Film review: Yuen Woo-ping’s True Legend (1.5 stars)

Yuen Woo-ping is a true legend in his own right.

The 66-year-old famed fight choreographer shaped Hong Kong action cinema. His films launched Jackie Chan’s career, and his martial arts sequences have made indelible impressions on audiences, including tree-top sword fights in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, back-bending,bullet-dodging sequences in The Matrix and samurai sword-swinging scenes in Kill Bill.

After a 15-year hiatus from the director’s seat, Yuen returns with True Legend, a saga about the Chinese folk character, Beggar Su, a master of drunken boxing. The year is 1861 and Su, a former general, spends his days practising wushu in the courtyard while his wife and son sing and draw. But his peace is destroyed when his evil foster brother, Yuan, murders their father.

Film and television star Vincent Zhao, who plays Su, has such a friendly face that his tirade against the killer is tantamount to a teacher giving a terse lecture. On the flip side, with his slate pallor and gold armour sewn into his flesh, Yuan (Andy On) looks like a cross between a video game super villain and a member of the Blue Man Group.

It becomes apparent that what Yuen really wanted to create was legendary fight scenes. He pits brother against brother on the edge of a roaring waterfall (Yuen actually constructed a set next to the Hukou Waterfall for this sequence). He pits Su against the God of Wushu, portrayed by Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou (The Green Hornet) in a series of lacklustre, computer-generated battles in a mountainous dream world.

But Yuen’s film is missing what its title promises: truth, with its inauthentic, superficial characters and then an icon, with its unsympathetic and kind of boring hero.

You never know whether Su’s fights with the God of Wushu are real or a figment of his very drunk and crazy imagination. You don’t connect with the man who would rather lament the loss of his wife in a wine-induced stupor than care for his son (though, as a spectator, I also grieved the death of the most expressive, most relatable character in the film, Ying, played by the lovely Zhou Xun).

Yuen also wastes Michelle Yeoh (who he directed in the fun 1994 film Wing Chun) and kung fu master Gordon Liu (who he choreographed in both Kill Bill films). In True Legend, Yeoh does little but mix medicine and take Su’s pulse and Liu does nothing but laugh annoyingly and observe Su during the requisite training montages.

The truly strange kicker in this epic is that Su’s clashes with the God of Wushu give him the skills to defeat his brother -with 30 minutes left to go in the film. With the main villain beaten black and, well, more blue, what is there left to do?

Yuen pits Su against the real enemies: fair-skinned foreigners, namely muscle monsters in a WWE-worthy brawl. Borrowing the clichéd idea from Jet Li’s Fearless (which he choreographed in 2006) and Donnie Yen’s Ip Man 2, Su must defend Chinese honour in an arena full of colonizers, personified in this case by David Carradine in one of his last film roles before his death.

The martial arts choreography is top-notch (bonus points for filming and lighting a fight scene in a snake pit); however, the clumsy inclusion of 3-D elements (the film shows in both 2-D and 3-D) may explain the gratuitous use of close-ups and slow-motion shots, such as Su and Yuan smashing a million jugs of wine in a cellar. Is this a wet T-shirt contest or a brawl?

To appreciate the legend of Yuen Woo-ping, one should skip this film and go back into the archives. 1½ stars

True Legend opens June 17 select theatres in Toronto and Vancouver.

This review was originally published in the National Post June 17, 2011.

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