In 1993, Chinese action star Jet Li –who was quickly becoming an international celebrity thanks to the success of the Once Upon a Time in China films – appeared in a whopping six martial arts films. It's far and away the busiest year of Li's career, marking the moment that the actor more or less became his own brand (like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan before him). The most well-regarded film Li released that year was probably The Legend of Fong Sai-yuk (released as Fong Sai-yuk in China and simply as The Legend in the United States). The film is part slapstick comedy, part historical folk tale, part melodrama and part feverish action flick, which sounds like a recipe for disaster until you see the way helmer Corey Yuen ties it all together with his energetic direction and frantic editing.
The tale begins with a simple romance, as Fong Sai-yuk (Li) meets the attractive Ting-ting (Michelle Reis, Fallen Angels) and falls head over heels in love with her. She likes him, too. Unfortunately, continuing the relationship will be complicated, as Ting-ting's hot-headed father Tiger Lui (Chan Chang-yung) has decided to hold a martial arts competition to determine who will get to marry his daughter. Fong – who can certainly handle himself in hand-to-hand combat – eagerly signs up, but eventually becomes convinced that he'll be winning the hand of someone else entirely. So, he intentionally loses the competition, unwittingly throwing away the chance to marry the young woman he adores.
Meanwhile, a ferocious government assassin is seeking out a mysterious list of names, and murdering anyone who attempts to stop him from finding it. We don't know all the details of what this guy is up to right off the bat, but his tale eventually segues neatly into Fong's story.
The performances are big and broad, but consistently appealing. Li is in lovable goofball mode for much of the film's running time; sheepishly grinning and joking his way through scenes when his fists and feet aren't flying. I also greatly enjoyed Josephine Siao's work as Fong's mother, who seems to acquiesce to her overbearing husband's demands more for her own amusement than out of fear (she's a force to be reckoned with when things go south).
The plot twists and turns through a variety of contrived scenarios, demonstrating an almost Li-like flexibility in the way it ducks in and out of over-the-top comedy and over-the-top melodrama. The story is engagingly loony and even a little moving on occasion, but it's ultimately just a springboard for the action sequences... and boy, do those action sequences deliver.
It's difficult to pick a single highlight from the expertly-choreographed bits of martial arts mayhem on display, but if forced, I'd probably have to go with the magnificently absurd fight scene between Fong and Ting-ting's mother Siu-wan (Sibelle Hu). Yes, there are multiple middle-aged women in this film who prove more than capable of beating the hell out of martial arts champions and trained assassins. If you have an issue with that, you're watching the wrong movie. Anyway, the Fong/Siu-wan encounter begins on a multi-level wooden structure, but the two participants quickly forget about traditional surfaces and begin to dance across the heads and shoulders of the supportive crowd below them (occasionally even doing a bit of harm to those crowd members in order to gain a tactical advantage). It's both thoroughly absurd and absurdly well-staged, which more or less describes most of the film. In a far more dramatic sequence, a character avenges a dead friend's death by fighting the murderers while carrying his friend's corpse on his back. If that thought makes you grin, this one is recommended.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Year: 1993