Also known as Fong Sai Yuk, Corey Yuen’s 1993 martial arts epic The Legend is an electrifying and hilarious yarn. This Hong Kong actioner picked up a bundle of honours, including a Golden Horse Award, for its stirring choreography. Jingle Ma is tasked with lensing the elegant activity.
Yuen’s movie is complicated in all the best ways and each scene seems more implausibly wonderful than the last, until gravity finally kicks in for the closing showdown. There is kung fu poetry throughout and The Legend trades in elongated set pieces, with most of the fights taking the time to develop and culminate properly.
Jet Li stars as Fong Sai Yuk, a brash young man who meets the lovely Ting Ting (Michelle Reis) and falls in love. When Ting Ting’s family pulls into town, her mother Siu Huan (Sibelle Hu) challenges the eligible bachelors for her daughter’s hand. Sai Yuk takes up the challenge, but throws the fight when he mistakes an unattractive woman for his potential bride.
Sai Yuk’s mother Miu Chiu Fa (Josephine Siao) isn’t having it, so she masquerades as a young man and fights Siu Huan. She inadvertently wins the hand of the bride, among other things, and the family matters are complicated. All hell breaks loose when the Red Flower Society, an underground rebel group, fights the dominant Qing dynasty Manchus and the Governor (Vincent Zhao).
If The Legend sounds like a complex tale, it is. The story is based on the folk hero Fong Sai Yuk of the Guangdong Province, whose exploits fuelled many a wuxia during the era of the Qing dynasty, and it weaves through a hilarious set of circumstances that could’ve been born of French farce.
Indeed, the storylines of mistaken identities and missed connections display a concentration of cinematic comedy seldom seen. Of particular note is the interaction between Siu Huan and Miu Chiu Fa, as it sparks a unique family dynamic that underlines the main romance. Sui Huan’s disastrous passion with who she believes to be Sai Yuk’s brother is a dazzling mess.
Because The Legend is pure entertainment, the bases are covered. Humour gives way to grief and despair when Sai Yuk’s father (Paul Chu) is captured by the flowery Governor. The son sets out to rescue his dad, while the mother is sent on a fool’s errand involving a list of Red Flower Society members.
At the core of The Legend is the aforementioned family dynamic, with mother and son forming the most formidable fighting team in the region. True to form, Miu Chiu Fa has to pick up Sai Yuk’s mess. Siao plays her delightfully, evoking both strength and vulnerability when she melts at the words of her husband’s poetry.
The women of The Legend are robust and vivid. Siao’s character is not only enlightened, she’s the most kick-ass fighter in the picture. She’s never in need of rescue – it’s the father who requires the most assistance – and she makes for a marvellous counterpoint to Siu Huan, who is an intense and magical fighter in her own right.
Li is the star, but it literally takes a village to fashion him into the hero. When he’s introduced, he’s chasing down females at a track and field event. He’s shallow, impetuous, somewhat foolish. He has the love of his mother, but it’s the sort of eye-rolling fondness a matriarch gives to a rapscallion schoolboy.
Because the characters matter, the fight scenes matter. They are remarkable, with a side-splitting scene taking place on the heads and shoulders of a crowd and another involving never-veiled phallic symbols. Yuen keeps the humour coming and that gives The Legend spark, making this historical romp one of the most enjoyable pictures of 1993.