New Legend of Shaolin

During the first half of the 1990s, Hong Kong was wire-fu crazy. It seems like all you had to do to get your movie made was show up at a studio waving around a napkin with “guys in robes fly around, then there’s a fart joke” scrawled on it. Even if the studio already had ten movies exactly like yours in production, producers saw no reason they couldn’t add one more to the pile. New Legend of Shaolin, starring Jet Li when he was the undisputed king of being hoisted around on wires, is the epitome of mediocre 1990s wuxia. It’s bad but not enragingly bad. It’s fight scenes are terrible but not “really terrible.” And as was almost always par for the course, the tone jumps wildly and without any transition from slapstick fart comedy to atrociously overwrought melodrama. It’s a textbook case of by-the-numbers, don’t-give-a-shit Hong Kong film making from Wong Jing, the master of by-the-numbers, don’t-give-a-shit Hong Kong film making.

New Legend of Shaolin is basically an adaptation of the Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub series, with a grim-faced, stoic Jet Li starring as Hung Hei-Kwun, a warrior supreme who is on the lam with his kungfu-powered son, played by 1990s martial arts wunderkind Xie Miao, who never became the star everyone assumed he would become, thanks to half-assed movies like New Legend of Shaolin killing off the martial arts movie market. Hung and Son spend their time wandering town to town, solving problems and stoically eating dinner. Meanwhile, in the background, an evil organization called the Heaven and Earth Society, lead by a crazed ex-monk named Poison Juice Monster (bald, eyebrowless Ji Chun-Hua, who played a screaming, crazy bad guy in roughly a trillion movies) — the very man who betrayed Shaolin to the Ch’ings and orchestrated the burning of the temple — is trying to track down five Shaolin pre-teens who happen to have pieces of a treasure map tattooed on their backs so that Wong Jing can put in a lot of jokes where little kids show their bare asses and fart in each others’ faces.

Needless to say, Hung and Son will end up protecting the kids and settling old scores with Poison Juice Monster, who is one of those kungfu bad guys whose every line is a scream or villainous laughter that goes on for like half an hour while he punches lumber or beheads people. 1990s wuxia villains love to yell and punch wood almost as much as they loved to laugh while beheading people to that weird “slicing flesh” sound effect that is used in like every kungfu film and sounds nothing like slicing flesh. It’s more like, I don’t know, someone scraping two pieces of metal together or something. You know the sound effect.

Because Wong Jing doesn’t like to make movies that don’t denigrate women in some way (this is a man who thinks rape is hilarious), we also have to endure harpyish con artists Red Bean (gorgeous queen of shitty Wong Jing movies, Chingmy Yau) and her even more grating and obnoxious mother (Hong Kong movie veteran Deannie Yip). Pretty much every single thing they do is reprehensible, but I guess in the eyes of Wong Jing, this is just women being women, and unrepentant greed, selfishness, extortion, narcissism, theft, and attempted murder is exactly the right combination of feminine charms Red Bean needs to melt Hung’s stony heart. The arrival of Red Bean and her mom allows Wong Jing to indulge in endless scenes of profoundly terrible slapstick comedy that are so unfunny that you’ll actually find yourself praying for the arrival of another sloppily executed scene of Jet Li or Xie Miao being swung around like marionettes — even though these fight scenes are sort of lame, even by lame 1990s wuxia standards.

The action was directed by Cory Yuen, who proved himself adept at directing hard-hitting, real-world martial arts/stunts movies as long as Sammo Hung or Jackie Chan was on hand to help him out. In the wuxia world, with a producer/director as sleazy and untalented as Wong Jing, Yuen flounders, serving up wire-fu antics that represent the very worst the wire-fu trend had to offer. People are flung around without any regard at all for realism — and by “realism,” I mean wuxia realism, a sort of realism where you can shoot lasers from your fists or jump up in the air, and in mid-air propel yourself off your own hand to somehow jump even further into the air. Even by those physics-free standards of realism, the fights in New Legend of Shaolin are ludicrous, jumbled, and boring. If you were new to wire-fu, maybe you could naively consider them outrageous and dazzling, but for anyone who has ever seen wire-fu done right — Once Upon a Time in China, Swordsman and Swordsman 2, to name just a few that all also starred Jet Li — or even adequately — Iron Monkey, Fong Sai Yuk — it’s easy to recognize the action in New Legend of Shaolin as particularly weak.

