Wong Fei-hung was a man who lived and worked in China at the turn of the 20th century during the fall of the Qing Dyanasty and the rise of the Republic of China. Wong was martial artist and physician who has since become a folk hero in contemporary China. Over a hundred films and television shows have featured Wong as a character since the 1940s, and he has been portrayed by Jet Li, Jackie Chan, many others. Rise of the Legend is a new kung-fu film about Wong’s life. This time he is played by up-and-coming martial arts star Eddie Peng.
Rise of the Legend depicts Wong’s early years as he advances through the Chinese underworld to take control of the docks and liberate the poor from their gangster overlords. If you are familiar with the Wong Fei-hung story, there’s not much tension in the plot necessarily, but this retelling is at least modern with all the visual flourishes we’ve come to expect from kung-fu films. Peng is capable as Wong, displaying perhaps more disquieting malice than we’ve come to expect from the character, but that malice does at least make his transformation into a champion of the oppressed compelling. Sammo Kam-Bo Hung appears as the villainous Master Lui, and he is as magnetic a screen presence as ever, like the kung-fu genre’s Marlon Brando.
I find it fascinating to watch another culture’s folk tale. So much of the imagery is foreign to me. I wonder what some of it means. For example, why do kung-fu masters fly, defying the laws of physics as they fight? In American films that have borrowed the convention—like The Matrix—the weightlessness denotes that the characters are removed from reality. They are in an alternate world. That can’t be what it means in kung-fu movies though, because folk tales are set in the real world. A parallel might be Pecos Bill lassoing a tornado and riding it across the prairie. I know that symbolizes the American conquest of the “wild west.” What does flight symbolize in Chinese culture? Why has it risen in prominence in the past thirty years? I suppose only a Chinese critic could answer those questions for me.
Foreign films of all kinds, even kung-fu movies, are opportunities to peer through open windows into the imaginative worlds of our global neighbors, to see what matters to them, how they are different from us and how they are the same. A lot of Rise of the Legend looks similar to the action movies we make. We share a cinematic language. The content itself is very different though, because our symbolic languages differ greatly. It’s like we share an alphabet, but use all different words. The world is a fascinating place.
Rise of the Legend is being featured in the 38th annual Denver Film Festival. More information and showtimes can be found here.