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Jet Li 2 Movie Collection: ‘Fist of Legend’ & ‘Tai Chi Master’ (review)

Jet Li was one of the cornerstones of the wave of Hong Kong action stars and directors who came to America in the late-90’s and early-00’s but the current wave of incredible Hong Kong action releases has largely underrepresented his work.

Publisher Ronin Flix is looking to redress this imbalance by releasing two of Jet’s very best films, Fist of Legend (1994) and Tai Chi Master (1993) in an attractive new double Blu-ray set.

Technical Note: While this review will primarily concern itself with the films themselves, their context within Jet’s career, and their place in the pantheon of Hong Kong action films and not technical discussions of the Blu-ray itself it’s worth noting that both films are new restorations and present significant audio and visual upgrades over the previous Dragon Dynasty releases, despite using the same cover artwork.

So if you have those previous releases this new issue still represents a new benchmark even if it looks to be a simple upgrade.

Jet Li was the first martial arts star to come from Mainland China after the war. A childhood prodigy in Wushu (that would be the Chinese standardization of kung fu for sport, rather than wuxia which is the genre of wandering swordsmen), he was recruited into a series of co-productions between Hong Kong and the mainland about the legends of the Shaolin Temple, culminating in basically the final Shaw Brothers feature film: Martial Arts of Shaolin (1983). The chaos surrounding the making of that film inspired him to take a greater degree of control over his films beginning with Born to Defence, and he became an action superstar especially renowned for his period piece martial arts and swordplay films.

Fist of Legend and Tai Chi Master represent a high watermark for quality in Jet’s career. Released during a downturn in the Hong Kong box office, both films were financial disappointments in their native Hong Kong but international successes that brought both actors Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh and action director Yuen Woo-ping to significant acclaim and attention from an international audience. The Wachowskis have said that Fist of Legend is the proximate cause for hiring Yuen for The Matrix and Michelle Yeoh’s turn in Tai Chi Master was a big motivator for Jackie Chan to hire her for Supercop a year later. These are foundational entries in the filmographies of actors and filmmakers involved.

Tai Chi Master, chronologically the first film to be released, was directed by Yuen Woo-ping in total and represents a throwback to the “shapes” or “styles” era of kung fu pictures from the 70’s boom where the primary arc of the film is the acquisition of physical and spiritual knowledge of a new style of kung fu (in this case, tai chi ch’aun) which enables the hero to move beyond the villains and become a better human being. It is also a foundational myth of kung fu being retold: the founding of Wudang Temple by a former Shaolin monk. Jet plays a Shaolin novice who must prevent a former martial brother (Chin Siu-Ho) from usurping the local government of his province through force.

The film is an amazing showcase of Yuen’s highly imaginative and surreal choreography with an amazing villain who seems literally unstoppable right up until the film minutes of the film. Fans will enjoy the incredible fight scenes and stronger than normal characterization of the picture. Jet was always a gifted physical performer, but in this reviewer’s opinion Tai Chi Master was the first film where he really begins to develop as an actor in the dramatic sections.

It’s a key picture for any Jet Li fan, and the action holds up to this day as long as the viewer knows that Yuen Woo-ping is not going for strict realism in his choreography.

Fist of Legend is the main event of this release, though, and it remains one of the best loved and appreciated Jet Li films in the West almost twenty years after its release. Directed by Gordon Chan with action direction again from Yuen Woo-ping, this film is a loose remake of Bruce Lee’s classic Fist of Fury (1972) with several new twists on the premise.

First and foremost, it no longer casts the central conflict as a societal one between Japanese and Chinese for the Japanese market had become too important to kung fu films by this time and there was fear of offending it. Fist of Legend, like the Captain America films, makes a point of depoliticizing the action for financial security.

What we get in its place is a tribute to the martial philosophies of Bruce Lee: to always improve, to never prejudice yourself against a style or technique that works, and that the real battle of the martial artist is always an internal one. This dramatic preoccupation is supported and enhanced by Yuen at his most minimalist and brutal when it comes to the fights. From the storming of the Japanese dojo, to the final battle against the Japanese Army officer, this is the most snap I’ve ever seen from Yuen’s choreography. Broken bones, groin strikes, and punishing impacts replace the lyricism of Tai Chi Master. This set represents not only a wonderful look back at the development of Jet Li as a star, but of Yuen Woo-ping as a multifaceted action director who can work in any style.

Both films retain the special features from their previous Dragon Dynasty released and given the quality upgrades in presentation and the excellence of the pictures themselves represent an easy recommendation for even casual fans of martial arts pictures.

 

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