The acting is equally ham-fisted. Jet Li, who possesses an abundance of charisma when he’s allowed to show it, drifts through the movie playing the honorable stick-up-the-ass hero with almost no appeal. He could redeem himself with decent fight scenes, but a back injury suffered during the filming of Once Upon a Time in China meant that Jet spent the rest of the 1990s not being able to deliver the sort of action he did in that movie. Young Xie Miao was supposed to be another mainland China wushu prodigy, heir to the throne of — hey, Jet Li! Unfortunately, he arrived on the scene when the quality of martial arts movies was in decline. Although he’s obviously got skills, he spends this and most of his other movies doing nothing but being yanked around on wires while scowling.

Chingmy Yau also possesses an abundance of charisma, but she spent almost her entire career making terrible movies and so never really got a chance to be much more than a hot chick in shitty films. Both she and Deannie Yip try to out mug one another, whether it’s overplaying broad comedy or wailing and flailing around in tragic scenes. The bad guy? He just laughs and screams and punches timbers and, for some reason, tears around in a armored dune buggy. I guess that’s cool, sort of.

As for the writing — well, it’s a Wong Jing film. He usually craps out the script on his way to the shoot, concerning himself more with making sure everything trendy is crammed into the movie than he does with writing an even halfway coherent movie. The end result is a mish mash of Lone Wolf and Cub, generic period piece wire-fu, diarrhea jokes, and grossly overwrought melodrama that begs the audience for tears while deserving nothing but contempt for its clumsy hamminess.

New Legend of Shaolin is pretty much a terrible movie all the way around. It’s status as a cheap and shoddy rush job is evident in nearly every aspect. Wong Jing, as much as I find him a thoroughly loathesome film maker, could on occasion make really good movies. He just usually never bothered, because it was way easier and more profitable to just churn out junky nonsense like New Legend of Shaolin. Hong Kong was basically drunk on Hong Kong in the 1990s, and fans both in Hong Kong and abroad would pay to watch just about anything. When I first saw this in 1994, I was still excited to see just about anything from Hong Kong. As such, I was pretty lenient in my assessments of them. Even back then, though, New Legend of Shaolin struck me as crass, dull exploitation. If I don’t say that I hate it, it’s only because it’s such a lame movie that it’s not worth the effort of hating. It managed to be just barely watchable the first time, when I was young and forgiving. Revisiting it years later, I found that a half-remembered single viewing back in 1994 was probably more than this film deserved.

Release Year: 1994 | Country: Hong Kong | Starring: Jet Li Lian-Jie, Chu Ko-Liang, Chingmy Yau, Ji Chun-Hua, Xie Miao, Chan Chung-Yung, Deannie Yip, Damian Lau, Wang Lung-Wei | Screenplay: Wong Jing | Director: Wong Jing | Cinematography: Tom Lau Moon-Tong | Music: Eckart Seeber | Producer: Helen Li, Jet Li, Wai Sum Shia | Alternate Title: Legend of the Red Dragon

9 thoughts on “New Legend of Shaolin”

  1. My introduction to Jet Li happened in the early-to-mid 1990s during my summer vacations spent abroad in the Caribbean. Every week, the local movie theater would double-feature kung-fu movies: usually a classic Shaw Brothers movie paired with a then-modern piece (the newest one might’ve been My Father Is a Hero). In an era before Internet access and search engines we had no idea what any of these movies were, or even what was going to be shown until we got to the theater. So it was that I was introduced to Jet Li, and the style of these movies were unlike anything I’d seen before. Last Hero in China, Invincible Shaolin Hero (another name for Swordsman 2), Fist of Legend, and the like.

    But one movie in particular stood out from the rest as the most awesome alongside Fist of Legend. And that…was New Legend of Shaolin. Were we lacking in perspective? I don’t think so; we saw most all of what are generally considered to be Jet Li’s best films. Was it sheer lack of taste? Could be. I for one still can’t see why the Once Upon a Time in China films are so acclaimed, given they were so light on fights (which ruled when they happened, don’t get me wrong) and so seemingly heavy on boring crap like lion dancing.

    But New Legend of Shaolin had distinctive costumes, a seemingly magical spear that could do any damn thing, needle fights in an alleyway, poison ninja in flying cars, the Kick With No Shadow (as repeatedly done in many other movies, it was lost on us as to WHY other than “that flying bicycle kick is Jet Li’s signature move!”) and that awesome little kid. Who was billed on the marquee as “Jet Li Junior,” such that by the time My Father Is a Hero came out, we were all completely jazzed to see ANOTHER movie starring Jet Li and SON OF JET LI. That one wasn’t nearly as good, but it did have some sweet tonfa beatdowns and the deadliest weapon of all, “small child tied to a rope for use as a makeshift flail.”

