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October 2010

The Legend Of Fong Sai-yuk

cast: Jet Li, Josephine Siao, Michelle Reis, Sibelle Hu, and Adam Cheng

director: Corey Yuen

108 minutes (15) 1993
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Showbox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Max Cairnduff

The Legend Of Fong Sai-yuk

The Legend Of Fong Sai-yuk is classic Hong Kong cinema. It features action, romance, comedy and lots of kung fu. This is a film in which a character can say, without a trace of irony, "A fighting competition to find my daughter a husband!" Of course, what better means could there be of selecting a potential groom for your only child?

The story is simple enough. Jet Li is Fong Sai-yuk. He has learned kung fu from his mother, Miu Chui-Fa (played by Josephine Siao) who owns a cloth shop. Why is she a master of kung fu? Who knows? It doesn't matter, because the chemistry between her and Jet Li's character is fantastic and every scene they're in together is a delight to watch.

Tiger Liu (Chan Chun Yung) has come to Canton for business. He's new money, rich but vulgar and unpopular, and he's offended the locals which is causing him problems. He has the bright idea of marrying his daughter to a Cantonese so as to curry favour with them. To win her hand all an aspiring groom must do is defeat Tiger Liu's wife (played by Sibelle Hu) in a kung fu battle. Whoever's feet touch the ground first is declared the loser.

What follows is a spectacular sequence where Jet Li and Sibelle Hu fight on scaffolding and then on the heads of the crowd. It's funny, it's brilliantly choreographed, and it's a pleasure to watch. For reasons you should watch the film to discover, Fong Sai-yuk's mother has to take over from her son and then battles Tiger Liu's wife while disguised as a man. Naturally, Tiger Liu's wife falls in love with this handsome young fellow she has never seen before...

The comic scenes here work extremely well. Each of Jet Li, Josephine Siao, Chan Chun Yung, and Sibelle Hu has great comic timing and each of them gives the impression of thoroughly enjoying themselves. Michelle Reis provides the romantic interest in the form of Tiger Liu's daughter, and gets some solid comic scenes of her own.

The drama is provided by Vincent Zhao, who plays a governor despatched by the emperor to find a document which contains the names of all the members of the Red Flower society - a secret group dedicated to overthrowing the Manchu and to restoring Han rule. Vincent Zhao is himself a skilled martial artist, and makes a chilling counterpoint to Fong Sai-yuk's innocent enthusiasm.

Generally, The Legend is not a gory film. Many of the action sequences aim for comic effect, and those which are serious while impressive in their skill do not feature much by way of blood. That said, there is one particularly painful sequence where the governor twists a man's arm so as to make the bone jut out from it. It's a reminder that in Hong Kong cinema the rules of genre change according to who's on screen at a given moment. With Fong Sai-yuk and his mother present it's a comedy, with the governor present it's a drama.

Another reminder of genre differences between Hong Kong cinema and western comes in the form of Fong Sai-yuk's father (played by Paul Chu). He is a stern man who beats his wife and son both for disobedience (which they accept, even though they know kung fu and he does not). The father is one of the heroes, and he and his wife passionately love each other. The beatings are an unavoidable fact of life, necessary for him to maintain his dignity as head of the household. He is also the source of another running joke, as on screen he is stern and taciturn yet his wife constantly refers to how romantic he is and how seductive - none of which is (quite deliberately) shown to the audience.

As the film progresses, Fong Sai-yuk comes to realise there's more at stake than him playing games with his friends, trying to chat up Tiger Liu's daughter and avoiding his father's commands to study. When the governor arrives seeking the Red Flower society, events force Fong Sai-yuk to oppose him and the film builds towards an epic conclusion.

I opened this review by saying this was classic Hong Kong cinema. I've barely touched in this review on the action sequences it contains, which include an athletics competition, a fight between Fong Sai-yuk wielding a rope and a group of soldiers, swordfights, staff-fights and much more. Director Corey Yuen is recognised as one of the finest fight choreographers in the business, and he brings that and more to this film. Jet Li is also on top form here and while the rest of the cast are also very good Josephine Siao puts in one of the funniest performances I've seen and steals every scene she's in.

If you don't already like Hong Kong cinema I'm not sure this is the film to persuade you (though it wouldn't make a bad choice), but if you do have any fondness for the form at all this is an absolute joy. It's definitely worth picking up on DVD.

The Legend Of Fong Sai-yuk comes with two solid interviews, one with Corey Yuen and the other with writer Jeff Lau (approximately 20 and 15 minutes long respectively).



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