By Dr. Craig D. Reid
As the years go by, the biggest challenge facing Chinese martial arts movies is for the fight directors and their choreographers to keep coming up with creative fight scenes that don’t rehash what they’ve been doing for over 30 years. Then with the advent of Hong Kong’s famously mind blowing wire work during the early 1980s (fight director/choreographer Ching Siu-tung being the father of what is now labelled wire-fu), the appreciation for the derring do stuntmen that precariously hung 30 feet in the air and plummeted like yo-yos on piano wire is waning as current special visual effects technology seemingly to the audience puts the stuntmen in “less danger.”
From the martial arts action point of view, the Chinese Fant-Asia flick True Legend certainly accepts the challenges that this film genre faces today, and does so by successfully combining the best choreography and wire-fu tactics created by Chinese kung fu cinema during each decade starting from the 1970s.
At the end of the day, what better man is there today in the Chinese kung fu film industry that has been around since the 1960s, has been an integral part in the development of all the fight choreography and wire work techniques since the dawn of that “ancient” technology…been there, done that…and is still going strong in 2011? True Legend director Yuen Woo-ping.
Ironically though that is also one of the film’s weaknesses because where Yuen is an exemplary fight director who can combine all the best of the best fight choreography methods and still holds the blow torch that can keep the creative fight fires burning, as a film director, Yuen’s directing skills are still stuck in 1970s kung fu film mode. This mode worked back then, but with today’s more savvy audiences, the flame is chasing waterfalls.
The beauty or drawback of Chinese martial arts productions like True Legend, movies that start off with limited American distribution more than one year after the film has played its course in Asia and die-hard kung fu films fans world wide by now have seen it on DVD, is that tons of reviews already exist. Thus my storyline description will be minimal.
True Legend (mandarin Chinese title Su Qi-er) is loosely based on real life Chinese martial arts hero Beggar Su (aka Su Qi-er, So Chan, Su Tsao and other romanizations too many to list) who was one of the famous Ten Tigers of Canton anti-Ching rebels. After Su (Zhao Wen-zhuo; aka Vincent Zhao) saves the life of a Ching Dynasty prince, Su politely defers the opportunity to become a government official to his best friend Yuan (Andy On), citing that his life’s path is to continue martial arts training, begin a family with Yuan’s sister Ying and open a kung fu school. In the past, Su’s father killed Yuan’s evil father prompting him to raise Yuan and Ying like his own children. Yuan has never forgiven Su’s father for this despicable act.
After five years as a government official and practicing the black art Five Venom Fist, a skill where a practitioner’s body can exude poisonous Qi (life energy) into a person thus killing them, Yuan kills Su’s father and kidnaps Su’s wife and child. When Su tries to rescue Ying and his son, Yuan poisons Su and throws him into the torrid Yellow River. The loyal Ying jumps into the river to die with Su, leaving her frightened son to be raised by Yuan. It’s an unwitting full circle for Yuan, raising the child of a father he killed.
Further downstream, Ying and the broken Su are rescued by the benevolent herbal doctor/acupuncturist Dr. Yu (Michele Yeoh), where in return for her help and giving them a place to recover, Ying makes delicious wine for Yu that she also uses for healing experiments in local nearby villages. Thus the stage is set for Su to become an alcoholic, create drunken kung fu, rescue his son from Yuan and later in life to use his drunken style to bring honor to China by defeating violently evil Russian wrestlers bent on culling the spirit of the Chinese people.
The screenplay really is not a three act structure with a definitive conclusion that brings the whole story to a climactic and fitting resolution. Instead it’s a collection of three separate acts, which lacks a logical ending that ties up all the loose ends. Character development is weak, the child actor playing Su’s son acts like every kid cast in Chinese kung fu film since the 1960s (whining, pouting and forced), and the final act with Su fighting muscle bound Russian wrestlers led by an obnoxious, racist promoter wastefully played by David Carradine makes as much sense as Osama Bin Laden loving America.