    For some, their definitive kung-fu scene/quote is something like “snatch the pebbles from my hand.” or “this time you’re eating paper, the next time it’s going to be glass.” But for me, it’s “Father says I cannot put my foot down until noon.”

  2. I think back in 1994, we dubbed Xie Miao “Minya Jet Li,” and in a fit of lucha libre fandom, “Jetlicita”

    It’s not a movie I dislike to the point where I don’t understand other people liking or even loving it. But for me, it’s the point where the movies began their unfortunate slide into carelessness. I feel the same way about it as I feel about all those Japanese splatter-comedies cluttering up the join these days, or like Troma films. Described to me, or broken down into individual parts, they all sound great, but the assembled whole leaves me cold. I probably would have liked it a lot more if not for the comedy. Wong Jing style comedy is like 100% exactly the sort of humor I hate. I’ve still never forgiven him, Jet, or Jackie Cheung for High Risk.

    He may be the only writer/director who has never made a film that doesn’t contain some variation of the line, “Fatty, your ass is so damn smelly!”

    I liked My Father is a Hero more than New Legend, but I haven’t watched it in a long time. Fist of Legend is, I think, a classic, and it holds up really well even with the undercranked fight scenes. Last Hero in China is a movie I loved when I first saw it. I haven’t seen it since then, and I feel like that’s wise. If nothing else, it lends itself to all sorts of “Jet Li’s Iron Cock” jokes.

  3. Actually, now that I think about it, I probably would have loved this movie as a 13 year old, no questions asked, and even with all the “chicken ass” jokes. But I was like 22 when I saw it, and entering my Hong Kong movie cranky phase.

  4. lol, it took a moment for me to realize I saw the movie under the title “Legend of the Red Dragon”, which……I actually kinda like. I don’t know if you saw the dubbed or subbed version, but I remember thinking the dubbing was pretty funny.

    Although your review makes me want to watch it again, as I seem to remember liking the fight scenes.

    With that said, I didn’t like “High Risk” very much. It felt like the movie was originally supposed to focus on Jacky Cheung’s character, but then they wrote in Jet Li’s character at the last moment. Then yeah, it more annoying than funny. But I’d say High Risk is more tolerable than “City Hunter”, which causes me physical pain and has the distinction of being the only Jackie Chan movie I full on hate(although I suspect “The Spy Next Door” would join it if I ever see it).

    I remember the directors other Jet Li movies being okay, but jeez, most of his other titles look like porn.

  5. I’m not making apologies for Wong, but he is hugely responsible for what made 80’s-90s HK what it was, what with GOD OF GAMBLERS, NAKED KILLER, various Stephen Chow and Andy Lau vehicles, etc. (And there’s no way his output is as abominable as the the current, Japanese splatterthons.)

    And let me throw this out there: HIGH RISK is a personal favorite so there. (If you can have MexWrestling, I can have Wong Jing– mostly, sorta. My love is conditional.)

  6. My relationship with Wong Jing is very similar to my relationship with Donnie Yen (to be addressed in tomorrow’s review of Dragon Tiger Gate). I really don’t like them, but I grudgingly admit that sometimes, they make something I really like — like God of Gamblers or Naked Killer.

    It’s a different sort of dislike than I have for, say, Jim Carrey or Ashton Kutcher. I dislike them in a way that means I will absolutely avoid anything they do, no matter how many people say “actually, this one is really good.” And yes, that includes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

    Wong Jing I dislike, but not in a way that precludes me from watching his movies, no matter how many times I get burned. For example, I hear I Corrupt All Cops is OK…

  7. My lasting memory of this was that damned steel armadillo thing… which struck me as being really incongruous at the time.

    I seem to recall the spear fight at the start being okay too.

  8. This was one of my early Jet Li films (probably number 5 or 6). The book “Asian Cult Cinema” had the line “Some say Jet Li has never been better” when talking about the action. So I went in with high hopes and had them dashed quite nicely with all of the wire effects and Jet Li using a spear the whole time. After the initial disappointment, however, I ended up warming to the film a little bit more, even if its a less-than-ideal showcase for ANYBODY’S physical talents. Interestingly enough, this film made about HKD 20 million in the local box office, which was about what “Bodyguard from Beijing” and “Fist of Legend”, Jet’s other two 1994 films, made combined.

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