Cards on the table. I loved this film. It is one of the best martial arts movies I've seen in a long time. It follows the conventions of the genre but there are some curves that will keep you thinking long after the credits.
It's the story of Begger Su, a master of Wushu. Now the story is split basically in two and each half is stylistically different. The first half is very early Shaw Brothers in style while the second is more like recent martial art films like "Assassins and Bodyguards." That the film can have such a schizoid feel and yet hold together is in itself amazing.
In the first half Su is a general. He's a brilliant fighter and leader of man and we meet him as he goes off to save a captured prince. The sets automatically give the reality level to that of about an Indiana Jones film. This first action sequence shows that the martial art is a mix of martial arts, CGI, and wire fu. The sequence is fairly seamless and more importantly the lines of action are always clear. This isn't MTV chop sockey.
After saving the Prince he's offered a high place in government. Su though is humble, and also worried that his foster brother will take offense. He gives his sword to his friend, and then tries to mollify his brother as best he can, and then goes off to have a family. The brother though is having none of it. See, Su's dad killed his dad and then took the boy in to raise as his own, but it never really took. So five years later the brother comes for revenge. Oh, and boy is he a badass. First he took armor and SEWED IT TO HIS CHEST. Then he learned his dead father's technique of the Fist of the Five Deadly Venoms, which basically makes you look like a dead thing but gives you the power to poison others. The Brother kills Su's dad and takes his family. At an incredible fight by a roaring river Su's arm is hurt and he's hurled into the river. The Brother take's Su's son.
Su's wife finds Su and they go to a remote mountain. Su knows he most regain his strength in more to free his son so he practices, practices, and practices. But he keeps getting distracted by a pair of running nuts. Finally one day, he catches up to them. The Old Sage and the God of Wushu. The Old Sage says he'll teach Su all he knows, he just has to beat the God of Wushu. Su gladly takes the challenge and has his head beaten in. When he's healed he goes back again. Practically everyday they fight and he loses. But he is growing strong. His wife is happy, the doctor who treated him is not. She's worried about his mental health. The wife says, he's just stressed cause he's fighting the God of Wushu every day. The doctor reminds her, that they are the only ones on the mountain.
So the wife follows one day and finds out there is no God of Wushu. Her Husband is running around in circles hitting his own head with rocks or head first into the trees. He is clearly barking mad crazy. This is a real game changer. I've seen blind martial artist and drunk ones, but nutty ones is something new. The interesting thing, is that he does seem to have learned new techniques. Is this a commentary on the creative process?
Anyway, it sets the stage for the coming tragedy. The wife not trusting her husband anymore goes herself to get her son. He comes after them of course and beats seven kinds of crap into the creepy brother which is impressive since i've only known five kinds of crap before. Unfortunately, the wife pays with her life. This doesn't help Su's mental health.
So now we are in the second story. Our hero, once a general, is now a bum. His kid is the starving son of a bum. An aside: Su's parenting skills suck wind. It's amazing the kid still has blind hero worship for him. Turns out Su is still seeing things and is in the middle of creating drunking boxing. His old friend sees him and tries to help him, but Su is too far gone really. But Su decides to help his friend because evil white imperialist powers are using martial arts to trample on the chinese. Led by the not yet dead David Carradine, they have a huge slab of meat that's breaking the backs of every chinese fighter that enters the ring. Will Su get his drunk butt together enough to fight for Chinese honor?
Of course he will. This section was interesting but not nearly as fun as the first half. But I do like how the more realistic feel works with the down and out and nutty Su. Whereas the first half feels truly legendary, the second has the "true" part. I can believe a homeless guy who somehow is channeling how to become the best martial artist. The film ends with a happy note. Our hero has cleaned up and travels the land with his son, but we can see that he's still seeing things that are not there. Certainly, makes you wonder what adventures he'd have afterwards.