It’s been 12 years since Yuen Woo-ping, celebrated international master of movie martial arts, directed his own movie instead of choreographing action for someone else and now he’s finally back where he belongs helming the wuxia pian TRUE LEGEND, starring Vincent Zhao (THE BLADE), in his first film role in eight years.
Zhao takes on the mantle of one of the more popular folk heroes in Chinese martial arts and certainly martial arts cinema. Beggar Su, known as Su Qi-er in Mandarin or So Hat-yi in Cantonese, started out being depicted on film as an aged, drunken and penniless kung fu master in kung fu comedies and has since evolved into a fully developed screen hero on par with famous martial folk heroes Wong Fei-hung and Fong Sai-yuk.
Kung fu movie legends such as Philip Kwok, Lau Kar-leung and Gordon Liu have taken turns at playing the character but none has been more iconic than Simon Yuen’s colorful performance in Yuen Woo-ping’s masterpiece DRUNKEN MASTER (1978), starring Jackie Chan. This was Woo-ping’s first attempt to depict the character and he cast his own father in the role.
In 1993, Yuen made an entire film centered on the exploits of a much younger Beggar Su. HEROES AMONG HEROES (aka FIST OF THE RED DRAGON) starred Donnie Yen as Beggar Su in a plot involving popular genre conventions of the hour including opium addiction, political intrigue, secret sects, and Wong Fei-hung who made a guest appearance.
Yuen’s second Beggar Su film was greatly overshadowed in the same year by Stephen Chow’s crowd-pleasing comedic antics in KING OF BEGGARS where the future KUNG FU HUSTLE star portrayed Beggar Su in an epic wuxia film directed by Gordon Chan, with action direction by Woo-ping’s brother Yuen Cheung-yan.
According to current descriptions of the script, Yuen Woo-ping’s third take on the Beggar Su legend is more in line with Stephen Chow’s film. In TRUE LEGEND, Su (Vincent Zhao) is a wealthy man living during the Qing Dynasty who loses his fortune and reputation as a result of a conspiracy against him. Forced onto the street, Su devotes his life to martial arts and reemerges as a patriotic hero to the common people with the title of “King of Beggars.”
Zhao was once one of Hong Kong cinema’s rising wushu stars, a skilled martial art with an appropriately stoic countenance, who seemed destined to follow Jet Li into mainstream stardom. Yet the film that should have made him a star, THE BLADE, flopped at the local box office. It didn’t help that he was brought in to replace the irreplaceable Jet Li for what turned out to be the two least popular films in the ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA series.
Given the high profile of Yuen’s first directing gig and its chances of getting distributed overseas, TRUE LEGEND represents Zhao’s greatest opportunity to date to prove that he is a world-class action star. At 36, Zhao is still young enough to benefit from the potential success this film could bring him.
Threatening to overshadow Zhao, at least where media attention is concerned, is fellow cast member Jay Chou, known throughout Asia as a leading pop music superstar. Recently, he has been making the crossover into film with high-profile roles in big-budget films like INITIAL D, CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER and KUNG FU DUNK. Chou made an appearance at the first press conference for TRUE LEGEND on November 2nd and faced inquiries by reporters questioning his ability to play a fighting role in a Yuen Woo-ping film. Yuen came to Chou’s defense, describing him as a “cool guy” and suitable to the role.
Chou’s role is relatively small. He plays Su’s martial arts master, who in released set photos depicting his ornate costume, looks to have stepped right out of the pages of a Gu Long novel. It’s a character Yuen describes as a “Kung Fu God.”
On his own director’s diary, Yuen Woo-ping associates TRUE LEGEND and its characters with the “wuxia” genre, although it isn’t certain where he draws a distinction between wuxia and kung fu movies. It was Yuen who brought advanced, fantasy wirework into the kung fu genre where it had previously been used primarily in wuxia filmmaking involving flying sword heroes. Even FEARLESS, the relatively grounded biopic of Huo Yuan-jia starring Jet Li had noticeable wire effects to give characters mildly superhuman abilities. Yuen has had an enormously positive impact on the Chinese martial arts movie and its development but the “Yuen Clan” style of action direction should not be used exclusively to define an ever-evolving genre. Call it the flavor of the month, or in this case the flavor of a decade or two.
Something a little different that can be spotted in Yuen’s latest film from set photos are menacingly black-armored costumes seemingly straight out of Tsui Hark’s SEVEN SWORDS. In past interviews, Yuen has cited SEVEN SWORDS and the more recent war epic THE WARLORDS as a change in direction for the martial arts genre. Action and art direction, it seems, is moving away from the picturesque opulence of a Zhang Yimou wuxia epic and towards a more somber and violent presentation of martial arts and martial arts heroes. Regarding TRUE LEGEND, Yuen has stated that the film will feature very little comedy and will instead be a tragic, but inspiring drama. We’ll have to wait and see if that mood translates in the action itself.
Also starring in TRUE LEGEND is Zhou Xun (as Su’s non-fighting wife), Will Liu, Guo Xiaodong and screen fighting legends Gordon Liu and Michelle Yeoh. Yeoh appears in a supporting role as a reclusive martial arts master and Liu appears in what looks like another “Bak Mei,” or White Brows role.
No release has yet been set for TRUE LEGEND.
The official site for TRUE LEGEND is up and running, so far with a bilingual first entry in what will hopefully be an active director’s diary. There is also a short production video, which is also available below. To stay up to date on news related to the film check out an informative page set up at MichelleYeoh.info.
Beggar Su • Michell Yeoh • True Legend (2010) • upcoming • Vincent Zhao • Yuen Woo-ping