Yat Chor
plays young Huo and several members of the Yuen clan are involved in
the fight scenes. Overall, it's a film boasting excellent martial arts
sequences, good acting, lots of welcome humor, and a bit of historical
detail. This is arguably the best of Yuen Wo Ping's early work
(1978-82), a period which includes such formidable titles as THE
BUDDHIST FIST, THE MIRACLE FIGHTERS and two early Jackie Chan hits,
SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW and DRUNKEN MASTER. (Warning: the
English-dubbed soundtrack on my VHS copy of LEGEND has more hardcore
profanity on it than any kung fu movie I've ever seen.)
ADDENDUM (Nov. 16, 2007): I watched LEGEND OF A FIGHTER again to
prepare me for FEARLESS, a 2006 film starring Jet Li as the same
historical figure, Huo Yuan Chia, who is the subject of LEGEND. The big
difference between the two films is that LEGEND spends a good portion
on the boyhood and training of young Huo, while FEARLESS is more about
his late adult life. The adult version of the character doesn't even
appear in LEGEND until about halfway through the film, thus giving a
greater sense of the boy's burning desire to learn kung fu and how much
he worked and struggled to achieve his skill level and status. We
appreciate his later victories all the more because we see how much he
earned them. In FEARLESS, less than ten minutes is devoted to the
character's boyhood and training. Before the movie's 15-minute mark, we
already see Jet Li emerge as the grown-up, full-fledged wushu champ of
Tianjin. Also, the character of the Japanese tutor, so significant in
LEGEND, is completely absent from FEARLESS.
The fight scenes in LEGEND display the simple, direct approach of
old-school fight filming--put the camera in place with a wide enough
angle to show all the action and let the actors do their stuff.
Unfortunately, the fights in FEARLESS are marred by signs of too much
computer manipulation--sudden slowing down or speeding up, apparently
done during the editing process rather than in the camera. There's also
more wire work than I'm comfortable with and way too many pointless
overhead shots. Yuen Wo Ping, the director of LEGEND, choreographed the
fight scenes in FEARLESS, which came 24 years later, but he clearly had
more control in the earlier film.
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