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