Watching True Legend can be a frustrating experience. It is Yuen Woo-ping’s long-waited return to the director’s chair since 1996 and after making a huge name for himself in Hollywood. 14 years is a long time to wait for a new film from him and I’m afraid that it still has the problems I associate with the director…not to mention he has picked up a few new problems along the way.
True Legend‘s plot involves Su Can (Man Cheuk Chiu) who leads a military troop to save a prince from a large fortress of enemies in the mountains. In return, the prince promises that the Emperor will make him governor of Hu Bei. Su’s step brother Yuan (Andy On) is jealous but Su shows love and respect to Yuan and asks the prince to make Yuan governor instead. Five years later, Su has left the military life and is attempting to perfect Wu Shu while living with his wife Ying (Xun Zhou) and their child, Feng. Yuan returns from to the family to seek revenge as he has learned that Su’s father killed Yuan’s father. Yuan has mastered an evil martial arts technique called the Five Venom Fists. Unaware of Yuan’s revenge, Su has a welcome party for him but Yuan gets his revenge by decapitating Su’s father. He expresses his desire to be with his sister and her son as a family. Su finds his father murdered and is ambushed by a pair of ninjas. After fighting them off, Yuan manages to take Ying and Feng and escape. Wuan catches up with him near a raging river, where Ying is hit with the Five Venom fist and tossed into the rapids. Ying jumps in after him and recovers next to an unconcious Wuan in forested mountain area. Wuan is revived by Sister Yu (Michelle Yeoh).
Plot break! So far so good right? This first part of True Legend is pretty enjoyable and I was surprised how much I was enjoying it. Some scenes are really beautifully shot, specifically the wide mountain ranges and a great fight scene at the Hukou Waterfall.
This video below showcases the waterfall:
The Hukou waterfall. You have to imagine in Andy On fighting over it yourself.
The plot so far is no great shakes, but it’s enjoyable in a Shaw Brothers style and has solid looking production values. The CG work so far is kept to a minimum with CG daggers being tossed and avoided and it isn’t terribly distracting. The only completely intolerable effect so far is seeing Su Can being tossed into the raging river which. This would have been so much more effective with some clever editing instead of the lame special effect which resembles them vanishing before they hit the water. Yuan’s Five Venom Fist has given his skin a purple tinged veiny look which is cornball, but Andy On is totally scenery chewing in this role so it suits his over the top character. Speaking of the actors, Man Cheuk Chiu is not as strong as one would hope as the lead. This is his first feature film performance in a few years and I wish it was a bit more charismatic.
As we return to the plot in True Legend, the film really begins to fall apart. As soon as we get to the mountain, we have run into an old problem from the past that has always plagued Yuen-woo Ping films: the drama. The story begins to lose itself as Su Can begins to encounter the Wu Shu Gods (played by Gordon Liu and Jay Chou)…or does he? There’s a story involving that he may have gone crazy while training but it’s poorly developed and doesn’t really relate as the story progresses. Did I mention that Man Cheuk Chiu is fighting Jay Chou on an ugly CG mountain range? The mountain looks particularly fake especially in contrast with the gorgeous shots of the real mountains and rivers seen earlier in the film. Jay Chou as the God of Wu Shu is appointment’s: He uses some fancy weaponry, but the more talented players (namely Liu and Yeoh) are wasted by just making brief appearances here and do not get a chance to flex their action abilities. This is particularly unfortunate considering how much Yeoh is promoted as being in the film on the Chinese posters. You know who gets much more screen time?
This…kid…bah. Prepare for him crying, shouting, screaming and whining if you sit down for True Legend. He’s used to very excessive melodramatic effect to try and squeeze some emotion from the audience. I don’t have any sympathy for him at all and was sighing with relief when the scenes with him end.
Continuing with the plot, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that Man Cheuk Chiu goes to rescue the little brat from Yuan where the two have a decent battle which includes a fight within a well and him ripping off Andy On’s armor to a gory effect. This fight scene also confusing includes several pots being broken. I mean a lot! True Legend was shown partially in 3D in China, and I must assume that this is one of the 3D scenes as it get increasingly funny watching pot after pot being smashed. A final fight with Yuan sounds like a good end to an already overlong film, but there is a very unnecessary second act tacked on involving Yuan and the horrible child. This scene is not terribly related to the previous scenes and involves Yuan going up against a group of Russian wrestlers. Sounds cool on paper but once you find out that wrestlers who are mostly able to just grapple and choke their way through a fight, it’s not exactly a visually entertaining choreography. This scene also has David Carridine in it as the anti-Chinese head of the wrestlers. I’ll assume he’s anti-Russian as well as he seems to keep his wrestlers in cages before the match. In the print I saw, the film is dedicated to Carradine which feels very strange to me.
That’s True Legend in a nutshell. Strong first bit, and then totally crumbling after. I wonder if other powers at be had their hand in True Legend. Yuen stated in an interview with Variety that he preferred to shoot on real locations as others would look fake. Then why shoot God of Wu Shu battle scene on this horrible CG mountain? I suppose it doesn’t matter too much as with or without special effects, True Legend completely loses itself as they hit the mountain range. Perhaps get a good script Yuen and a better cast and you’ll be back on track.