The Unity Of Heroes (Huang Fei Hong: Nan bei ying xiong)

China (2018) Dir. Lin Zhenzhao

Many countries have their own folk heroes and legends immortalised in film, and for the Chinese it is the martial arts master and medical practitioner Wong Fei-hung. Already the subject of numerous films and TV series, Fei-Hung is back for a new generation of Chinese and martial arts films fans to discover more fictional accounts of his legacy.

In the late 19th century, China has opened its doors to foreign influence though most people aren’t impressed. A man named Mr. Vlad hopes to change opinion by opening a hospital with advanced western medicine to cure their ailments. However, this is a front for Vlad to develop a deadly opium serum to make people stronger physical specimens, and he is using the Chinese as test subjects.

Unfortunately, the serum turns people into violent, impervious zombies. One failed test subject escapes the hospital and ends up at the school of Wong Fei-hung (Vincent Zhao) who tries to treat the man. Fei-Hong’s girlfriend Mu Shaojun (Na Wei) returns from studying medicine abroad and joins Vlad’s hospital. She formulates an antidote for the opium, unaware that it is of Vlad’s causing.

Wong Fei-hung has been portrayed by many actors over the years, most famously Kwan Tak-hing in a film series spanning 40 years. Other names include Gordon Liu, Jackie Chan, even Sammo Hung, though for most modern film fans it will be Jet Li’s portrayal in the Once Upon A Time In China series of the 1990s that they identify with Fei-hung.

A contract dispute between director Tsui Hark and Li in 1994 saw Vincent Zhao take over the role of Fei-hung in two further sequels in the series, which he then reprised on TV. 22 years later, Zhao is back in the grey robes and long ponytail and travels back to 19th century China for this latest interpretation on the legend of Fei-hung, under the vision of director Lin Zhenzhao.

The pervasive theme of the series, China’s resistance to western ideals, remains a core tenet that not only drives Fei-hung to right the wrongs of Vlad’s pernicious plans but also to solidify Fei-hung’s status as a Chinese folk hero. He is still a man of principle and a caring physician, but his defending of the national faith through his Hung Ga style of Kung Fu is the real crowd pleaser for both domestic and global audiences.

Fei-hung’s Kung Fu prowess provides the foundation for the subplot. Master Wu Zhennan (Michael Tong), arrives in Guangdong to open a school promoting Northern Fist kung fu, upsetting Fei-hung’s students who think Wu is encroaching on their master’s turf. A fight breaks out and despite the congenial exchanges between the two masters, a showdown between them is inevitable.

However, the fight continues between the students as Wu’s men continue to stir the pot whilst Fei-hung ponders the problem of the infected man in his care. A combination of Shaojun’s antidote to cancel the pure opium in the man’s body and Fei-Hung’s traditional methods detoxify the man, though his mental faculties are permanently damaged. But he is just one of many test subjects and not all of them are so lucky.

Vlad is using Chinese people as test subjects because he believes they are weak and as China is such a highly populated country, the supply of bodies is inexhaustible. Of course he has managed to sweet talk the top brass of Guangdong and won the people over with his hospital, so when Fei-hung looks to the authorities for help, he becomes a problem for Vlad that needs eliminating.

Chinese cinema has long held a strong nationalistic tone whether the antagonist is from the west or Japan, but over the past few years, the patriotic jingoism has become less subtle and delivered with blunt blows. This script follows suit, with the Chinese declaring all foreigners the devil for forcing opium on them, though in all fairness Vlad’s actions do give them just cause to feel this way.

Serving as balance, the obligatory turncoat is one of the more interesting characters in this tale. Lu Xiaoyue (Wei Xhaohuan) poses as a doctor at the hospital but is Vlad’s top henchman, a stern woman who kicks major butt. Having been instructed to kill Fei-hung, Xiaoyue gets close to Shaojun to do this, but after seeing the effects of the opium drug, she becomes conflicted about her role in Vlad’s plans.

Xiaoyue and Shaojun are conflicting roles, ironically for the same purpose of highlighting western influence on China. Xiaoyue dresses in masculine attire by way of accentuating the seriousness of her character and subservience to Vlad; Shaojun couldn’t be more of a contrast with her Victorian dress, ringlets styled hair and dainty parasol, standing out from every other female in Guangdong too.

Yet the only real anachronism here is the effect of the serum – green veiny patterns on the face, eyes bulging red, not to mention their super strength. It might be an idea too far but isn’t played for laughs, either, just as well as the wire fu antics would render this as hypocrisy if it were. Choreographer Sun Jianshe handles the hand-to-hand combat well enough but the contempt towards the laws of physics and gravity with the wirework take away from the climactic showdowns.

Given his experience playing Fei-Hung, Vincent Zhao seems comfortable enough to be back in the role, but lacks gravitas, whilst failing to create a believable chemistry with the impossibly pretty Na Wei as Shaojun. Where the script is unable to decide if Shaojun is a strong progressive woman or a typical damsel in distress, Wei Xhaohuan gets the meatier female role as Xiaoyue.

Die-hard martial arts fans will find The Unity Of Heroes something of a paradox – it offers everything you want from the genre especially as a throwback to the pre-CGI days, yet has nothing new or original to say either. It is the former aspect that makes this the  perfectly serviceable distraction it is.