by Jose-Luis Fernando Rodriguez
In reviewing a film, one the question that seems to always arise is, “what approach can I take that will bring a fresh perspective to the conversation,” and more often than not the answer boils down to what particular aspect remains floating about in one’s mind when the credits role. Upon finishing the Hong Kong film Rise of the Legend, I was left with a particular feeling that all the scenes presented and beats hit seemed somewhat familiar; that a vague premonition of what was to come hovered about as I watched the story unfold. In one respect one could say that the story was predictable and cliché, but I feel that such an uncritical statement would ignore the larger meaning imbedded within the very formula that drives it forward. After all, at times, the very structure itself tells more than all the symbols shown and themes discussed.
So then, what does Rise of the Legend’s form seek to tell us? Well, one mustn’t look too far to see the answer staring us in the face as the title flashes before our eyes. This story is first and foremost the origin of a legend. The beginning journey from simple man to myth and importantly that is all it seeks to tell as it finishes with two final scenes showing us, the audience, Fei taking his iconic umbrella and then proudly standing, in his just as iconic white grab, over the city that he will come to bare his legendary exploits. In effect, one could call it an unofficial prequel to the whole host of other Wong Fei-Hung movies like Once Upon a Time in China, Drunken Master, and the like, and yet leaving it at that diminishes its own unique take on the tradition of myth making its narrative presents.
At its core this film is a Wuxia film or a stylized Kung Fu film in the vein of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero, and no better demonstration exists than the first few minutes where we are treated to a highly stylized and vicious battle where Fei fends off an endless horde of men in a show of violent grace, slowed strikes, and sensualized blood and rain. Yet, Wuxia entails more than just simple exaggerated fight scenes; it revolves, first and foremost, around the spiritual growth of our protagonist and the impact such growth has on the world he/she inhabits. To attain such development, the protagonist often suffers personal tragedy as Fei does by losing a friend, Xiao Fa, and then his father. After which, he is given the opportunity to train martial arts and learn its purpose often called the code of Xia in Wuxia literature here boiled down to one phrase, “vengeance is saving people.” At last the protagonist goes forth and uses his new found physical and spiritual strength to overcome the corrupting forces that exploit and oppress the innocent. Obviously the film does not follow this outline to the letter, but it is interesting to see just how many points it does.
However, just as important to this story is the use of the setting which not only reinforces the message it presents but accentuates it in some interesting ways. Guangzhou or more importantly the history of its mid to late 19th century contact with European colonialism proves to be the driving force behind the action and themes present within the story. Indeed, it is interesting to note how the greedy, exploitative, and competitive gangs that run the pier are backed by the European businessmen present in the city while the poor masses striving to make a living hold onto strong values of kindness, unity, and self-sacrifice. Thus it’s no surprise when, with renewed strength, Fei leads the people to confront the gang and its leader and defeat him.
Yet, the more fascinating choice this film makes was to present the more blatant Wuxia elements for only a few set pieces; indeed, we only get about four major engagements. Instead, most of the film spends its time showing a more naturalistic and mundane world of rampant poverty and glimpses of the underworld activities these gangs profit from. In effect, the exotic aspects many of us have come to expect from the Wuxia genera are missing and replaced with a more historic picture of the times. Whether one likes this or not, depends on one’s preference of what one wants in a martial arts film, but in regards to the story it helps drive home the important theme.
That being, as mentioned above, that it solidifies the films approach to a legend’s origin by having that transition from the old magical realism present in the past to the rational approaches taken in the present. In fact, one could argue that Fei’s approach of destroying the gang from the inside through clever plants, diversions, and careful plotting shows just how different times have changed in that the epic duels of the past no longer can be the sole source justice. One could also say that the this transition helps set the stage for Fei’s future adventures whose structures and conflicts seem more grounded in the limits of everyday life in the 1800’s. Whatever conclusion one comes to, the fact of the matter is that Rise of the Legend set out to create an origin for a famous and well known Chinese national hero by using the tools of established genres to reinforce that legendary aspect of his life. The question, then, is would you enjoy it?
Well, I can’t answer that since I do not know what you like? I can only give an approximation of what kind of person would like this movie and even then, it is simply a generalization that can never fit anyone one-hundred percent. What I can say is that this film is built for the very thing its title declares and as such will use the established tools it has at its disposal to craft its interpretation of what a Wong Fei-Hung story is. If such tested methods are to your liking or stylized action your desire, then I would say this film is a satisfactory excursion, but if taking a myth at face value leaves you wanting more, asking questions and desiring real answers then I would say that Rise of the Legend be left within its aside.