Rating: 3.5 out of 5
When it’s Chinese New Year, and you’re in the mood for a kung-fu-fighting extravaganza that features a noble hero you can easily root for, you need movies like this.
Among the current crop of Chinese movies being released to help movie goers usher in the new year, this and Jackie Chan’s Little Big Soldier are arguably the top two.
The latter is more of a buddy movie, whereas this film by action choreographer extraordinaire and director Yuen Woo-ping is more an out-and-out kung fu drama – with strong emphasis on kung fu!
The fight scenes here are truly breathtaking: they are brilliantly composed and shot, and deeply engrossing; viewers watching them are likely to sit in rapt attention, such is the white-knuckle tension engendered by these scenes.
In fact, some scenes are rather graphic, too graphic to survive the film’s PG classification, causing some abrupt cuts that interrupt two pivotal fight scenes.
Regardless, this is one of the most satisfying martial arts films seen in recent times, of the calibre of Fearless and Ip Man. One might even make the case that there’s a little too much action.
The life of the protagonist, a general and highly skilled pugilist named Su Can (Vincent Zhao) who becomes a beggar – he is known in folklore as the King of Beggars– due to a bitter betrayal, is portrayed through various phases.
At the start, he is a heroic general who retires to the bliss of married life with his wife Yuan Ying (Zhou Xun) and child, allowing his step-brother Yuan Lie (Andy On) to assume his position as a military leader.
In the tradition of tragic Chinese literature, there is a tale of blood feuds, revenge and betrayal. Yuan’s father had been killed by Su’s father because the former had practiced the dastardly dark art of Five Venom Fists. Out of kindness, he adopts Yuan Lie.
Years later, as a high-ranking official, Yuan predictably returns with a nefarious agenda. Murder begets murder, violence begets violence – this is exactly how things turn out.
The first two-thirds of this film is exemplary in how Yuen balances drama with action. As Ying, Xun is the emotional centre of the film as she offers tender support for Su, who shows that even generals and master kung fu heroes suffer from crises of confidence.
Defeated by Yuan Lie, he gradually recovers from his injuries and trains hard to be in the position to avenge his father, as well as retrieve his son, now in his mentally unstable enemy’s cold-hearted custody.
This phase of training, where Michelle Yeoh, Gordon Liu and Jay Chou make appearances, forms the lengthy middle portion of the film, and the second phase of Su’s life.
The confrontation between Su and Yuan Lie is epic: the unorthodox Five Venom Fists versus Su’s more cultured wushu.
The film stutters towards the end, as Su is reduced to a grief-stricken beggar struggling to find a reason to live, with his put-upon young son in tow.
Needing a big finish, the film pits him against Russian fighters who have been luring top Chinese fighters into a gladiator-styled arena and killing them for sport.
By then, there is a feeling of overkill. Incessant edits necessitated by the PG rating also take away from full enjoyment of the finale, which feels tacked-on.
Still, there is a purity in vision and balletic artistry in the majority of fight scenes that deserves to be savoured first-hand in a theatre.
And there is a chance that this film will develop a cult following before long, perhaps catapulting Zhao into the rarefied air of top-notch martial arts leading men.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
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