Su Qi-Er retired from his life as a renowned Qing dynasty general in order to pursue his dream of a family and his own martial arts school. However, Su's peaceful life is shattered when his vengeful adopted brother, Yuan Lie, kidnaps his son and leaves Su for dead. Saved from his demise by his wife Ying and the reclusive doctor Yu, Su resolves to perfect his technique so that he may defeat Yuan Lie and reunite his family. Aided by the mystical "God of Wushu" and the eccentric "Old Sage," Su masters the art of Drunken Boxing, and embarks on the path that would eventually give rise to the legend of the "King of Beggars."
True Legend really has all the ingredients of what it takes to be a classic. It's a Chinese fantasy directed by Yuen Woo-ping about Su Qi-er, better known as the Beggar Su, the man who developed drunken boxing, the character popularized in martial arts cinema by Woo-Ping's father, Simon Yuen. For the majority of the film, this is everything you could hope it would be. Upon saving a general, Su (Man Cheuk Chiu) to be made a governor, but he passes it on to his adoptive brother Yuan Lie (Andy On) so that he can return home, be wed to Lie's sister Yuan Ying (Xun Zhou) and open a wushu school. Unfortunately Su's father adopted Lie and Ying after killing their father, a master of the Five Deadly Venoms, and Lie has sworn revenge. Su barely escapes with his life, and must recover, and improve his wushu if he hopes to rescue his son. He meets with the God of Wushu who promises to teach him if he defeats him in a fight, so everyday he goes into the woods and battles him... or is he just going mad? This probably would've been a better film if it were made fifteen or twenty years ago. Yuen relies a little heavily on CG effects that are bad enough-- they pulled me right out of the film on several occasions. Also, not to spoil anything, but the film doesn't end where it logically should. It goes on for another half hour. It was like someone reminded him halfway through filming that the movie didn't really have any drunken boxing, so he slapped a second story on the thing. I loved the tie in to the Shaw Brothers classic Five Deadly Venoms (if it had been made twenty years ago it would've undoubtedly been titled 'Drunken Master vs The Five Deadly Venoms' and how awesome does that sound?) At a script level, the first segment of the film is fantastic, but some terrible CG and the unrelated last third of the film really detracts from the overall experience.
The martial arts is extremely well done in this film, but seeing who it's from, that's no surprise. Man Cheuk Chiu has been starring in Chinese kung-fu television series for a little over a decade now, and while he is certainly talented, he doesn't quite carry the film as well as the heavy hitters could. All of the fight sequences are ably performed, but only a couple of them have any emotional weight behind them, and the fantasy wiring really, for me, takes away some of the awe I feel when I see talented martial artists perform their skill. This is top notch fantasy kung-fu, but it's fantasy kung-fu nonetheless, and it's a style of kung-fu films of which I'm not a huge fan.
I've probably spent more time thinking about this movie than any other movie I've reviewed so far. The expectations I had for a Yuen Woo-ping Drunken Master movie definitely swayed my opinions on this film. But I can't tell if that made me like it more, or less than I would've otherwise. The problem is that it isn't the sum of it's parts. There are so many great things that just don't work together. Elements that are touched upon, but are left hanging, and then the final act that is choreographically pretty great, but narrative waste. Most of this movie is pretty fun, just don't expect too much from it. It has plenty of faults, but if you focus on the story of the first two-thirds of the film, your complaints will be few and far between.
Finally caught up on requests now, so if you have a martial arts or Asian film your wondering about, let me know and I'll take a look at it!