The year 1993, no doubt one of the most mythical years in Hong Kong cinema history. When I was just getting into Hong Kong films, I quickly realized there was something unmistakably unique about the martials arts/fantasy period films produced in '93, so I went on a mad frenzy trying to watch every single one I could get my hands on. That was quite a long time ago though, and the idea of getting myself reacquainted with these film was something I've been looking forward to for a while now. First in line: Corey Yuen's The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk [Fong Sai Yuk].
Hong Kong is a pretty small place, but it does have a rich cinematic history. I don't have an exhaustive explanation as to why that is, but part of it definitely has to do with the work ethic of the Hong Kong people. To be a part of the film industry there means working hard and diligently, taking on whatever job opportunity presents itself. It's not all exceptional to find people with acting, writing, production and directing experience under their belt. Cinema is not so much an art as it is a job and getting better at it is very much an iterative and cooperative process rather than an artistic or creative one.
That's also why it's an ideal breeding ground for genre cinema, which is all about taking familiar structures and concepts and polishing them to perfection. So when fantasy and period martial arts films gained traction in the late '80s, everyone jumped on the bandwagon and started churning out films with a very similar vibe and aesthetic at increasingly crazy speeds. The bigger it grew, the more experienced people got at making them, snowballing the genre forward to '93, the year when it finally exploded (and ultimately plateaued). The niche collapsed on itself soon after, but the films that were produced that year are some of the best martial arts films ever conceived.
Fong Sai-Yuk's plot is as generic as they come, but what did you expect. There is a 30 minute introduction that's basically just playtime, used exclusively for introducing the characters and having them do silly things in the name of comedy. After that a hastily good vs bad showdown is set up, pitching Fong Sai-Yuk with the rebels and having him fight off some of the emperor's evil minions. There's a little additional drama, but really it's all just filler stuffed in between the spectacular fight sequences. Fong Sai-Yuk is all about the action, so it's best not to expect too much story-wise.
Just like its peers, Fong Sai-Yuk is a film with much grander ideas than its budget allowed for. Showing lengthy overview shots of elaborate fight sequences was simply impossible, but cutting back on the choreography wasn't acceptable either. The solution was a combination of smart camera angles and rapid editing, cutting up the fights to get an almost animation-like effect and creating the illustion of the characters' insane fighting abilities. As an added bonus, it upped the pacing dramatically while making the action much more vibrant. Camera work is overall great and nighttime scenes look beautiful too, though by contrast the daytime filler scenes do look a bit frumpy and rushed.
The soundtrack on the other hand is just an afterthought. It sounds like stock music that you might hear in a million similar films. It's not annoying or irritating, but you'll be hardpressed to remember any specifics afterwards. Another area where you can clearly notice the rush job quality of the production is the dub, which is quite atrocious. You don't have to speak a single word of Cantonese to see that the timing is way off. I guess it has to do with the dual Cantonese/Mandarin post-dubs that were made for pretty much every Chinese film back then, even so the result is subpar. Still, it's always better than going for the English dub, which is truly offensive.
As for the acting, it solemnly depends on what you expect from a film like this. There clearly aren't any award-winning performances here, but keeping in mind this is all about the martial arts and the comedy, I actually found very little to complain about. Jet Li is stellar as Fong Sai-Yuk, Michelle Reis is pretty good too and Josephine Siao proves that women can kick ass and be funny at the same time. Sung Young Chen is the only one that goes full Hong Kong comedy, making him the weakest of the bunch.
Fong Sai-Yuk is very focused. The whole film is constructed around three extended action sequences, evenly spread out throughout the film. If you're going in expecting a more complete, fleshed out experience, I'd say it's probably just better to avoid this one altogether. If on the other hand you're looking for spectacular martial arts wizardry, Corey Yuen more than delivers. The action choreography is insanely creative and extremely explosive, gracious yet hard-hitting and most important of all: spectacular from start to finish.
There's some stiff competition for Fong Sai-Yuk and I guess the coming months will reveal whether this film truly is the top of its class. But regardless of how its peers hold up, Fong Sai-Yuk is one of the very best 90s Hong Kong martial arts films and by extension one of the best Corey Yuen films out there. You have to be a fan of wire-fu antics and elongated martial arts scenes to appreciate a film like this, but if you do then you're getting one of the most spectacular and creative films in the genre.