Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Patriot Act(ion)

Yuen Woo-Ping's True Legend is a certifiably grand entertainment that traffics in ridiculously over-the-top fights, unrequited love and hate, vengeance and patriotism. In short, it's everything I've come to expect from every martial arts movie I've seen since Donnie Yen's phenomenal starring vehicleIp Man. Vincent Zhao essays the lead role of Su, a fearless warrior who wants to settle into family life and teach wushu, so he refuses a promotion. This means good things for two colleagues, Ma and Yuan, but Yuan resents Su for always being given the things he turns down. Yuan's jealousy comes to a head when he loses the woman he loves to Su. He murders their adoptive father and, using the five venom fist, vanquishes Su into what should be a lonely, watery grave.

However, the woman he did this for forsakes her child and plunges in after Su. This really angers Yuan who has to put up with Su's little brat in the hopes that the kid's mother will one day come to reclaim him. Maybe in the meantime he can come up with a better plan to woo Mommy or, assuming they didn't have such things at the time, invent a foundation that will make him look not so deathly gray.

At this point, I should comment on a couple of the film's really nifty touches: the villain has a super lightweight armor fused to his skin and his deathly gray pallor comes from the poisons injected in him by various scorpions and spiders. He sticks his hands into a box full of them, much like Tong Po did with glass in Kickboxer or Charlie Sheen did with caramel and gummy bears in Hot Shots Part Deux! The second things is that when Su begins rehabilitating his hair is grown long and he's punching a tree to build up his strength. The heart warms at this unexpected homage to Hard to Kill and why shouldn't it? Because if there's one thing Su proves by the end of his crazy journey it's that he's hard to kill.

Another point of Su's rehab is his training with the Old Sage (Gordon Liu) and the God of Wushu (Jay Chou). The sage cackles maniacally and strokes his long white beard while the God of Wushu handily deflects Su's every strike and knocks him from countless precipices. The "training sequence" and a showdown with another drunken boxer compromise the two worst sequences of the film. The training is full of horrendous computer generated images of mountains that make the film look like a sub Monkey King adventure film. The sequence with the other drunken boxer isn't too bad, but it's marred by what looks like breakdancing moves and a desire to speed the competitors up via CG so that it looks like they're trying to drill holes into the floor. They're pretty ugly mistakes in a film that doesn't make many at all.

Besides the above mentioned sequences the fights in the film are pretty exceptional. The first being Su's showdown with Venom Fist Master, Yuan, which is the kind of righteously angry battle you should expect from a guy whose come to claim his wife and son from his most mortal enemy. There's a particularly impressive sequence in a snake pit where both men make exceptional use of the confined space, doing the splits to hold themselves in place while just wailing on each other or shimmying past each other to avoid attacking snakes. A real person couldn't get that much mileage out of confined spaces, but it seems like a surprisingly normal and plausible person in a confined space type of fight for a wuxia movie.

The film has a third act that's entirely different from what I expected. Su's showdown with Yuan happens with about forty minutes left in the film and when it's over there's a whole other direction for the film's last half hour. It moves in a cycle of Fall, Revenge, Redemption and Redemption is inarguably the most crowd pleasing-est part.

Haunted by the failure to save his wife Su is a raging drunk and a beggar. In one scene his son barters to buy a sweet potato and when he goes to split it with his father (they don't show what I'm about to tell you in its entirety) it seems like the guy eats the whole potato when his kid's back is turned. But he receives charity from Ma, one of his fortunate buddies from the beginning, who is the head of the Wushu federation. Su decides to pay Ma back by defending the country's honor in a free for all against fighters of other disciplines. But Ma failed to defend his country's honor first, so it's more like he's getting a redemptive revenge to make up for not saving his wife, which is slightly less honorable, but not much because the stakes are higher than they were previously. Su fights a trio of wrestlers played by mammoth seven footers. The mammoth seven footers angle is typical of films like Jet Li's Fearless in that they are non-Asian, but that isn't always the case. However, the specimen in films meant to please the crowd is always ostensibly physically superior. With the exception of Ip Man it's hard to know for sure if the hero will survive if their opponent is non-Asian. I guess you can gauge whether it is truly the country's honor at stake or personal honor to determine the hero surviving, but this is usually a metaphor for national Chinese honor all the same.*

The finale is brutal, with wrestling moves like tombstones and power bombs contributing to the requisite head trauma induced by a small guy being attached to wires and doing impossible things to impossibly big guys who beat him impossibly bad before realizing his spirit and body cannot be broken. It's a tense fight because people fighting for their country's honor in exhibition matches tend to receive Apollo Creed inRocky IV levels of brokenness. And the film's final fight gloriously milks that tension and patriotism. The tension is also sold by the bond Su shares with his on-screen son who shows a genuine concern for his father and can cry like nobody's business. The scene where he declares that he won't leave his father despite it being his best option is genuinely touching. He was pretty much abandoned by one parent once before and his other parent is a mess because of what happened to the other parent. This kid knows his parents love each other and him, but he openly and directly suffers as a result of it twice. But he is wonderful and selfless about it. It gives the excitement of the fights an extra layer of emotional resonance.

Despite an unfortunate act two setback, True Legend is thrilling and appropriately warmhearted with only a couple of regrettable details to be found. On that note, I'll leave you with a final detail to ponder. On the set of Kill Bill it was rumored that David Carradine and Woo-Ping were not big fans of one another. I don't know if that's true or if they share a stubborn old martial artists animosity that results in the occasional blow up that seems like a big deal to everyone but them, but Woo-Ping has dedicated this film to Carradine's memory and cast him as an unabashedly cartoonish asshole of a villain who dopes up his wrestlers to ensure the destruction of the "Chinaman." Is this a fun tribute to your a-hole buddy or a final middle finger? I don't know. But I like it.

Note: Objections to my use of the phrase Chinese honor are expected. Sometimes I also say things like "not rape, but date rape." It's not a distinction I make for any reason other than it was an accident and I said it in later conversations almost reflexively. It is, however, a hilarious language gaffe.

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