A title like this one could be seen as either portentous or incredibly bland and the one-sentence synopsis on the back of the box doesn’t give much away. The major point of interest in Rise of the Legend sounds like it’s Sammo Hung playing the big bad, but it turns out this is actually a gritty origin story for the legendary Wong Fei-hung.
At the time of this film’s release another notable folk hero, Wing Chun master Ip Man, was enjoying some time in the cinematic sun, kicked off by the 2008 effort directed by Wilson Yip and starring Donnie Yen. It probably seemed like a good time therefore to offer a fresh take on Chinese cinema’s most enduring hero, coming off Wong Fei-hung’s longest silver screen hiatus since Kwan Tak-Hing first played the celebrated doctor and martial artist on screen in The True Story of Wong Fei-hung, Part One in 1949. To expand on a relevant famous quote: Heroes get remembered, but legends never die… they just get rebooted.
Perhaps borrowing from The Grandmaster, another Ip Man film, Rise of the Legend opens in the thick of things with a fight between one man and a mob in a city street in the rain, except it takes place in daylight rather than neon-lit night. The scene makes one thing clear: This version of Wong Fei-hung is not pulling any punches.
It’s 1868 in Guangzhou and The Black Tiger Gang and the North Sea Gang battle for control of the docks in order to profit from foreign trade, making life miserable for their fellow Chinese in the midst of an already turbulent time. It’s a classic Once Upon a Time in China setup, but very different in the… execution. Wong Fei-hung’s goal here is to kill all the bad guys.
As simple as the motivation is, it’s an involved story, with plenty of intrigue and threat on all sides. “Little Fei” (Eddie Peng) infiltrates the Black Tiger Gang, overseen by Master Lei (Sammo Hung), in order to dismantle the criminal hold on the city from the inside. Meanwhile his childhood buddies Chun (Wang Luodan) and Fiery (Jing Boran) lead a resourceful gang of orphans of all ages, ready to act on info passed along by Little Fei. Flashbacks neatly tied to moments from the present flesh out the plan and its emotional underpinnings, giving a glimpse of Fei’s upbringing with his father (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and time with Fiery in a mountain monastery.
It’s a cruel setting; dominated by vice and squalor, populated by the villainous and the downtrodden. There’s scant smiling or laughter to be found here. A few lucky children find sanctuary with the Orphan Gang, but most are either on the streets, sold into prostitution or dead. Potential romantic lightness is restrained, with Little Fei the crux of what is, given the number of people involved and how lopsided it is in his favour, more a love rhombus than a love triangle. It all fades into the background though. There’s more important stuff to sort out.
The group carries out some community service oriented deeds, like burning down an opium den, but there’s so much killing along the way. The film tries to justify the actions of Little Fei and co through their traumatic background but fumbles the point in a key scene, although this may be due to translation issues. The monk-imparted lesson to the young and furious Little Fei and Fiery is that “True Vengeance is to save lives! To save people from the flames of hell!” This odd wording seems to be the best motivation that can be attributed to our heroes, if read as defending the destitute by taking the fight to tyranny with force. A lot of force.
That opening scene in the rain gives a taste of the action style throughout the rest of the film. The overall aesthetic, as put together by action director Corey Yuen, is to be as high impact as possible. It’s the kind of film where props explode into smithereens when struck and flying objects are embedded in walls and posts. The action speeds up, slows down, or skips movements to amplify contact and accentuate near misses. Some POV shots are thrown in from time to time and there is liberal wire-gliding and effects work as well, such as slight screen shake when blows connect. There’s even the full Matrix style bullet time spin. It’s a wild mix but crucially, while it’s extremely showy and has little to do with real martial arts, the action is clearly cut together and easy to follow. The sound amps up the visuals too, being like a bite of a perfect peanut butter and jam sandwich — crunchy and squelchy at the same time.
All told it’s a decent gritty period actioner done in a modern style with superb production standards, but it feels wrong for the character. If asked the question “What would Wong Fei-hung do?”, based on previous depictions, no-one would answer “Kill all the bad guys.” The tricky situations he finds himself caught up in are seldom solved by a straight fight, and even when he takes lives it’s a last resort. He’s also been portrayed as a wayward youth before (see Challenge of the Masters and Drunken Master) but never as a conflicted anti-hero. There are enough of those to go around at this point in entertainment history without reinterpreting one of cinema’s greatest paragons of virtue. The idea is for him to grow into that character, but when Little Fei adopts the recognisable Wong Fei-hung persona near the film’s end, it feels unearned. It’s too great an arc for one film to cover given where the character starts off, and suddenly hammering the famous song that’s become associated with the character doesn’t make him so. (The striking original score by Shigeru Umebayashi is otherwise very good.) Some references and iconography would have to be removed, but if this Wong Fei-hung were given a different name, the film would hardly suffer.
If the dissonance in this portrayal of a beloved folk hero is not a problem there’s an intriguing film to watch here — at times beautiful, at times brutal. If the thought of Wong Fei-hung ticking off a kill list is not your cup of tea however, there’s a large back catalogue out there to (re)discover.