Director: Roy Chow
Cast: Eddie Peng, Sammo Hung, Wang Luodan, Jing Boran, Wong Cho Lam, Max Zhang Jin, Simon Yam, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Angelababy
Runtime: 2 hrs 10 mins
Rating: NC-16 (Some Violence)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 27 November 2014
Synopsis: This is the story of Fei, a young man who is destined to become a master of his time, and an everlasting legend in the world of martial arts.
In 1868 during the late Qing Dynasty, rampant corruption on the Imperial Court inflicts much suffering in people's lives. In Guangzhou, two crime factions run the Huangpu Port: The Black Tiger and the Northern Sea. The gangs rule the port by striking fear into the hearts of the poor and helpless. On the outside, it appears to be a place of opportunities and prosperity; in reality, this is hell on Earth.
For years, the Black Tiger’s fearsome boss Lei Gong has been trying to get rid of the leader of the Northern Sea. One of his latest recruits is Fei, a fearless fighter who takes the Northern Sea leader’s head after a fierce fight. Recognizing Fei’s talent, Lei Gong makes the young warrior his godson and one of his Four Tigers, the most trusted men in the gang. Soon, Lei Gong begins to treat Fei like his own son.
Behind Fei’s rise to the top of the Black Tigers lies a tragic past: At the age of 9, Fei loses his father to a brutal tyrant. Taken in by a Buddhist monk and kung fu master, Fei learns about the true meaning of vengeance and the skills he needs to get the vengeance he seeks.
Just as Lei Gong believes he has total control of the port, a new gang called the Orphans rises in power. Led by Fei’s childhood friend Huo, the Orphans are out to eliminate all the criminal power from the port. Soon, the Orphans strike by hitting Lei Gong’s operations, including his opium warehouses and silver vault. Lei Gong quickly realizes that there is a traitor in the gang. But little does he realize the traitor is indeed his protégé Fei, who’s been secretly working for the Orphans for the past 5 years.
In their ultimate act of revenge, the Orphans spread the news of Lei Gong’s secret warehouse that is kidnapping and imprisoning men for hard labor overseas. The foreign merchants immediately abandon the deal, forcing Lei Gong to release the prisoners. To prevent the people from inciting a riot that will cripple the port, Fei reveals his true identity and openly challenges Lei Gong to a lethal showdown.
With peace finally restored in the city, a hero rises in the name of justice and becomes the symbol of righteousness. This is the beginning of master Wong Fei Hung.
No less than two decades have passed since Jet Li took up the iconic role of Wong Fei Hung in Tsui Hark’s classic ‘Once Upon A Time in China’ series, and for good reason, no filmmaker for that matter has dared mount a similar big-screen version of the renowned folk hero. Until now of course – ‘Rise of the Legend’ sees Hong Kong director Roy Chow Hin-Yeung step up to the challenge of re-making a legend by way of an origin story, casting rising Taiwanese actor Eddie Peng as the titular protagonist in the hopes of contemporising a famous character for a whole new generation of moviegoers.
We’re sad to disappoint fans of Peng, but the actor is simply no substitute for Li. The comparison, unfair as it may be, is inevitable, because Li had so completely inhabited the character that the very first impression which comes to mind when one thinks of the character is Li himself. While he may project enough confidence and fresh-faced charm to convince as a younger and brasher Wong Fei Hung, Peng simply lacks his predecessor’s poise and nuance to make his portrayal as dignified and compelling.
A lot of Peng’s performance doesn’t go much further than posturing, alternating between a smug self-confident demeanour when with the members of the villainous Black Tiger gang whom he infiltrates to dismantle from within and a spirited show of grit (not unlike that which he displayed in ‘Unbeatable’ as an MMA-fighter) when taking on his opponents fist-to-fist. Only when he gets the occasional reprieve to hang out with his childhood buddies Fiery (Jing Boran) and Chun (Wang Luodan) do we see a more sincere and earnest performance from Peng, but these scenes – given the covert nature of his character’s personal mission – are sadly few and far in-between.
