Saturday, May 14, 2011

True Legend (2011)

A badass, throwback Wuxia film, this Chinese kung fu saga tells the story of Su, a war hero who suffers the consequences of handing to his adopted brother, a bitter, venom-poisoned sociopath, his rightful governorship. The opening of the film is an elaborate mountain-set battle scene establishing Su as a stalwart, capable warrior. The initial melodrama moves along quickly; within 20 or so minutes, Su has risen and fallen as a hero, his villainous step-brother has already declared his intentions, and the stakes (the step-brother is in custody of Su's son) are established. Broken and deprived of the use of his right arm, Su heals in the mountains with his wife (and a holy doctor, played by Michelle Yeoh) until he is confronted by The God Of Wushu, a mystical figure who taunts him and assures him that until he can conquer him in battle, he will not be ready for his step-brother. It is here that the story becomes slightly more complex; rather than being a straight-forward wuxia revenge flick, this is just as much about Su conquering his own demons as it is about beating up bad guys. The narrative takes its time to get to its climax, and when you think the film is about to end, it has another chapter, about the West's corrupting influence in the region, that deviates from the rest of the film. However, the central theme of Su living up to his potential, and disregarding his fears, longings, and insecurities to be the best warrior (and father) he can be.

The cast is dedicated, effective, and in tune with the material; the flippant, "I have somewhere else to be" attitude of some Shaw Bros. actors is nowhere to be seen here. Vincent Zhao, as Su, goes through several remarkable character changes, and handles them, both physically and emotionally, with aplomb. Andy On is despicable and terrifying as the villainous step-brother; his physical prowess and shocking training methods keep the tension and forward momentum of the narrative going for a large chunk of the film. In smaller roles, Michelle Yeoh, Jay Chou (as the God of Wushu), and a certain late, great Western martial arts figure (who, singlehandedly, saves the last 20 minutes of the film) add a degree of class and pedigree to what could, on the surface, be easily dismissed as a throwaway kung-fu import. The other key element that separates this from your average Eastern beat-'em-up is the spectacular fighting choreography. Director Yuen Woo Ping's name is synonymous with large-scale, balletic kung-fu; aside from his legendary directorial credits, like Drunken Master, and my personal favorite, Iron Monkey, he provided the choreography for flicks like Kill Bill, The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Fist of Legend, Kung Fu Hustle, and Once Upon A Time in China. He brings his legendary expertise here, with a plethora of fights that come fast and furious like Dom Toretto, each one crucially different than the last. Andy On's 5 venom fist, in particular, is a scary and awe-inspiring delight. The story is strong, and holds up (until the end), but the dynamic fighting is what makes this film occasionally pop off the screen and transcend into something signature and memorable.

Recommended for fans of large-scale Wuxia flicks like Iron Monkey or Fearless. I do not know if it contains enough universal appeal to crossover to western audiences (the crowd I saw it with seemed unsure of how to react, with genuine applause and inappropriate ironic laughter being expressed equally), but I certainly found it to be a remarkable, graciously old-school Wuxia tale.

P.S. This movie is shot REALLY well for any film, let alone an action flick. The skies, mountains, and sets of this movie are fantastic, and will tickle any of the photographically inclined who end up seeing it.

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