The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk

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Admittedly, most Hong Kong-produced martial arts epics are escapist fare where the acrobatics are all that really matter. But the best of the genre strive for more, attempting to give expression to the islanders' fears and hopes about the shifting political winds. The 70s crop displayed an unease over a chaotic China plagued by factionalism and treachery; in the 80s that was replaced by a giddiness at exterminating the new criminal elements bred by a booming economy. Now, on the eve of reunification with the mainland, there's a swelling of patriotism (and feminism), tempered by worries over official corruption. In The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk, heartthrob and kung fu ace Jet Li plays Fong, a folk hero in turn-of-the-century Canton. The convoluted plot traces Fong's moral progression from a brash youth to the fledgling leader of an underground movement dedicated to overthrowing the Manchu rulers, and the tone of the stunningly choreographed fight sequences correspondingly develops from innocent braggadocio into deadly ferociousness. There's also a subplot involving the unrequited love of Fong's mother-in-law for his mother. In fact, both women prove to be more adroit martial arts daredevils than Fong and display a self-reliance no doubt attributable to the talented Ann Hui, who codirected with Yuen Kwai but is credited only for her sumptuous production design. One hilarious scene has the pair combating each other in a flirtation dance atop the heads and shoulders of a crowd of spectators. Expertly edited, the film frantically zigzags between slapstick and melodrama, losing steam only after the last big fight, when an unnecessary coda prepares the audience for sequels to come. With kung fu master Chiu Man-cheuk in the role of the evil Manchu emissary and Josephine Siao, a star of the 60s swordplay films, as Fong's tart-tongued mother. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, September 3, 6:00 and 8:00; Saturday and Sunday, September 4 and 5, 2:00, 4:00, 6:00, and 8:00; and Monday, September 6, 6:00 and 8:00; 443-3737.

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