Though he may have the athleticism and physique (we’re talking oiled-up pecs and rippling abs here) to boot, Peng lacks the physicality of someone who’s trained in the martial arts. Indeed, that is too ostensible in the action sequences directed by veteran choreographer Corey Yuen, which in narrower high-walled alleyway settings is filmed with the sort of artistic distractions emulating last year’s ‘The Grandmasters’ – complete with rainwater, (plenty of) slo-mo shots and p.o.v. framing – that sees Peng look rather than truly impress and in more expansive locations relies too heavily on the use of wirework to augment Peng’s moves (or lack thereof). The fact that the fight sequences aren’t as exciting as they should be isn’t Peng’s fault alone no doubt, but, unfortunate as it may be, it still is too clear Peng isn’t a natural performer the way other luminaries like Li, Jackie Chan or Gordon Liu were.
To be sure, Peng is hardly the start of ‘Rise’s’ problems, which, though absorbing in parts, has its obvious flaws. Though intended as a story to explain the origins of Wong Fei Hung, Christine To’s script hardly gives the character much depth. A few flashback sequences show Wong’s father (Tony Leung Kar-Fai) imparting some words of wisdom about saving people which he continues to hold dear as well as how a brief stint at a monastery transformed his sense of vengeance following his father’s death at the hands of some local thugs to one seeking justice, but – whether is it the scripting or Chow’s filming – come off obligatory rather than poignant. There is even less time to get to know Fei Hung when Peng takes over as a young adult, as To has him too busy caught up in the plot machineries of a gangland thriller than to build a multi-faceted portrait of him – other than the already established fact of his inimitable sense of righteousness.
Not that the colourful underworld comprising of Sammo Hung as Master Lei, the leader of the Black Tiger gang, and his adoptive sons – North Evil (Jack Feng), Black Crow (Byron Mann) and Old Snake – isn’t entertaining; there is good fun to be had in watching Fei-Hung, Fiery and Chun destabilise the squabbling trio and their domineering head from within – as Fei-Hung wins Master Lei’s trust by killing the head of the rival North Sea gang to become his fourth adoptive son – and without – with Fiery and Chun leading the poor, hungry and oppressed men on the streets under the banner of the Orphan gang against the Black Tigers. To weaves quite an ingenious scheme here, so much so that Chow’s filming struggles to keep up, and there are scenes which would clearly have benefited from the direction of a stronger helmer.
That is probably also part of the reason why To’s attempt to paint Fei Hung as a man with a big dream of restoring justice to the masses, who stuck with his ideals even though they came at a hefty personal cost, isn’t quite as rousing as it is meant to be. Yes, sacrifice figures heavily in the third act, but because the friendship between Fei Hung and his childhood buddies – including a courtesan he frequents by the name of Orchid (Angelababy) – doesn’t get enough screen time to be fully fleshed out, the eventual denouement awaiting some of them, in particular as it relates to Fei Hung, is less moving and persuasive. Wong Cho-lam does offer some comic relief as his buck-toothed buddy named ‘Big Tooth’, but after their initial initiation into the Black Tiger, he is pretty much sidelined for the rest of the film.
Whereas one would have expected a character-driven narrative for this origin story of Wong Fei Hung, Chow and To (whose previous collaborations include the unintentionally hilarious detective thriller ‘Murderer’ and a middling follow-up ‘Nightfall’) opt instead for a plot-driven one that transplants the elements of a gangland thriller into a martial arts actioner. The result is more the former than the latter, so those expecting some thrilling fight sequences will surely come off disappointed – more so after a lacklustre showdown between Peng and Hung in a blazing warehouse where the two do more staring at each other and asking each other how ‘hot’ it is than fighting. Peng is no Jet Li that’s for sure, but that’s only one of the various flaws in a prequel that should have been much more. For now, this ‘Legend’ remains firmly with Li and Tsui Hark, whose ‘Once Upon A Time in China’ remains the only Wong Fei Hung you need to know.
(A moderately entertaining, if uninspired, prequel that works more as a gangland thriller than as an origin story of the legendary Wong Fei Hung – not least for its lack of any truly thrilling fight sequences)
Review by Gabriel Chong