It has been quite awhile since legendary action choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (Fearless) has helmed a film in Asia. “TRUE LEGEND” (aka. True Legends of Wu Shu) marks his return to Chinese filmmaking in which he re-imagines the beginnings of legendary folks hero Beggar So (who taught Wong Fei-Hung the secrets of the drunken fist in “Drunken Master“) and who also appeared as the leader of the beggar clan (played by Stephen Chow) in “King of Beggars”. The film also marks the comeback of Vincent Zhao to the silver screen after so many television projects and also features a return of old-school martial arts filming techniques in the form of traditional Shaw Brothers camerawork blended with modern production sensibilities. Oh, this film may well be ALSO David Carradine’s last starring role as a corrupt foreigner.
1861. Su Can (Vincent Zhao) is a Qing court warrior who successfully rescues a prince but turns down a promotion as governor to live a peaceful life and raise a family with his wife Ying (beauteous Zhao Xun, Painted Skin). Su entrusts the governmental duty to Ying’s brother Yuan (Andy On). Some years pass, and Su lives a peaceful life with his wife and son while practicing his martial arts skills. However, their happiness is cut short when Yuan appears to wreak havoc after mastering the art of the Five venom fists and has dark armor sewn to underneath his skin. Yuan holds a grudge seeing as Su’s father (Leung Ka-Yan) had killed Yuan’s father years ago who adopted Yuan as a sign of sympathy. Yuan has now come seeking vengeance against the old man and kills him. Su arrives but fails to save his father and his son is abducted by Yuan. Su is saved by a kindly woman (Michelle Yeoh) from the venom and must now fight to reunite his family…
Nope, there is more to the film than this first act. I cannot reveal anymore without spoiling the movie. “True Legend” is divided into two acts: “The Decisive Battle” and “The Drunken Fist”. The first act portrays Su’s struggles to regain his kung fu skills and confidence with a fantasy backdrop as he practices his skills with the legendary God of Wu Shu (played by Jay Chou) and the Old Sage (Gordon Liu). The first act of the film blends Shaw Brothers style and sensibilities with modern production values; the result is a polished production with traditional martial arts aesthetics. The second half portrays Su as a beggar who wanders around with his son who stumbles on a contest between Chinese martial artists against Western fighters.
The screenplay by Christine To is pretty simple and derivative of other movies, but at least it gives director Yuen Woo-Ping plenty to work with to inject the fight scenes. Yuen isn’t the best dramatic director around, and where he fails a tad, he compensates for it with the intensity and hard-hitting scenes of the fights. I have two major gripes about the script; the first being the underused characters of martial arts legends Michelle Yeoh and Gordon Liu. The second is that the one dude who gets to display a lot of ‘wire fu” is pop star Jay Chou as the God of Wu Shu (what?!).
Ok, I do have another gripe albeit the action scenes were entertaining enough to pull the film out of hot water. After the film establishes a fantasy-like backdrop, the script goes and pulls off a very different turn. The viewer is treated to a second story arc that somehow is quite derivative of the story of Huo Yuan Jia portrayed in “Fearless”. The film takes a nosedive as we see the Chinese fighters go up against larger Western fighters and they are losing. Su stumbles on the arena and soon proves to be a combatant in the contests. I was puzzled at the film’s abrupt change in tone and atmosphere as it had established a fantasy in the first act. Luckily, the fights were aplenty and the development of the “drunken fist” was enough to keep the film from total disaster. I did not appreciate the film’s shift in mood and tone, I thought it was a little too cheap to fool the viewer into a sense of a fantastical world and then goes into a Jet Li‘s “Fearless” wanna-be. I also had issues with David Carradine’s last not-so glamorous, conniving foreigner role, but the film dedicates itself to his memory anyway.
Vincent Zhao is a great martial artist and I have often said that it is easier to teach a fighter to act than to teach an actor how to fight. He’s good but not great as the lead protagonist; as he seemed to lack a certain ‘x-factor’ necessary to fully carry a film. Don’t get me wrong, he is a skilled martial artist, but he is just no Jet Li or Jackie Chan. Zhao Xun is her usual charming and alluring self; she plays Su’s devoted wife with such convincing zest that she may have almost stolen the show in the first half. She was the film’s necessary dramatic impact in its narrative.
Despite my complaints about the tonal shifts, incoherent pacing and the way that the plot felt too episodic for its good, “True Legend” does have all the bone-crushing action that can feed the action junkie. I did enjoy the progression of the drunken fist but it sure wasn’t necessary to stoop to commercial trappings of Chinese patriotism that came from left field and felt so out of place. Yuen Woo Ping and Christine To just tried too hard to elevate the movie to epic proportions, I would’ve been satisfied with two-thirds of the film where it exuded a martial arts fantasy. It isn’t a complete failure since the fights are wildly entertaining but it just came so short of martial arts brilliance.
Recommended with Caution, RENTAL first is ADVISABLE [3 ½ Stars]
I don’t know how much of TRUE LEGEND is either ‘true’ or which is more ‘legend’, but I found the end result of Director Yuen Woo Ping’s work to present the story as an incomplete parable – one where perhaps the viewer can draw inspiration from to seek out answers to questions regarding martial arts history – but certainly not a ‘definitive work.’ Or, at least, I wouldn’t hope so. I can only suspect that, if this is based … more