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From a filmmaker’s perspective, folk heroes provide an endless source of timeless thematic material often laced with events that can be expanded and slotted into massive set pieces. Though they’ve been overshadowed by heroes of the super variety lately, folk heroes and their nearly mythic exploits are like Shakespeare: there’s always room for reinterpretation and reinvention. The righteous indignation and/or subsequent heroism of Guy Fawkes, Davy Crockett, Ned Kelly, Spartacus, William Wallace and dozens of others are well documented and make for great drama. Guangdong’s, legendary doctor, martial arts school founder and master of the shadowless kick Wong Fei Hung has been brought to screens countless times and in Rise of the Legend, Hong Kong director Roy Chow Hin Yeung does it with a delicately contemporary edge for the first time in 20 years and sets up a new franchise for a new generation.
While Chow and Taiwanese star Eddie Peng aren’t going to make anyone forget Tsui Hark and Jet Li’s defining Once Upon a Time in China, or for that matter Jackie Chan’s earlier spin on Wong in Drunken Master, they do a frequently thrilling job with a familiar story. This is certainly a cooler, sexier Wong Fei Hung—one with oiled up pecs and rippling abs—but Chow and screenwriter Christine To are careful with just how modern they get. Attractive though Peng is, the focus is still on Wong’s revolutionary fight on behalf of the poor and exploited. Domestic audiences are likely to make Rise a hit, and the film does an impeccable job of avoiding confrontational statements while remaining thematically relevant and should play well in China. Overseas distributors that had success with Hong Kong’s stronger marital epics of late, and even the more aimless The Grandmaster, are likely to show interest in the Universal Pictures International co-production.
Rise of the Legend’s name gives away its status of an origin story of sorts. In the late Qing Dynasty of the mid-19th century Guangzhou is mired in corruption, poverty and crime. The Black Tiger gang, run by the ruthless Master Lei (veteran Sammo Hung), and the North Sea gang are pitted in a war for the control of the lucrative port. Wong Fei Hung (Peng, Cold War, Doze Niu’s Love) breaks into the Black Tiger gang and his skilled fighting quickly earns the confidence of Lei and he becomes his fourth “son.” Naturally, Wong has ulterior motives: similar thugs murdered Wong’s teacher/doctor father (Tony Leung Ka-fai) when he was nine. On top of that, Wong and his childhood friends Fiery (Jing Boran, The Guillotines) and Chun (Wang Luodan) are out to destroy the gangs completely as yet another gang, the Orphans, and bring justice back to the Guangzhou.
Chow’s first film, Murderer, was a box office hit despite (maybe because of) being an unintentionally hilarious thriller that nonetheless demonstrated Chow’s visual acumen. Working with action director Cory Yuen, he manages to balance paying homage to Tsui’s classic while making a film that is his own film. The fight choreography is, unsurprisingly, first rate and has an organic feel to it despite the wirework. Hung is as watchable as ever and the secondary cast—chiefly choreographer turned actor Zhang Jin as the vengeful son of the former North Sea gang leader and Jing—provide solid support. Cinematographer Ng Man Ching’s compositions are creative without being precious and the production design by Pater Wong is evocative and claustrophobic. A back-alley throwdown in broad daylight and Wong’s one-man battle using a severed head as his primary weapon are among the sequences that stand out, and would do so without the unnecessary 3D.
The biggest flaw in Rise is, ironically, its familiarity. There are few narrative surprises aside from setting the story during Wong’s more outwardly rebellious youth. He’s less dignified than Li (who’s Wong Fei Hung was fully formed) and so any sort of dramatic tension is minimal, though the scenes where Wong is in danger of being outed as a gang mole come close. And despite Peng’s appeal, the love triangle among Wong, Chun and courtesan Orchid (Young Detective Dee’s Angelababy, not nearly as pugilistic as she can be) falls flat largely due to the women being painfully underwritten; Orchid is ultimately the woman in a fridge.
The real story, though, is the emergence of Peng as a serious contender for Next Great Martial Arts Star status. His athletic turns in Jump Ashin! and Unbeatable made him the obvious choice to take on the daunting role but he does so effortlessly and with considerable charm. When he finally picks up the iconic umbrella near the end of the film, and sets up a potential sequel, his command of the role is undeniable. Chow and To don’t tinker with the lore’s DNA too much, but fortunately they have Peng to freshen it up, and even the specter of Li does little to detract from his emerging star power.
Production company: Edko Films Limited, Irresistible Alpha, Universal Pictures International
Cast: Eddie Peng, Sammo Hung, Wang Luodan, Jing Boran, Wong Cho-lam, Byron Mann, Jack Feng, Angelababy, Zhang Jin, Qin Junjie, Gao Taiyu, Tony Leung Ka-fai
Director: Roy Chow Hin Yeung
Screenwriter: Christine To
Producer: Bill Kong, Ivy Ho, Sammo Hung
Executive producer: Ryuhei Chiba, Hugh Simon
Director of photography: Ng Man Ching
Production designer: Pater Wong
Costume designer: Stephanie Wong
Editor: Cheung Ka Fai, Tang Man To
Music: Shigeru Umebayashi
Action director: Cory Yuen
World sales: Edko Films Limited
No rating, 131 minutes
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