March 13, 2001, updated January 14, 2002 -- As far as Chinese martial arts films go, this is one of the best I've seen. It is visually stunning with excellent color cinematography and the fight sequences staged by the best in the business. The story isn't bad, either, although there are some inscrutable Oriental elements. Although it is dubbed (subtitles are available on the DVD for the hearing impaired) the dubbing is not as awful as it is on most such films.
The story is set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1937 and it features star-crossed lovers and a murder mystery. The Japanese occupation of parts of China was one of the tragic chapters in Asian history. There were many atrocities committed by the Japanese and the anti-Japanese feeling is still strong and it wells up in this film, giving it an interesting subtext. Chen Zhen (played by Jet Li of "Romeo Must Die"), studying to be an engineer in Japan, learns of the death of his old kung-fu master in Shanghai. He rushes back to Shanghai to find out what happened.
His master was supposedly killed in a fight and Chen Zhen can't accept that. He exhumes the body and discovers his master was poisoned. That leads to a murder investigation. There's a complex relationship between the local police, the local courts and the Japanese occupation forces which makes it difficult for Chen Zhen to find justice. At one point his Japanese girlfriend comes to his rescue. Chen Zhen's friends can't accept his Japanese girlfriend and they don't like his mixing some Japanese karate moves with the kung-fu style taught by his master. He becomes ostracized from his friends. In the end, of course, there's a big showdown and a fight with the top bad guy.
The strong point of this film is the cinematography of Derek Wan. The images are imbued with the rich, vibrant color which has become a hallmark of modern Chinese films like "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Ju Dou." Woo-ping Yuen (fight coordinator for "The Matrix" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), listed as a co-director, with Gordon Chan, stages some great fight sequences. The set design, costumes, art direction and other production values are first rate, especially for this genre. Jet Li is a marvelous martial arts expert, but somewhat wooden as an actor. If you are going to see this film, chances are, you are more interested in action than acting. This film rates a B.
I saw this film initially on DVD. It is part of the "Jet Li Collection" (which can be bought as a boxed set) from Dimension Home Video. The Region 1 DVD has a widescreen, letterbox aspect ratio of 1.85:1. While the film was originally released in 1994, the English dubbing was added in 1999. The US DVD release date was February, 2000. The soundtrack features Dolby 2 surround. Features include detailed notes of the cast. Dolby is a registered trademark of Dolby Laboratories.
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