19 February 2015 | MartinHafer
Exciting but very familiar as well.
Before I can really discuss "Rise of the Legend", I need to give you some background. This isn't especially clear in the film and for non-Chinese audiences, the setting might be confusing. In the 19th century, various nations forced the weak Chinese Ch'ing leaders to accept their presence in the country. Countries like Britain, Russia, France and even Japan carved out portions of the country to be used as bases for trade and one of the ways they made money was in the opium trade. Additionally, Chinese warlords and gang leaders worked with these foreigners to exploit the country and its wealth and, not surprisingly, the common people resented this. But these foreigners and their Chinese partners were getting rich and had little regard for the damage they were causing. This led to a variety of wars (such as the Opium Wars and, later, the Boxer Rebellion) and eventually to unification and the abolishment of the Emperor--who seemed to care little about the plight of the people or the weakness of his country. One hero during this period of civil war and chaos was Wong Fei-hung (also known as Huang Feihong). His prowess with martial arts made him a rallying point and many of his exploits have been celebrated and exaggerated in movies over the years, such as Jet Li's "Once Upon a Time in China" and Jackie Chan's "Drunken Master" films. The latest in a long line of semi- biographical films is "Rise of the Legend".
In this version, the earlier part of Wong Fei-hung's life is explored by director Roy Hin Yeung Chow and the legendary man himself is played by Eddie Peng. While Peng is not exactly a household name, his martial arts skills are superb in the film-- mostly because they are both incredible to watch and generally believable. Little so called 'wire fu' is used in the film and heroes DO bleed and get the snot kicked out of them from time to time. The only really difficult to believe part for me was watching the familiar actor Sammo Hung fighting the hero to nearly a draw. While Hung has made a ton of martial arts films (many with his friend Jackie Chan), he is in his 60s and, well, a bit rotund (I have NO reason to talk in this department)--and seeing him battle Peng did take some suspension of belief, though Hung did amazingly well and surprised me with his performance.
The film is a bit difficult to follow, as some things in the plot the film assumes the viewer will know. Additionally, the storytelling is occasionally non-linear. So, as I watched, I found that I really needed to pay attention, understand the context and piece it all together in my mind as I watched. What you slowly come to realize is that the evil leader of the Black Tiger Gang in Canton, Lei Gong (Hung), has just made Wong Fei-hung his fourth adopted son after Wong single-handedly kills one of Gong's rivals and takes out a HUGE number of the guy's soldiers. You can only assume Wong is evil, as Lei Gong is rich from his profits in selling opium and slavery. However, as the film progresses, you realize that Wong is playing a very deep plan--one that aims to eventually free the slaves, destroy the opium warehouses and aid the common man. Considering that Lei Gong is ruthless, evil, has an army of his own and has three other adopted sons who are amazing with their martial arts skills, Wong's task seems monumental to say the least!
So is this any good? Well, generally yes. The action is first- rate. While not quite as wild as you might find in many films, the martial arts fighting looks real and it will keep you on edge. Additionally, there are many story elements that work well. My only qualms are the way the story is presented. As I alluded to above, the film can be a bit hard to follow and sometimes I got the feeling that I've seen many similar films--and I have considering how many Wong Fei-hung films have come out of China in the last few decades! My verdict is that if you are a fan of the genre and understand the context, by all means watch this one. If not, then it's not exactly a must-see film...though you certainly can't go wrong watching it.