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Fighting in the shadows
A UK region 0 DVD review of NEW FIST OF FURY / XIN CHING-WU MEN by Slarek
 

There can't be a martial arts movie fan alive who doesn't know Fist of Fury, the second starring vehicle for Bruce Lee and the one that really confirmed him as a genre superstar. And there can also be precious few who did not know that following Lee's death, a whole string of fighters were built up and promoted as his successor, only to then fade into action cinema oblivion. Fortunately for us genre fans, one of them did not. His name, of course, was Jackie Chan.

New Fist of Fury was probably the most blatant attempt to establish Chan as the new Bruce Lee and contains a number of deliberate and obvious similarities to its illustrious predecessor. Set in Japanese occupied Taiwan, it once again casts the Japanese as the brutal and bullying bad guys and the Chinese locals as the very essence of noble resistance. It includes a Japanese fuelled rivalry between two martial arts schools, some symbolic sign smashing, and has an ending that could be read as making a historical-political point, but is far more likely to have been driven by the perceived need to recycle but still top the memorable final freeze frame of its predecessor. Other Lee films are also referenced, with Chan's character reluctantly drawn into a battle that he eventually leads, recalling a similar set-up in The Big Boss, and the three parallel cuts he collects on his cheek during the final fight deliberately echo an iconic image of Lee from Enter the Dragon.

Chan (or as he's named here, Jackie Chen) plays Ah Loong, a thief who repeatedly walks into trouble with the occupying Japanese, whom he despises. His contempt extends to anyone who collaborates with them, little realising that his estranged mother is working as a prostitute in their service. His refusal to work for the self-important Ling at the DaYang Gate school (actually a gang of criminals, as the non-honourable schools tend to be in these films) is driven in part by their close association with the foreign invaders, though the reason he gives is that he is uninterested in learning kung-fu, apparently because of the rules and the discipline that this involves. He could do with learning a bit, though, as he's always getting into fights, and despite a flailing enthusiasm and luck of a Tekken newcomer, he invariable gets the crap kicked out of him. When one of his attempts at theft backfires on him, he is introduced to pretty newcomer to the area Li-Er, who takes a liking to him and offers to teach him kung-fu, but he's still having none of it. Li-Er's grandfather is respected martial arts teacher Elder Xu, and when he dies (in a particularly odd manner) after confronting the evil minded Okimura and his hard-arsed bodyguard daughter, she establishes her own kung-fu school, named Jing Wu, but quickly runs foul first of Ling and his DaYang Gate boys, then Okimura and his crew. When the remnants of the smashed-up Jing Wu school sign are dumped in the town square, it's too much for Ah Loong, who leads a procession to the school to enrol, and in the blink of an eye has become a kung fu demon capable to taking on just about anyone who crosses his sense of honour and decency.

OK, maybe I'm getting a little flip towards the end there, but it's hard not to be. Even by martial arts film standards this is by the clunkiest of numbers, lacking any of the narrative complexity of other early Chan films or their action quota and inventive choreography. The fights here are fast and brutal when they come, but there is little of the creative acrobatics and can't-believe-it moves for which Chan was later to become renowned. He's also strangely and frustratingly under-used. Getting halfway into the film before allowing him to show his stuff is a tease borrowed directly from The Big Boss, but after a busy training sequence he then sits on the sidelines until his final punch-up, the journey to which is plastered with unexciting chat, half-developed political intrigue and formulaic plotting.

Director Lo Wei, who really made his mark with The Big Boss and the original Fist of Fury, has caught some fan flack in recent years for supposedly holding Chan back, and New Fist of Fury certainly does his case no favours. It's a sub-par martial arts movie that is too talky and too formulaic and lacks innovation in every department, and as a vehicle to launch Chan as the new Bruce Lee it's a botched job in every respect. But maybe we should take some comfort from that, as it was only when Chan was able to move out from under Lee's considerable shadow and develop his own very specific style and screen persona that he really began to make an impact of his own. What the studios and some of the filmmakers failed to fully appreciate at the time was that what genre fans were really waiting for was not a direct Bruce Lee replacement but something new, a performer with his own unique way of the fist and feet. You wouldn't know it from watching New Fist of Fury, but that star was already up on screen, ready and waiting to show the world what he could do.

this version

Now before I move on to the technical specs I do feel the need to comment on the version of the film included on this Hong Kong Legends release. You may not agree with me on this film's merits or otherwise and that's fine, or you may be a Jackie Chan completist and have been waiting for a decent transfer, in which case welcome to the club. But before you hand over your dosh for this disc, be aware that the original running time of New Fist of Fury is logged at 114 minutes, or 113 in the UK where a small number of cuts were enforced. The film has been released twice on DVD in the US and both the original Beverly Wiltshire 2001 disc (with a 4:3 cropped picture) and the Sony 2002 release (with the correct 2.35:1 framing) ran for approximately two hours, suggesting the inclusion of material not in the original cut. The print here runs for just 79 minutes, which is 35 minutes shorter than the uncut cinema release and getting on for 40 minutes shorter than the US DVD releases, allowing for PAL speed-up. Included as an extra feature is an 8 minute alternative opening, but stick that on and you're still talking about a good half-hour of absent material or more, depending on which cut you're comparing it too. It may well be that all of the missing footage is more deadly talk, but I'd like to be in a position of make that judgement for myself. That lack of extra features on this DVD means that no explanation for the decision to use this cut of the film has been supplied. If someone has one, I'd be delighted to hear from them.

sound and vision

Framed 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is another of Hong Kong Legends' Ultrabit titles and has again been transferred at a very high bit rate to minimise digital artefacts, which are almost non-existent. The colours are a little drained, but otherwise this is a typically clean print with good detail levels. Contrast is about right, although is a tad harsh in places, resulting in occasional loss of shadow detail, and occasionally it feels as if the brightness has been turned down a notch.

The usual HKL trilogy of Mandarin mono, Mandarin 5.1 and English 5.1 are present and there's not a lot to choose between them, although the 5.1 track has a tad more clarity. The English dub differs from the subtitle translations, with the repeated and negative (and taken out of context, just a little racist) references to "the Japs" sometimes completely absent, so that "You stupid Jap bastards!" becomes "You bastards!"

extra features

Alternate beginning (8:24)
A sequence set in Shanghai where Li-Er and her brother and friend make their plans to travel to Taiwan and continue the fight against the Japanese and are smuggled onto a boat by a sympathetic local police inspector. The opening credits from this version are also included, where Jackie is credited as Jacky Chan, and followed by the scene used under the present opening credits, which we now get to hear the dialogue from. For my money this is a better opening all round. The soundtrack is the English dub only.

summary

New Fist of Fury is lively when the fights kick off but by the generic numbers and even plodding in between, and there's nothing here fans will have not seen elsewhere. The anti-Japanese element in particular, which you'll find in a number of films of the period (including Fist of Fury and Hapkido), is crudely simplistic and doesn't play too comfortably today. Not one of the lost treasures of Chan's career, but still of interest to fans, the severely shortened length of this version makes it hard to recommend it to anyone but determined collectors.

New Fist of Fury
Xin ching-wu men

Hong Kong 1976
79 mins
director
Lo Wei
starring
Jackie Chan
Sing Chang
Siu Siu Cheng
Lo Wei
Nora Miao

DVD details
region 0
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
Mandarin
subtitles .
English
extras
Alternative opening
distributor
Hong Kong Legends
release date
21 May 2007
review posted
3 June 2007

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See all of Slarek's reviews