Every generation gets the Wong Fei-hung they deserve. A fin-de-siècle doctor and martial arts instructor, the real life Wong has been inspiring cinematic incarnations for most of the history of Hong Kong’s film industry. The first was in a series of productions running form the late 1940s to the mid 1960s, where Wong was played by Kwan Tak-hing as the embodiment of Confucian masculine values. Dignified, somewhat aged, even-handed, and scrupulous, Kwan played Wong in an astounding 77 films (at least), between 1949’s The True Story of Wong Fei-hung: Whiplash Snuffs the Candle Flame and 1981’s Dreadnaught, which is surely some kind of a record. A generation of actors and stuntmen, choreographers and directors (most notably Lau Kar-leung and Yuen Woo-ping) got their starts training on the Wong Fei-hung films, which served roughly the same role for Hong Kong action cinema that Roger Corman’s exploitation films did for the New Hollywood.
Lau Kar-leung put his twist on the character with Gordon Liu starring as a young student Wong in Challenge of the Masters in 1976 and as a somewhat older man striving after nonviolent resolutions to the deadly rivalries of the kung fu world in 1981’s Martial Club. Yuen Woo-ping and his father Yuen Siu-tien, who also worked on the Kwan Tak-hing series, upended the Wong Fei-hung mythos in 1978 with Drunken Master, in which a young Jackie Chan plays Wong as an impetuous, vulgar, undisciplined youth who is beaten into shape by the eponymous instructor (played by the elder Yuen), kicking off an era of irreverent kung fu comedy hybrids and launching Chan as a superstar. Tsui Hark revised the legend again in 1991 with his Once Upon a Time in China series, in which Jet Li played the hero with a mix of Kwan’s grace and nobility, Chan’s youthfulness, and Li’s own awkward romanticism. Now, Roy Chow gives us Rise of the Legend, with Eddie Peng playing Wong as a brooding, blood-spattered young warrior, desperately fighting against the nihilistic hell that is Guangzhou’s Pearl River Delta in the late 19th century.
Following a generic cop/Triad movie template, Wong goes deep undercover to infiltrate the leading gang controlling the wharf. Proving his toughness and resiliency in a series of gruesome brawls (in the opening fight, he uses a bag containing the severed head of a rival gang leader as a weapon), Wong earns the trust of the gang leader, played by none other than the great Sammo Hung, the Charles Laughton of kung fu cinema. Well into his 60s, Sammo carries a dramatic weight far exceeding even his own now-prodigious belly. He is always the most compelling element on-screen, his 50 years of movie experience having taught him the virtues of minimalism: while Eddie Peng strains and grunts for dramatic emphasis, Sammo knows the power of stillness (so too does Tony Leung Ka-fai, who briefly plays Fei-hung’s father Wong Kei-ying). As Wong’s scheme unfolds (he turns the gang’s middle-managers against each other and, with the help of his childhood friends on the outside, conspires to destroy the gang from within while the populace without rises against it in revolution), director Chow finds a few quiet moments for the other cast members, most notably Angelababy (who continues to prove herself as one of the better young actresses in Hong Kong) and Wang Luodan as the two women who love Wong (this version of the hero is, for the first time, completely sexualized — not only is it implied that he has a physical relationship with Angelababy’s prostitute, but the camera repeatedly finds him with his shirt half torn, Peng’s muscles rippling like a kung fu Fabio).
While the plotting has more in common with contemporary crime films (Infernal Affairs especially seems an inspiration), the film builds to a climax recalling some of the best Wong Fei-hung films of the past. The sense of communal rebellion against the enmeshed corruptions of government, gang, and gweilo can be found in the early 90s cycle, in Tsui Hark’s tours of Chinese history from the Boxer Rebellion through the 1911 revolutions well as Jackie Chan’s war against imperialist industrialism in Lau Kar-leung’s 1994 film Drunken Master II. Action director Corey Yuen, the craziest choreographer in cinema history, fashions an homage to the fiery finale of Yuen Woo-ping’s Iron Monkey (in which a child Fei-hung and his father meet and help out an inspiring masked hero), which featured the three principle stars fighting it out atop wooden poles above a raging fire. Digital effects allow Chow to give us Sammo Hung and Eddie Peng locked in a beautifully performed and choreographed battle in the midst of an inferno, yet the obvious unreality of the effects creates an odd sort of disconnect, the kind which plagues much contemporary Hong Kong cinema.
The primary virtue of the kung fu film for decades has been its promise of verisimilitude: the idea that Jackie Chan does all his own stunts, that Bruce Lee hasn’t been artificially sped-up by camera tricks. This has distinguished it from the wuxia genre, in which special effect-driven fantasy is part of a comic book evocation of a bygone martial world. But the Once Upon a Time in China series, which mixed Jet Li’s obvious physical and performative skills with quick editing and wire-stunts, began to break down this distinction, and the post-Matrix visual effects world has completely obliterated it. On the one hand, the new effects have given us dazzling wuxias like Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers, pop art masterpieces like Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee films, wildly imaginative kung fu romps like Stephen Fung’s Tai Chi Zero series, and goofy profundities like Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. But there has also been a series of films over the past half decade that have sought to integrate the new technology with the traditional kung fu film, all with middling results.
Andrew Lau and Donnie Yen’s Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, a 2010 variation on the mythology of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, is the most successful, building a superhero film out of a digital facsimile of 1930s Shanghai. Its fight scenes are nonetheless driven by star/choreographer Yen’s commitment to old school physicality. Wong Ching-po’s 2014 Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is less successful, a remake of Chang Cheh’s 1971 The Boxer from Shantung, that mixes some lovely fights (and plenty of Bruce Lee homage) with a grimy grey dullness meant to evoke black and white cinema. The fights are digitally sped up and slowed down, an effect which when used sparingly can be breathtaking (The Matrix, for example), but which when used too much makes every movement seem utterly phony. Rise of the Legend suffers from the same speed problems, and this is especially detrimental to Sammo Hung’s performance: his acting aside, what has always made him so astounding an action star is the apparent disconnect between his physical skill and his personal rotundity — it shouldn’t be possible for a fat man to move and leap with the grace and quickness Sammo could, and yet it was. He is, of course, in his 60s now, but his fighting is so digitally enhanced that it is impossible to tell where the computers ends and the real Sammo begins. 62 year old Sammo Hung simply should not move like Yoda circa Attack of the Clones and a movie that tries to convince us that he does is doomed to failure.
At the same time, Rise of the Legend is less driven by nostalgia than those other two films, truly presenting a new vision of the old myths, albeit a vision informed less by a reimagining of old heroes for a new age than by contemporary American superhero films. Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder loom large over the film’s hyperbolic grittiness, one longs for the joy of making cinema evident in even the cheapest Yuen Woo-ping products (say, Legend of the Fighter or Miracle Fighters) and even at its best the film rises only to the visual zero point that is Disney’s Marvel sagas. The Nolans and Snyders are what we get here in America, their illusion of seriousness earning them more popular support and critical respect than the truly interesting superhero films of this era (Ang Lee’s Hulk, The Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending, Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns). Let us hope the same fate doesn’t befall Chinese action cinema.