Yuen Woo Ping is probably best known in the U.S. as the action choreographer for The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Kill Bill. Fans of Hong Kong martial arts movies will also know him as the director of many films, including Drunken Master (1978) and Iron Monkey (1993). True Legend is the first movie he’s directed since 1996, and it has been getting a lot of fairly negative reviews, at least in the U.S. Having seen it, I’m not sure why the reaction as been so poor, although I’d agree that the film has some structural problems. I found the story and characters very engaging, and I thought the martial arts action was more than up to the master’s high standards.
The character of Beggar Su is apparently legendary in China, and he shows up in many films, including Drunken Master. He’s known as the inventor of the drunken style of kung fu or wushu. This film covers the story of how he arrived at this style. Su (played by Vincent Zhao) is a great general in the imperial army who retires to start a wushu school. His father once killed a villain and adopted his son and daughter. Su is married to his step-sister (played by Zhou Yun) and gives his high position to his step-brother (Andy On) when he retires from imperial service. The step-brother uses his new power to exact revenge against the man who killed his father, and Su is severely injured in the process.
There’s nothing much original about the story that is told. There’s a very strong you-killed-my-father-prepare-to-die component to the proceedings, but I found the interpersonal dynamics of the characters very well done. I particularly liked the portrayal of the loving relationship between Su and his wife, Ying. Zhou Yun does a good job with the rote character of the loving wife, bringing a forlorn tenderness and determination to the role that’s very winning. Vincent Zhao is also very good as Su, moving through a cycle of confidence, despair, redemption, and another fall into the abyss.
The structural problem comes with the resolution of the step-brother episode, when we suddenly shift to a completely different story in which Su has become a drunken beggar living on the China-Russia border. The shift in gears is not well executed, but once we get our bearings in the new situation, it becomes equally fascinating, if equally conventional. The story here is of a band of gweilo wrestlers led by an ironic David Carradine, in one of his last roles before he died, who are setting up matches with local Chinese fighters and killing them for sport and money. Su is too wasted on rice wine and despair to see what’s happening, but of course circumstances conspire to focus his attention.
Whether you’re able to accept the shift from one story to the next, if you are a fan of martial arts action I’d think you’d find enough in this movie to hold your attention. For me it was one of the better martial arts films since probably Kung Fu Hustle (2004), which also had action choreography by Yuen. The big shift in martial arts movies in the past decade has been the attempt to integrate CG effects into the action, and that resulted in a number of over-elaborate wuxia films, such as Tsui Hark’s Legend of Zu (2001) and Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and House of the Flying Daggers (2004), where the experiments with CG-driven action seemed too artificial to me. In True Legend, in contrast, Yuen is using CG as a supplement to the wirework he’s famous for, and he’s grounding it in the foot and hand technique that gives an illusion of realism, of human bodies at work, just as he’s done with wirework. Even when the action takes place in a completely CG environment, as during the wonderful training sequences where Su spars with the God of Wushu (Jay Chou) on giant statues the size of mountains, the sense of bodies slamming into stone and into other bodies is very powerful. The old editing techniques of Hong Kong martial arts films, where each individual component of action is shown in bursts of of a few frames each, each action leading smoothly — or violently — to the next, works just as well to give an illusion of continuity when bodies are held in the air by CG as when they’re held in the air by wires — or by a quick leap off a hidden trampoline, for that matter.
Which of course is an issue for people who don’t even like wirework or the fantastic idea, common in the wuxia genre, that people can fly using their chi power. I wasn’t really expecting it in this movie myself, and probably the least successful scene for me was the opening sequence in which a group of warriors climb an impossibly tall tower straight out of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (what the hell?) and start flying around in a chaotic series of incomprehensible maneuvers. On the other hand, the point at which I fell in love with the film was when Su first encounters the God of Wushu and the Old Sage (with a wispy white beard), one standing on one foot on the other’s head, running across the top of the tall grass, giggling like mad men — and then they turn around and run backward over the grass at the same speed. I knew I was in the classical wuxia world at that point, and that I was in for a fanciful ride. All the elements of the old stew are there — revenge, betrayal, training, tragic death, redemption, defeating the odds, sword fights, flying daggers, poison, misty mountains.
Well, it’s just a shame they didn’t find more for Michelle Yeoh to do. She’s still gravely lovely and gracious on the screen. Maybe I’ll have to track down Reign of Assassins, which also came out last year.