Fantastic Fest 2010: True Legend
On Wednesday evening Yuen Woo-ping accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award during screenings of his first martial arts film, Snake in Eagle's Shadow, and his latest film, True Legend. It had been ten years since Yuen was behind the camera and though the film is not without its troubles it still marks a welcome return for a true master of the genre.
True Legend opens with Su Can leading a small troupe of soldiers into the caves and caverns of a enemy stronghold to rescue a captured prince. The fight is bloody and costly. Su stays behind to ensure the escape of the prince and is believed lost in battle. When he finally makes it back to camp the prince is so overjoyed with his return he promises Su that the Emperor will make him a governor because of his act of bravery. But Su's only desire it to leave the army, study Wu Shu and open a martial arts school. He suggests that his adopted brother Yuan take the position instead. Yuan reluctantly accepts because he has always felt that he was in the shadow of Su. The next morning Su rides off into the sunrise to pursue his dreams.
Five years later and Su is close to opening his school. He has married Yuan's step sister Ying and together they have a son Feng. Word has arrived that Yuan is returning home and this fills Ying and her father's hearts with fear. For it was Ying's father who adopted Yuan after he killed his father for practicing illegal martial arts. They fear that he is coming home to exact his revenge on her father. It is clear from Yuan's arrival that things have changed in the last five years. He is pale as a ghost and has sewn dark gold onto his skin like armor. Indeed, he has come to get revenge for the death of his father. He murders his step- father and takes Ying and Feng with him to an alter overlooking a waterfall so he may make an offering to his deceased father.
Su hears of the murder and gives chase. A tremendous duel happens at the edge of the falls and Su is lost into the raging torrent of the falls below. Ying jumps into the falls to save him and both disappear over the edge. They survive the falls but Su is badly hurt. They are taken in by Dr. Du [Michelle Yeoh] and she helps nurse Su back to health. But he is overcome with grief and spends his days drinking Ying's wine and sparring with a tree. Until one day when he
meets the God of Wu Shu [Jay Chou]. When Su can defeat the God of Wu Shu then he will be ready to return and rescue his son.
Whew. Still with me? Good. Sound like a lot? It is. And that's just the first two thirds of the movie! The story of Beggar Su is actually split into two stories; one during the dynastic period and the other during the colonized period. But one cannot help but feel duped into believing that the first two thirds of the film ARE the film. So much time is spent on the first part of the story, too much if you ask me, that by the time it plays out you're ready to pack up and go. BUT WAIT! But in the back of your mind there is this nagging thought: "I've seen the trailers. I know Su is supposed to fight some Gweilos at some point". Don't worry. Su faces off with the evil foreigners in the third act, pretty much after the film has run out of steam though.
It's still some impressive martial arts action but one cannot help but feel that the thirds just don't jive with each other. But the story of Su in the border town between China and Russia is important because this is where the evolution of Drunken Fist begins. Perhaps if the first two thirds of the film were trimmed down a bit, you could lose a Su versus God of Wu Shu segment here and there, the film wouldn't suffer from a perceived extended duration. To Chi-long's screenplay is simply too long.
But the reason you watch a Yuen Woo-ping film is for the action and the Master is truly at work in this film. What Yuen brings to the table this time is that he mixes old school styles with modern flares exhibiting more control over camera placement and the aide of digital techniques to slow the film down or bring an impact into closer focus on the screen. You can even forgive Yeun Woo-ping for using B-boys during the fight between Su and the Drunken God because their ground work and head spins add to the drunken boxing effect. Yuen pulls out all his tricks and creates every type of sequence from close hand to hand to wide open wire fu.
I will come out and say that I really like Jay Chou. Yeah. Bring it bitches! I really liked him the roles of God of Wu Shu and Drunken God and I think the reason for this is that those roles require a certain amount of swagger, the kind of swagger that the pop icon Jay Chou can bring to the role. That popstar experience carried over to these roles helped him carry an air of superiority over Beggar Su. He looked convincing enough in those roles and his martial arts skills are improving. But, I cannot help but feel cheated though by the lack of material for Yuen alumnus like Michelle Yeoh and martial art icons like Gordon Liu. Yes, they are supporting roles but for fans of these actors, who know what they can do and have done in martial arts film, you may also feel cheated out of the chance to see them once again limber up, kick ass and chew bubble gum.
True Legend is a welcome return for Yuen Woo-ping behind the camera. Though plagued with an over ambitious and unbalanced script Yuen gave himself plenty of opportunity to create some awesome action sequences and prove once again why he is the Master and why we should tremble in his wake.
- Woo-Ping Yuen
- Chi-long To (screenplay)
- Wenzhuo Zhao
- Xun Zhou
- Andy On
- Xiaodong Guo