Movie Review: True Legend (2010)
“True Legend” seems like a typical revenge movie until it isn’t; then it slaps on a half hour coda that points the way toward other, better movies. But there’s a meta aspect I found intriguing.
First the plot, such as it is.
Su Can (Zhao Wenzhuo) is a general in 1860s China that’s overrun by foreigners in the wake of the Unequal Treaties. (Fodder for martial arts movie forever.) In a huge cavern, he almost singlehandedly rescues an imperial prince, then in humble, Buddhist fashion, gives up a governorship to return home to his wife, Yuan Ying (the ridiculously beautiful Zhou Xun), and their son, Feng, and start a Wushu school. It’s an odd move. What’s the point of a Wushu school in a China overrun by wyguoren? He also suggests his godbrother as governor, when everyone can see that Yuan Lie (Andy On) is a haughty, resentful man. But off Su goes. And he prospers.
Then Yuan Lie returns with an army to get his revenge. Why revenge? It turns out he and Ying are adopted siblings of Su’s father, who killed Yuan’s father in a battle long ago. Su’s father raised them, but, you know, blood will out. And he beheads the old man, then takes Ying and Feng next to a roaring river. To throw them in? No. He’s waiting for Su. He's itching for a fight.
First thought: Su is so much better at gongfu. How can Yuan take him?
Because he’s been cheating. He’s had armor plating stitched into his skin, like the ironclad ships the Ching dynasty couldn’t defeat. He’s also developed the Five Venoms Fist move, which, for our purposes, turn his arms blue and injects venom into his opponents. That’s how he wins. Su, poisoned, falls into the river, and Ying after him, to save him. The boy gets left behind.
Su and Ying are further saved in the mountains by Dr. Yu (special guest star Michelle Yeoh!), but Su, the man who was so magnanimous in victory, is a poor loser. First he starts drinking. Then he starts punching trees and ripping off their bark. Then martial arts masters appear before him tauntingly, always out of reach. The Old Sage (Liu Chia-Hui) says he will teach him, “Only if you defeat the God of Wushu” (Jay Chou). So day after day, week after week, year after year, Su fights the God of Wushu. And guess what? It’s all in his head. It’s like “Fight Club.” Ying tearfully tries to get him to see this, but it’s only after he finally wins that he sees it himself. “Ying is right,” he says, almost cheerfully. “You are all in my head. I never want to see you again, ha ha ha.”
This sets up the final battle with Yuan Lie, who, being the villain, rigs the game. He has his soldiers bury Ying alive. Problem? He neglects to tell Su this; and Su, ripping off Lie’s armor like it’s the bark of a tree, kills him first. By the time Su finds his wife, it’s too late.
So at this point, we’re 75 minutes in. Our villain is dead, our hero’s wife killed. Where does we go from here?
We go to my favorite part of the movie.
The legend who taught the legend
By the way: You thought Su took the first defeat hard? Even though he has a son to raise, Su becomes a town drunk: long matted hair and beard, tattered rags for clothes, forcing his son to beg for money. Ah, but foreigners are still insulting Chinese women and killing Chinese men. So Su, in his drunken craziness, develops the “drunken fist” style of fighting; and in a raised, star-shaped arena surrounded by tigers, he takes on, and defeats, the usual haughty, muscle-bound foreigners, led by 11th-hour villain Anthony, played with scenery-chewing and line-forgetting aplomb by David Carradine, in one of his last film roles. The End.
But that's not my favorite part of the movie. This is: the title card right before the closing credits.
Yeah, that sounds like a dig, but that title card genuinely made the movie for me. Because it reveals—and I probably should have known this going in—that Su becomes Beggar Su, the giggling, red-nosed master who teaches the drunken fist to the better-known legend, Wong Fei-hung, who’s been portrayed in the movies 100 times—most famously in “Drunken Master,” which made an international star out of Jackie Chan in 1978. More, not only does that movie and this one share directors (famed fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping), but it was Woo-ping’s father, Yuen Siu-Tin, who originally played Beggar Su back in ’78, just a year before his death. So “True Legend” is like Woo-ping resurrecting his own father.
How cool is that?
I just wish I found the movie itself as fascinating.
Zhou Xun: The other reason to see the movie.