Sunday, December 07, 2008

History and Heroes

Wong Fei Hung is incredibly famous. He was a real historical figure, born less than 200 years ago, who significantly contributed to benevolent governmental reform and to valued cultural preservation. After his death his accomplishments were embellished to include a Robin Hood-like help for the poor and fight against institutional injustice.

Most of Hong Kong cinema celebrates his life: he is now an archetype, not just a personality: there are serious, funny, old-fashioned, modern, and allegorical Wong Fei Hung movies. Wong Fei Hung might be the most famous person not involved with the beginning of a religion.

I was introduced to his name in the commentary by Rick Meyers and Jeff Yang from the Drunken Master DVD: of the most important movies in Hong Kong movie history...

...this movie had much more depth in Hong Kong because he is not only just taking the Confusian/Toaist central figure, he is taking the most beloved figure of all of Hong Kong cinema, a guy named Wong Fei Hung, and turning him into an Animal House type character. This was unheard of! This was revolutionary at the time this came out. Most great Kung Fu cinema involves this character Wong Fei Hung. There are more than 100 movies about Wong Fei Hung and the thing that most amuses me is that most of the great ones that come to America are also Wong Fei Hung movies except that Americans don't realize that Once Upon a Time in China 1-3 is a Wong Fei Hung movie starring Jet Li, Iron Monkey is a young Wong Fei Hung movie starring Donnie Yen as Wong Fei Hung's father...

Wong Fei Hung has almost the level of reverence that you might ascribe to, say, an Abraham Lincoln.

There you go.. I'm trying to find a cinematic equivalent of Wong Fei Hung that Americans or Europeans would understand, and I can't. I mean, you take James Bond, you take Indiana Jones, you take any of the great series, you combine them, but none of them are like Wong Fei Hung.

...but no one had ever played Wong Fei Hung like this.
I also cannot think of an equivalently famous and revered American personality, although Jewish culture has an equivalent in its Elijah stories.

In contrast, in a recent Harris poll about the "best" U.S. president in history revealed the ignorance of Americans about history when Clinton ranked above Theodore Roosevelt.

Hm. Not only was Theodore Roosevelt a fighter, a political reformer, an opponent to corruption, immensely popular during his days, and the only person to earn both the Medal of Honor and the Nobel Peace Prize (and back when the latter meant something) but he was a contemporary of Wong Fei Hung. Someone should make a movie or comic book about the two of them traveling together, helping the poor and combating injustice as they walk softly and carry big sticks.

(As an aside, the commentary from which I quoted is great. If you have any interest in martial arts movies, it is reason enough to get the Drunken Master DVD.)

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