The announcement of “True Legend” unsurprisingly caused considerable excitement amongst martial arts fans, given that it saw Yuen Woo Ping, arguably still the world’s best action choreographer, returning to the director’s chair for the first time in 14 years. As if this wasn’t enough, the film was also the first Chinese genre production to make the leap into 3D technology, potentially pushing its fight scenes to a new level of impact. The film’s impeccable pedigree was confirmed by a script from “Fearless” scribe Christine To, and a cast headlined by Vincent Zhao (from the “Once Upon a Time in China” series), Andy On, Zhou Xun, Jay Chou, and Michelle Yeoh, not to mention appearances from the likes of Guo Xiaodong, Shaw Brothers veteran Gordon Liu, Leung Ka Yan, rising starlet Jiang Luxia, real-life boxing champion Cung Le, and “Kill Bill” star David Carradine – all of which combined to make the film the most highly anticipated genre epic for some time.
The film follows the life of martial arts legend Beggar Su (Zhao), beginning as his half brother Yuan Lie (Andy On) turns against him and his family, killing his father and taking his son prisoner. Being unable to beat his enemy and his unstoppable ‘5 Venom Fist’ style sends Su into a great depression, and he turns to drink, living with his wife (Zhou Xun) in exile. Gradually, his passion for martial arts and his desire for revenge return, and he goes into training with the possibly imaginary God of Wushu (Jay Chou), honing his ‘Drunken Fist’ skills and preparing for the coming battle.
“True Legend” is basically a film of two parts, the first charting Su’s development of his skills and taking on Yuan Lie, and then following his later life as a wandering drunk who eventually find purpose and redemption. Oddly, despite this and its epic feel, spanning as it does several important time periods in Chinese history, the film doesn’t really have the feel of a biopic, not that this makes it any less interesting. Indeed, the fact that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously and that it lacks any air of self importance allows it to work more as a straight piece of martial arts action, with its various fantasy elements combining well with its vaguely grounded setting. This certainly helps during the latter stages, when the film heads into territory suspiciously similar to the last act of “Fearless”, pitting Su against a series of gimmicky Western warriors and wrestlers in area combat.
Obviously, the film’s main draw is its martial arts, and it certainly does not disappoint, serving up pretty much non-stop action in one form or another. Yuen Woo Ping is on great form, and the film is kinetic, fast moving and fun, with some very imaginative choreography marking most of its set pieces. On DVD at least, the 3D technology doesn’t count for much, though thankfully it is not used too cheaply or too often. Somewhat less impressive is its occasional overreliance on CGI effects, both for the backgrounds, and to enhance the fight scenes, when perhaps some old school wire might have worked better. Although this is not pushed to the point of overload, as with the Pang Brothers’ recent “The Storm Warriors”, it does disconnect the viewer from the proceedings at times. Whilst the film is surprisingly violent and gory in places, the use of computer blood also detracts a little from the impact, though thankfully there are still more than enough traditional fight scenes to compensate, and the film does have more of a visceral impact than most other modern martial arts costume epics.
All of the cast are on great form, with Vincent Zhao doing a good job in the lead, with his Beggar Su benefitting from not being too white washed, making his journey to true hero all the more rewarding. Andy On also deserves special mention for his bizarre performance as the villain, done up in ghoulishly pale makeup, having armour sewn into his skin, and training by putting his hands in bowls of snakes and scorpions. The appearance of David Carradine (who sadly passed away during post-production) is very welcome, as he adds a touch of class to all of his scenes, and is immeasurably better than the usual western non-actors who tend to turn up in Asian films.
“True Legend” certainly is a cut above in general, and is definitely one of the better martial arts epics of the last few years. Although a bit too close to “Fearless” in places and featuring a little too much in the way of CGI, it entertains throughout, and makes for fun, exciting viewing.
Woo-ping Yuen (director) / Chi-long To (screenplay)
CAST: Man Cheuk Chiu … Su Can / Su Qi-Er
Xun Zhou … Yuan Ying
Michelle Yeoh … Sister Yu
Xiaogang Feng … Pickpocket
Andy On … Yuan Lie
Luxia Jiang … Iron Maiden
Chia Hui Liu … Bearded Man
Ka-Yan Leung … Su Wan-Kun