Opening with fireworks and a beautifully constructed action sequence The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk quickly shifts to a sandy landscape and a Olympic games style contest that introduces the titular hero of the film, Fong Sai-Yuk. Based on a real life legend of Chinese history Fong Sai-Yuk is played here by Jet Li. Coming off the success of the Once Upon a Time in China films, where he portrayed another legendary folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, this period in Jet Li’s career helped put him on the map both in Asia and in the West.

Fong Sai-Yuk is in this film, the first of two films in which Li plays the character, immature, headstrong and cocky. Still young he is finding his way and not yet the legendary figure that led to his heroic status in history. Jeff Lau, who expertly scripted The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk, takes a lot of liberties with history and weaves new elements into the well known legend to create a dramatic and comedic story. He also injects a romantic subplot into the story which helps increase the stakes in certain action scenes.

After meeting and falling in love with Lui Ting-Ting (Michelle Reis) early in the film Fong Sai-Yuk is determined to win her hand in marriage by winning a martial arts contest held by her father. Into this situation walks Fong Sai-Yuk’s mother Miu Chui-Fa, played by the film-stealing Josephine Siao, who pretends to be a man and wins the contest and accidentally the heart of Ting-Ting. This kind of gender swapping and mistaken identity comedy is common in Hong Kong cinema and can often become a little grating but here it is genuinely funny, helps develop the characters and aids in moving the plot forwards. The film is also not strictly a comedy and does contain some very dramatic and occasionally violent moments and these more amusing scenes help take the edge off what could have become portentous. The chemistry between Jet Li and Josephine Siao, who play the mother-son relationship more like they are siblings, is a joy to watch and Li’s performance as Fong Sai-Yuk is one his best.

Running alongside this action/romance/comedy plot is a more dramatic one involving the hunt for a macguffin, a list of the members of the Red Lotus Flower Society, an underground organisation that is committed to a rebellion against the emperor. Fong Sai-Yuk’s father is involved in this orginisation and is he becomes the target of the evil Governor Kau Man who is seeking to destroy the Red Lotus Flower Society. Vincent Zhao plays Kau Man and with the recent Chinese and Hong Kong release of Yuen Woo-Ping’s True Legend and Zhao incredible performance in it, he should get more of the praise and respect he deserved earlier in his career.

Both the comedic and dramatic action sequences in The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk are expertly directed by Corey Yuen and the wire work throughout is there to enhance the action and complement the choreography rather than overshadow it with excess. The direction of the action is exceptional with great use of low angles and wide shots when necessary. Particularly impressive is the fight on people’s heads and the sequence near the end of the film that takes place in a confined space. The latter especially features a very good use of space and also some stunning expressionistic lighting. The editing during the action is also very effective; fast editing builds the pace in the right places but the action is clear and always fluid.

Jet Li is also an impressive physical performer and the film is in many ways a vehicle to show the world his talents (he also co-produced and helped finance the film). The film never feels like a vehicle for Li though and the writing and Siao’s performance are just too good to let the film fall into the trap that other martial arts films have fallen into in this respect.

This UK DVD release of The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk has been a long time coming and in many respects it does not disappoint. One very significant area though that makes it very hard to recommend is the choice of cut for the DVD. The DVD is a direct port of the American Region 1 Dragon Dynasty DVD and therefore features the ‘International Cut’ and not the original ‘Uncut’ version. The differences are quite significant and do not just come down to violence (although the very memorable face-ripping scene is absent). Gone are a couple of subtle character interactions, minor plot points and the soundtrack is changed slightly in places.

The International Cut not terrible though (like the International Cut of Shaolin Soccer for instance) and the changes are actually quite minor but there are noticeable differences. It is likely that the decision to use the International Cut was based on the availability of the English dub for the film that matches the cut and this is probably essential to helping sales in the US and UK but it is a shame it wasn’t possible to perhaps include both cuts (maybe on a Blu-ray?). As far as I am aware the Uncut version is currently only available without English subtitles (the French DVD for example) or in an unremastered form (there are many R3 releases) so this does appear to represent the best version in terms of transfer quality with English subtitles. Although I have reservations about this disc because of the cut I would still recommend it and if this is the only version available to you then you should not be put off checking it out as the film is stunning.

The transfer is excellent with little damage visible and the colours are vibrant and defined. The disc has the original Cantonese audio in Mono which is surprisingly clear but not exactly impressive in terms of quality. The English dub is also present in Dolby 5.1 and although not as egregious asĀ  many English dubs it should definitely be avoided in favour of the original audio and English subtitles, which are clear and seemingly well translated. The DVD comes with only a few extras but they are filled with valuable information. The interviews with Corey Yuen and Jeff Lau are interesting, informative and contain a smattering of nice anecdotes but it is the Bey Logan commentary that is, as it often is, so invaluable. Full of fascinating information pulled from Logan’s encyclopedic knowledge of Hong Kong cinema, even dedicated fans will find new morsels of information that they have not heard before.

Despite my reservations about the choice of cut for the UK DVD The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk is a wonderful film and a great example of early nineties Hong Kong martial arts cinema well served by good quality DVD.

The Legend of Fong Sai-Yuk is released on DVD today.