An unsuccessful film director looks for new opportunities in gaining closure with the past in Justin Cheung and Li Ho’s behind the scenes comedy, Legendary in Action! (大俠Action！). Echoing classic wuxia, the film finds its heroes searching for themselves while on a quest to revitalise the Hong Kong film scene in which they must battle unscrupulous investors, idol stars with limited acting experience, divided loyalties, the changing nature of the industry, and the ghosts of wuxia’s past.
40-ish Tiger (Bill “Tiger” Cheung) made a big splash in his earlier career but when his first feature flopped he discovered that second chances are hard to come by in the contemporary film industry. Since then, he’s been making a living shooting sleazy shorts for live streamers while privately dying inside. When a mysterious investor turns up wanting to make a retro wuxia, Tiger is the perfect fit. Shopping an old script he’d written to provide an ending to a serial he loved as a child which was abruptly cancelled, he sets about fulfilling his childhood dream even recruiting the original star to reprise his role but soon finds out that the past is not so easily resurrected.
This fact is brought home to him by irascible former action star Master Dragon (Chen Kuan-tai) who constantly reminds him that it wasn’t like this in his day usually because they had no health and safety regulations or working rights. Yet Master Dragon is also in a sense in search of himself in that he has begun suffering with dementia and is no longer able to separate fantasy from reality. Far too into his role, he ignores the script and attacks the actors playing bad guys for real but cannot quite recall his signature move while insisting on completing dangerous stunts by himself. He’d also insisted on trying to find the original actress to play the romantic lead, but finally settles for a feisty young woman, Greta (Wiyona Yeung), who is mostly in it for the cash but gradually warms to Master Dragon happy to know that someone cared for her after he waded in on her behalf when she was bullied by lecherous customers at the bar where she was working.
Tiger meanwhile finds himself failing in his responsibilities as a husband and soon-to-be father, pouring everything into the film while neglecting his long-suffering wife who asks him why he thought now was a good time for his one last chance. When the shoot enters a crisis, he signs up for even more “meaningless” shorts and onerous employment contracts to get the money together to finish while asking his cast and crew to do the same, each of them facing their various issues while coming together as a team squaring off against the vagaries of the independent cinema scene.
Then again, Tiger doesn’t seem to have learned much about work life balance. Nor is Master Dragon a particularly good influence instructing those around him that if film is not their lives’ work, they shouldn’t be doing it. Master Dragon is on his own journey trying to reclaim his former self while dealing with the past just as Tiger is himself trying to bring something full circle in giving his childhood favourite the ending it deserves. In a closing speech, he aligns his struggles with those of the Hong Kong film industry in general positing the wuxia serial as a symbol of faded glory while implying that the contemporary film industry has run out of steam. “At some point we lost faith in Hong Kong Cinema”, he laments, complaining about rubbish films with bad scripts and terrible production values while praising the efforts of the crazy people who give their all to make them.
“I won’t accept fate” he goes on, like the hero of a classic wuxia fighting for justice in an unjust world while insisting that it is possible to turn things around and restore the glory of Hong Kong film. Then again, as much as his film seems to bring closure and present a place from which to move forward perhaps its unwise to look for new directions in attempting to recreate the past rather than finding new ways to bring it with you into a more positive future.
Legendary in Action! screens at Lincoln Center 17th July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.
Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)
Images: © Marigold Project