|After taking a decade-long detour through Hollywood, Yuen Woo-Ping is back in the director's chair with True Legend. Re-envisioning the legend of folklore hero Beggar So, whose past history with Hong Kong Cinema have included appearances as Wong Fei-Hung's master in Drunken Master (also directed by Yuen) and as the leader of the Beggar Clan in King of Beggars (where he was played by Stephen Chow), True Legend blends an old-school Shaw Brothers actioner with a modern, patriotic action film not unlike Fearless. The result is like mixing oil and water.
True Legend not only marks the return of Yuen the director, but also the return of Vincent Zhao Wen-Zhou (The Blade) to the big screen after years of slumming on Chinese television dramas. Zhao plays Su Can, an honorable Qing court warrior in 1861 China who, at the beginning of the film, leads a daring rescue of a prince. As fast as you can say Gladiator, Su turns down a reward and promotion to start a family. Deciding to devote his life to perfecting his martial arts, Su hands the reins of power to his adopted brother Yuan (Andy On).
Five years later, Su is married to Yuan's sister Ying (Zhou Xun), and the two live happily with thier son. However, their domestic bliss is abruptly cut short when Yuan arrives at their doorstep looking a lot different than his old handsome self. Yuan has spent the last five years mastering the Five Venoms Fist, which involves scorpions stinging him every day, and he's also had armor sewn directly into his skin. The reason for his extreme behavior: years ago, Su's father (Leung Ka-Yan) killed Yuan's father before adopting Yuan out of sympathy. Yuan still remembers, and gets his revenge by killing Su's father and dropping Su into a raging river. Thanks to Ying and a local medicine healer (Michelle Yeoh), Su stays alive but loses his kung-fu. Now hiding out in the mountains, Su will need to recover his fighting mojo in order to avenge his father and get his son back from creepy Uncle Yuan.
For the first two-thirds of True Legend, Yuen Woo-Ping blends old-school martial arts film techniques (It's the return of the Shaw Brothers-style zoom!) with modern production values, creating a film that's unexpectedly polished and yet retains traditional aesthetics. The script by Christine "writer of Murderer" To is straightforward and simple, but also gives Yuen plenty of action scenes to work with. Despite Yuen's weakness in handling the dramatic scenes, he easily compensates with the fights, capturing a degree of intensity that makes them impressive to watch.
Yuen's accomplishment also owes a lot to his star. Zhao Wen-Zhou lacks the charisma to make him a solid leading man, but he shows that he's still a great martial artist with a strong physical presence. Zhou Xun does all that she can with her supportive wife role; the character is essentially relegated to the background, but she effectively gives the story its emotional impact. Truly wasted, however, are big martial arts names Michelle Yeoh and Gordon Liu, who only appear for short scenes without any real fighting. Instead, the big cameo actor who gets to bust a couple of moves is pop star Jay Chou as the campy-looking "God of Wushu", who helps Su Can invent the legendary Drunken Fist in a series of wire-assisted training sequences.
True Legend is far from perfect up to this point, but it's an entertaining and satisfying return to the martial arts films audiences know and love.
However, just when everything seems resolved, IT ALL GOES TO HELL. The story takes an abrupt turn, sending Su to a border town where Chinese martial artists are losting to big foreign fighters in a local tournament. True Legend intends to show how Su develops the famous Drunken Fist, but it chooses to do so in a typical, China-targeted commercial cinema manner - by having Su fight many evil foreigners. Despite Yuen Woo-Ping's consistently impressive bone-crunching action, the film's change from a pseudo-fantasy to a shameless clone of Fearless (also written and produced by many of the people involved with True Legend) is quite abrupt.
Sudden tonal shifts are a staple of commercial Hong Kong cinema, but doing so as a method to pander to a mass Chinese audience is simply off-putting, if not downright frustrating. Even recently-deceased American star David Carradine isn't spared embarrassment; as the conniving, racist boss of the foreigner fighters, the Kung Fu star spends all his screentime standing on the sidelines screaming the same racist terms over and over. Despite his not-so-glamorous role, the filmmakers dedicate the film to Carradine's memory anyway.
Sadly, the film doesn't allow audiences to simply leave the theater (or turn off the TV) after the second act, since the third act completes the evolution of the Drunken Fist - which may be the very reason many people are tuning in. Despite its disjointed pacing, True Legend does portray the transformation of its lead character in a complete, convincing and sometimes involving fashion, but it should've and could've done so without bringing in a sudden patriotic agenda. Yuen and To try so hard to elevate their film to epic status that their inability to do so seems worse in hindsight. However, True Legend is not a complete failure - it's just two-thirds successful.
(Kevin Ma, 2010)