Since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, one of the problems of period piece Chinese films is that the West quickly accepts these stories as historically accurate. According to True Legend, the movie takes place in 1861, toward the end of the Ching Dynasty, where China is in dire straights. The film doesn’t explain what is going on in China during 1861 except that longhaired vagabonds are holding a Ching official hostage is some far-out, inaccessible mountainous or cavernous hideout that looks like something out of a sci-fi/horror film. Furthermore, the Ching Dynasty ended in 1912, 51 years later, so it really wasn’t near the end.
Historically, in 1861, the Ching Dynasty was dealing with the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), which was led by Hong Xi-chuen who believed he was the brother of Jesus Christ and was trying to stop slavery, opium smoking, arranged marriages, torture, footbinding and idol worship. About 30 million Chinese people died as a result of this uprising. Sharing this with the audience would have added reality and brevity to the backstory.
In reality, Beggar Su was born in Hunan province and made a living by performing martial arts in the street with his sister. When they eventually arrived in Canton he opened a martial arts school. An expert of Shaolin pole techniques, he preferred the life of a wanderer. Donnie Yen played Su in Heroes among Heroes (1993; mandarin title Su Qi-her, the same Chinese title as True Legend), which was also directed by Yuen Woo-ping. Although it was a satirical comedy, Stephen Chow’s rendition of Beggar Su in King of the Beggars (1993) reveals bits about the how and the why Su Qi-er became a beggar and chose to keep the lifestyle. In 1978, Shaw Brothers acting and fight directing legend Philip Kwok (Guo Zui in Mandarin) played Su in Chang Cheh’s Ten Tigers of Kwangtung (Canton) adding a more operatic and gymnastic tone to Su’s martial arts, which in reality may be a more realistic rendition of Su’s abilities since he was originally a street performer and they were known for their acrobatic skills.
But undoubtedly the first film that featured Beggar Su is also the most memorable, the Woo-ping directed, Jackie Chan starring Drunken Master (1978), where Su (played by Woo-ping’s father Yuen Xiao-tian), who teaches Chan’s character drunken kung fu, is portrayed as an old, gray-haired sot dressed in a floppy hat, holey kung fu shoes and ragged clothing. He fights best when he’s drunk as a skunk. The movie created a genre of martial arts films called Suexploitation, where a similar raggedly old man would teach the film’s hero how to fight and defeat some vile villain.
As would be expected, the martial arts fights created by Woo-ping and his fight crew alone are worth the watch of the film. The opening sequence in the lair of the kidnappers is the weakest fight. It’s shot with tight camera angles, minimal lighting, uses choppy editing with only a few techniques per shot, and incorporates wire-work amidst a CGI set (removes that feeling of danger). The main fight in that sequence was between American MMA fighter Cung Le and Zhao, which would explain all the camera trickery in order to hide Cung Le’s inexperience as a film fighter.
The drunken style created by Woo-ping in the film is more wushu looking than traditional drunken fist, which is due to Zhao’s martial arts background being similar to Jet Li’s; a former wushu athlete. The true danger for the actors and their stunt doubles during the wire work infused fight scene between Su and Yuan on a platform that hangs over the raging Yellow River is as real and scary as jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. It’s old school late 1980s crazy wife fu that will leave you breathless. Look for the nod to the Chinese God Na Cha, who was known for his weapon expertise wielding a golden ring and spear.
In case you’re wondering about the Five Venom Fist technique, it’s partially real. The first appearance of this skill is touched upon in the 1976 Shaw Brothers film The Web of Death, but reached cult status in the West with The Five Venoms (1978). In reality, it’s considered an evil technique where a practitioner strikes their hands into a burning cauldron of iron fillings or pellets that are covered in poison, so the poison is absorbed into the skin and can be release upon striking. The danger to the practitioner is if they practice with ill intent to hurt or kill someone, the body’s energy (Qi) will eventually wither away the body parts that underwent the training. My kung fu teacher had a kung fu brother who learned the skill and used it to hurt people. Ten years later the brother’s hand withered into a black graying-mass, with immovable fingers. It was gross to see.
So there you have the reel and the real martial arts history of True Legend. If you’re expecting a gripping story, great acting, tight writing, good dramatic directing or in becoming emotionally vested in the characters…it’s not going to happen. But like most Chinese Fant-Asia films, what ultimately sells them to the average moviegoer is the martial arts action, so from that perspective the film delivers and it is definitely a must see.