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New film looks to bring back Wong Fei-hung

2014-06-18 09:41 Global Times Web Editor: Li Yan

It's been a while since international audiences have seen a classic Hong Kong martial arts film. For most fans, the breathtaking action scenes or traditional Chinese costumes and sets found in these films are closely tied to movies featuring kung fu stars such as Jet Li, Donnie Yen or Michelle Yeoh.

However, just like how Spider-Man seems to get younger with every new series, director Chow Hin-yeung and executive producer William Kong - who helped bring Ang Lee's Oscar-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimo's Hero to international audiences - feel it is time to promote a younger version of China's own classic super heroes.

A kung fu legend

Fans of Chinese martial art movies might be familiar with the names: Ip Man (1893-1972) and Huo Yuanjia (1868-1910). Real historical figures that have been turned into classic movie characters and revered as folk heroes of China.

However, when it comes to the hero that has been immortalized on screen most often, that would Wong Fei-hung (1847-1924), a martial arts expert and a healer from Guangdong Province.

Wong's story has been made into over 100 films and numerous serialized novels and TV series as well. Famous actions stars such as Jet Li, Jackie Chan and Zhao Wenzhuo have each taken a turn playing the hero.

In 1949, Wong was first put on the big screen by director Hu Peng, who cast Kwan Tak-hing (1906-1996) in the role. The star appeared as Wong in more than 70 films during his career.

From 1949 to 1980, Kwan's 30-year portrayal of Wong as a generous hero with excellent kung fu skills had a hand in helping Hong Kong action films develop from nothing into a strong competitor in the Asian film market.

With martial art films such a big draw, an entire industry production chain grew around the genre; from training actors, choreographing action scenes to casting professional stuntmen. It was this very system that produced a number of talented individuals such as Yuen Woo-ping, Liu Chia-liang and Liu Chia-wing, who would later go on to become renowned action directors.

In the 1990s, the Once Upon a Time in China trilogy, directed by Hark Tsui and staring Jet Li, opened a new door for Hong Kong action films.

In Tsui's movies, Wong was no longer the perfect hero that Kwan once portrayed. This new version was complex and had weaknesses; a hero dealing with the pressures of a changing political situation.

The meeting of Chinese and Western culture is a key aspect of the Wong Fei-hung films of the 1990s. The world Tsui portrayed was filled with British and US politicians, local businessmen, missionaries, government officials as well as different types of common people. Wong represented the Chinese people's frustration towards Western invasion and their advanced technology, while also projecting a Confucian view of responsibility towards the country.

Tsui's action films, combining his unique film language and ideology with what he learned from the previous generation of action film makers, helped make him an internationally famous director.

A return after 20 years

Currently director Chow Hin-yeung plans to bring a new version of Wong to young audiences at the end of 2014. Almost 20 years since the martial arts master was last seen on the big screen, Rise of the Legend, starring Eddie Peng as the folk hero, intends to take the film hero of last century and transform him into an up-to-date young idol for action movie fans.

At a press conference for the new film on Thursday, Chow explained that every generation needs its own hero, and now that super hero films are continuously coming out of Hollywood year after year, it's time for China to step up to the plate.

"We, with our Eastern film heroes, need to do the same. It would be fun to see someone else film a new Wong Fei-hung in maybe another five years," said Chow.

The enormous popularity of the Wong Fei-hung character also means Peng is under a lot of pressure to get things right. "When I first read the script, I thought it would just be a new and challenging action movie. It wasn't until I read the second draft and noticed the words 'Wong Fei-hung' at the end of the script that I suddenly felt pressure," said Peng, who finds that unlike other action films he made in the past such as Unbeatable, in which he played a boxer, martial arts is an entirely different field that is more about tempo and movement than power.

"Wong Fei-hung represents a kind of spirit: The spirit of welcoming challenges and trying to do things that are known to be impossible," added Chow.

International cooperation

Co-produced by Edko Film, Irresistible Films and Universal Pictures International, Rise of the Legend is also targeting the international market. Universal Pictures International will be responsible for distribution of the film abroad.

"Wong Fei-hung, already a beloved historical character in China will be introduced to many international audiences for the first time. We are convinced they will love him as you do. The story itself has great universal appeal; the determination of an ordinary young man who fights to fulfill his dream of justice. Great martial arts movies will always have a great fan base worldwide," Jill Tandy, executive vice president of Universal Pictures International, said during the press conference.

Tandy's confidence does not seem without merit as Ronny Yu's 2006 film Fearless, which depicted the story of Huo Yuanjia, is a successful example of cooperation between Edko Film and Universal.

William Kong, founder of Hong Kong based Edko Film, faced quite a bit of doubt when he first started trying to get Fearless made eight years ago. Many people felt that audiences had already seen enough action films featuring this character and so wouldn't be interested.

Kong, however, was insistent. Bringing in To Chi-long, who also wrote Rise of Legend, as scriptwriter, Fearless was able to earn $32 million after being shown in more than 1,000 cinemas in the US, beating out many local US productions.

"Rise of the Legend will do better at the box-office than Fearless because the film market today is different from the one eight years ago and this hero is younger and more energetic," said Kong.

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