The New Legend of Shaolin (1994)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-10-23
While parts of “The New Legend of Shaolin” are covered with the paw prints of Wong Jing, it by no means is typical of most movies he has both written and directed. Wong is a craftsman-like director when his job is to make sure that the actors hit the mark and say their lines—as long as they are lines written by someone else. It is when he is auteur mode, both writing and directing that his films become gag-fests. And I mean “gag” meaning a bad joke done repeated much too often and also “gag” meaning to make someone choke or vomit. In this film Wong forgoes many of his adopted conventions. There are heroic women and children, a hero so concentrated on killing that he allows his son to live only after he is convinced the infant will also be a killer and a trio of villains who are fierce and single-minded opponents.

Action director Corey Yeun provided the structure for several very brutal and bloody fights. The movie begins with a horrific tableau as Hung Hei Goon, played by Jet Li, arrives at his ancestral home to find his entire extended family slaughtered. Men and women are hanging from trees, have been run through with spears or sliced with swords. The children haven’t been spared—their bodies litter the courtyard. Hung does what is expected at first, bewailing the fate of his family, but then becomes a remorseless, implacable killer. He offers his son, who escaped the carnage, the choice between his favorite toy and a sword. If the kid takes the toy he will join his mother in heaven, but if he chooses the sword he will accompany his father on a mission to hunt down and kill those responsible for the atrocity. Hung is the toughest of the tough guys, a man with no room for emotion and little use for other people. His son is an accomplished martial artist—he is adept at unarmed combat and can wield a spear almost as well as his father. He tries to be as cold and uncompromising as his father but is still enough of a young boy to want to befriend the gang of kids they encounter—after beating them up, of course.

The action in the movie is motivated (to the extent there is any reason for it) by an attack on the Shaolin Temple by imperial troops, apparently to find a map that leads to a hidden treasure. Instead of doing what other movie characters do when they have treasure to be hidden—burying it, drawing a map from nowhere in particular to the location of the treasure, then losing the map—the monks inscribe the map on the backs of five young novitiates. For all their skills in calligraphy and kung fu, the monks of Shaolin could have taken a few lessons from Long John Silver or Captain Jack Sparrow on long standing film conventions for hiding bags of gold. The temple is destroyed and most of the monks slaughtered although the five boys with the maps on their backs escape. A more personal reason for Hung to take notice is that not only has his family been killed but there is a significant reward for his capture—a reward that two minor villains try to collect and pay with their lives for the attempt. The first is a particularly nasty specimen, a former comrade in arms of Hung who kills with steel claws and is supported by a small army of black-clad imperial thugs. The second is Hung’s uncle—or maybe his brother—who plays upon the family ties. Hung uses his retractable spear to dispatch each of them and their cohorts.

Two of the main villains are stock characters—an imperial official who takes pleasure in carnage and destruction and his superior, a eunuch who finds the whole affair a bit boring. The eunuch is underplayed to good effect by an uncredited actor. The government man is killed in a showdown in a back alley with Deannie Yip, the mother of Red Bean. Red Bean’s mom is part of a confidence trick that she runs with her daughter, played by Chingmy Yau. Both women continue their scam—or try to—even while becoming key parts of the resistance by protecting the Shaolin kids. The main villain is the poison juice monster, a bad guy who everyone thought had been killed—apparently burned to death—but who has been made invincible by a witch’s spell. The last adult character that is important to the plot is the waxmaker who at first seems to have wandered onto the set from a horror movie but becomes essential to the climax of the film.

Hung’s son is a well written and developed character, a martial artist of skill and cunning far beyond his years but who also wants to be a kid along with the other kids, both those from Shaolin and the brats who are indigenous to the area. He is portrayed by Tze Miu with all the aplomb of a veteran and can’t help but steal almost every scene he is in.

Reviewer Score: 7