Chow Hin-yeung's new take on folk hero Wong Fei-hung has the makings of a hit movie

Rise of the Legend is a far cry from Chow's disastrous debut

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 November, 2014, 10:27am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 November, 2014, 10:27am

Writer-director Chow Hin-yeung's third feature, Rise of the Legend, is a triumphant story of survival against the odds, both on and off the screen.

The film is the latest fictionalised account of the life of Cantonese folk hero Wong Fei-hung, a Guangdong boxer from the late-Qing dynasty and early Republican China who has featured in more than 100 movies since 1949.

Chow's confidence in the production is palpable. Even before the film's release, the 36-year-old director is willing to disclose that the script for a sequel is ready.

"The ending of Rise of the Legend is also a beginning," he says, before revealing that he's going to work on a different project before returning to the Wong Fei-hung series.

Early reviews of Chow's most expensive film to date have been positive - so much so, that it's easy to forget about a time when it seemed unlikely that his career would survive his notorious first film, Murderer.

For the unsuspecting audience attending the first press screening of Murderer in July 2009, it was tempting to believe that they were witnessing the fledgling filmmaker's career implode on the big screen.

A mystery thriller starring Canto-pop star Aaron Kwok Fu-shing, the directorial debut of Chow - then head of development at production and distribution company Edko Films - was so shrouded in secrecy, that viewers were given a slip of paper urging them to remain silent about its many plot twists.

Those turned out to be mind-boggling. With Kwok happily overacting as a police inspector and murder suspect on the verge of madness, the story became so ridiculous that the audience reacted to the film as if it were a slapstick comedy.

The subsequent reviews were scathing. But Murderer ended up doing an admirable job at the box office, due in no small part to the public's curiosity about the furore.

"In the field of commercial cinema, there are very few people who would be willing to dig so deep into their inner emotions - like passion and hatred - for their first feature," says Chow of his debut.

"But if you asked me to make my debut all over again," he says, "I might not decide to do a film with such a difficult subject matter. I was lucky Murderer did well at the box office. If it hadn't, and grossed only HK$2 million or so, I might not have got a chance to make another movie."

When he looks back, Chow is most surprised by the fact that his first feature's budget was raised without taking the mainland market into consideration.

"I didn't think about the Chinese market then, and my investors didn't, either. It just came together miraculously. You know, in today's business, everyone has to look at the mainland - unless you're making a porn movie with a seven-day schedule," he says.

The director, who has dropped his English name Roy, saw his fortune improve with his second film, Nightfall. That 2012 effort helped him to win best new director prize at the 32nd Hong Kong Film Awards. The upcoming Rise of the Legend, which took Chow almost 2½ years to finish, looks like an altogether different undertaking. 

Although the director stresses that "the investors are predominantly based in Hong Kong and the US," referring to Edko Films and Universal Pictures International, his new film was shot primarily on the mainland, and is pitched at a Putonghua-speaking audience.

A Cantonese-dubbed version, for which Chow provides the voice of Wong Fei-hung, is not expected to reach many cinemas.

The project also challenged the director and his crew to do justice to the long cinematic tradition surrounding the legendary Wong Fei-hung.

Most famously portrayed by Kwan Tak-hing from the late 1940s through to the early 1980s, and then Jet Li Lianjie in four of Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China series in the 1990s, the martial arts icon has generally been perceived in pop culture as a stern-faced, ferocious fighter who habitually lectures his apprentices about Confucian morals such as benevolence.

But this original story has a young hero played by the handsome - and remarkably muscular - Taiwanese actor Eddie Peng Yu-yan, who Chow spotted in the 2011 gymnastics drama Jump Ashin!

For much of its duration, the humanity factor is lacking in Chow's film, as Wong Fei-hung presents himself as a cold-blooded fighting machine, killing his way up the hierarchy of the port-side Black Tiger Gang, headed by Sammo Hung Kam-bo's villainous patriarch.

"Because it had already been some 17 or 18 years since we [Hong Kong filmmakers] last visited the Wong Fei-hung folklore, it was my intention to do something new," says Chow.

"If you look at Hollywood movies such as the 007 and Batman series, they're rebooting their franchises and renewing the premises all the time. They're improving those movies every time, and that's what I want to achieve with my film. I wanted to make a triad movie set in the late Qing dynasty."

I wanted to do something new, to make a triad movie in the late-Qing dynasty
Chow Hin-yeung

Rise of the Legend is co-scripted by Chow's long-term screenwriter partner - and wife - Christine To Chi-long. She provided the scripts of his first two movies and is increasingly taking on the co-producer's role, as she does for this film.

The new story - as with most of the 100-plus Wong Fei-hung movies in the past - is "entirely fictional".

Chow explains: "When you're making a film on other martial arts heroes, like Ip Man or Huo Yuanjia [in Fearless], you can't say many things [new] about them because their life histories were well-documented. Wong Fei-hung, on the other hand, allows many different interpretations.

"Jet Li's portrayal is more remembered now than Kwan Tak-hing's. But when Tsui Hark made his version of the story, people were still asking him, 'Why do you decide to tell this story even when it's been told 100 times already?' It's the same question that I'm being asked."

After showing a disregard for censorship with his first film, Chow has recently been bombarded with unwanted attention as to the potentially sensitive appearances of umbrellas - the prop of numerous iconic scenes in previous Wong Fei-hung movies, and a new symbol of civil disobedience in Hong Kong - in Rise of the Legend.

Given the mainland's blanket censorship on any local celebrity who shows the slightest interest in current politics, has he felt pressure to make some last-minute re-edits?

"Movies are movies," says Chow firmly, ignoring the several publicists in the room who attempt to interrupt the question.

"I'm very serious about my filmmaking. I'd say no if anyone wanted to change my film, no matter who it is. When I make films, I don't think about whether they will pass censors. I won't change my film for anyone or anything," he adds.

That attitude should take him far - even if he conjures up another Murderer.

Rise of the Legend opens Thursday