HONG KONG 2010 Directed by: Andrew Lau Written by: Cheung Chi-Sing, Gordon Chan Produced by: Andrew Lau, Gordon Chan Cinematography by: Andrew Lau, Ng Man-Ching Editing by: Azrael Chung Music by: Chan Kwong-Wing Cast: Donnie Yen, Shu Qi, Anthony Wong, Huang Bo, Shawn Yue, Yasuaki Kurata, Huo Siyan, Yang Zhou
We are living in fast times. Attention to detail has become a virtue without value. Everything has to get attention instantly, just to be succeeded by the next best thing coming our way. Movies, an art form that has always been driven by systematic acceleration, is no different of course, and LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN is a good example for that.
THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN is a movie made for an audience without memory, without the expectation of logic or the ability to follow linear storytelling from beginning to end, even though it tries to give us the impression it was dedicated to storytelling. But in fact, we are rather dealing with fragments – a movie like an executive summary, enough to get it, but leaving out the details. It is made for an audience that has forgotten what movie they just paid for the moment they take their seats in the cinema. As long as it is loud, cool and fast-paced, as long as there is familiarity to make it instantly likable, it’s all good. We may never find out what came first, an undemanding audience or dumb filmmaking, but nowadays they complement each other very well.
So let’s take THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN for what it is and move on. Let us forget about historic accuracy (who Chen Zhen really was and what he meant), seamless continuation of the FIST OF FURY franchise or sophisticated characterization, and instead enjoy the spectacle featuring a masked hero coming out of nowhere, going nowhere.
THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN opens with Chen Zhen fighting in WWI in France, becoming the savior of the Chinese working over there, helping them to survive and get back home. In one of the more memorable moments, Chen Zhen defeats the German army by running, slaloming, jumping and swinging through a hail of bullets until he’s the last man standing.
I don’t remember how the film cut to Shanghai set years later (I am not sure if it escaped my memory or if there’s simply nothing to remember), and we are presented with the usual introduction of the city: the nightclub (called Casablanca), the Jazz music, the lights and the glamour. Here we meet Liu Yiutian (Anthony Wong, who looks tired – or bored – throughout the film), the club’s owner, and his wife Kiki (Shu Qi, who looks equally bored, but attractive as always), who is spying for the Japanese. It’s a reprise of the roles of Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li in SHANGHAI, with Wong’s gestures and looks being a perfect copy of Chow, and Qi trying her best to imitate Gong Li most of the time.
These are turbulent times, and soon we get some more insight into the characters, like that of Anthony Wong: “the more chaos, the more we earn, ha ha”. He knows he’s the big shot who owns the only island of tranquility amid the chaos outside. Speaking of the club: its name immediately struck me, quite like Mr. Lau intended I assume, but I don’t know what to make out of it. Is it an homage? Is it that Mr. Lau realized SHANGHAI pretty much copies CASABLANCA, so as he copies SHANGHAI the club’s name becomes something like an insider joke? Or is it just stupid, naming a club in the 1920’s after a movie set during WWII and released in 1942? Or am I stupid and they really are fans of the city?
Chen Zhen, who now goes by his other name, is part of an underground movement. Soon he gets Liu to trust him and they become partners of the nightclub business, all for no obvious reasons. It is not clear why Liu should make someone he doesn’t know a partner (= give half of his profit away), and it is even more illogical that a key figure of the resistance, who at the same time is a superhero, would expose himself like that. Maybe it’s because he has to meet the villain, Japanese Colonel Takashi, at some point and nobody knew a better way to introduce them than the club. It’s not the only meaningless, pointless moment of the movie, so someone must have figured we’ll get over it quickly.
As soon as the swiss-cheese-plot, sketchy editing and amazingly false music (they go as far as using Heavy Metal) started to get annoying, THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN throws in the second catchy scene, the silver dollar bet between Chen Zhen and Takashi. That is a fine moment, a tense, sophisticated duel between the archenemies. Bravo. But then, we are back to endless dojo scenes with Takashi, endless display of racism (Britons against Chinese, Chinese against Japanese, Chinese against Britons, Japanese against everyone else), and many more plot holes, until we can witness the less than climatic last fight between the antagonists (with Donnie Yen mutating into Bruce Lee and from here on suddenly using Lee’s trademark high-pitched scream).
THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN is not unentertaining, but it never really makes up for all its shortcomings. Mr. Lau seems to believe that playing some sad music when someone’s dying can replace characterization or good acting, just as he believes he can fool us that Donnie Yen has really done all the fighting by himself. The biggest letdown is the fact that at least half of the time Mr. Yen is doubled, and the rest of the time he doesn’t show much of his capabilities as those sequences are shot largely close-up with shaky camera and are edited very fast. Martial arts fans will inevitably feel cheated.
THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN is another production that promises a lot and keeps just a little. It feels rushed, incomplete, not very well planned and misses more opportunities than it seizes. What if, what could have been – you’ll most certainly find yourself asking questions like these. THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN is one more proof that Mr. Lau’s INFERNAL AFFAIRS was both, a masterpiece and a fluke.
According to the (true) legend, Chen Zhen’s identity was never revealed, and one day he just disappeared without leaving a trace. Quite like the movie – it’s suddenly over, just like that, and it leaves no trace behind. What was I just watching?