Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, especially in the sequence involving 100 karate experts, beautifully demonstrates why leading man Donnie Yen is one of Hong Kong's most highly regarded action stars. But at the time of the release of this film, which he also choreographed, he quite openly discussed his desire to be recognised for more than his physical abilities.
“If you take away my martial arts skills, my acting career has not been impressive,” he said, somewhat modestly. “I haven't played a character that the audience totally embraces. Therefore, I work really hard to show the audience what I can really do, especially when I'm reprising the role of Chen Zhen.”
Director Andrew Lau's Legend of the Fist screens at 9.30pm this Saturday night on SBS ONE and is the latest chapter in the life of Zhen, a character that first showed up back in 1972 in Fist of Fury, starring martial arts megastar Bruce Lee. Jet Li, another who has contributed much to the legendary nature of the martial arts genre, also portrayed this character in a 1994 film and Yen has previously too: in a TV series that's now nearly 20 years old. (Yen is approaching 50 years of age and if he has slowed down he must have been able to move his limbs at lightning speed previously.)
Chen Zhen is best known as a fine fighter and a patriot but in Legend of the Fist he is so well rounded, he could legitimately be described as a Renaissance man. He's the hero of a Chinese contingent fighting alongside the Allies in Europe in World War I and on his eventual return to China he stands up against the Japanese trying to exert power in Shanghai both as a member of the resistance and in disguise as a superhero. But he is also a suave nightclub pianist – Yen's parent were talented musicians and he learned to play as a kid – and considerate suitor to the club's diva (Qi Shu), who is also not what she seems. (It is no wonder that this interpretation of Chen Zhen prompted many Western film commentators to compare him to James Bond.)
The story is full of power struggles, spies and subterfuge but the slapstick humour does much to lighten the atmosphere. Yen makes the point here that he's not just seeking artistic self-fulfilment in his work but that he also sees himself as a disseminator of information – in other words, as a role model – so he wouldn't play a maniacal murderer or arsonist.
I look forward to seeing Donnie Yen opposite Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: the Green Destiny if it goes ahead as planned. (Anyone who missed her amazing performance in last Saturday's Reign of Assassins note that it is available online for free on SBS On Demand here until January 25.