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Movie Talk: Understanding and learning myths and legends through Asian films6 min read

4 October 2011 4 min read


Movie Talk: Understanding and learning myths and legends through Asian films6 min read

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Filmmakers have always put in dedicated efforts in espousing social messages through their films, and this practice is especially prevalent in art house films.

And more interestingly, this endeavour sometimes translates into historical epics or legendary figures where audiences are given a visual treat where life lessons are presented through celluloid – without requiring the audiences to having live through the various experiences of the protagonists. While there are mixed sentiments about the authenticity and historical accuracy of the films, audiences should place their focus on what they are able to learn from the films instead of spending time checking out the details of the historical chronologies.

To clear such ambiguities and doubts, some films have used the phrase “Inspired by real events” instead of “Based on a true story” on movie posters or at the start of the film. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, it’s up to the audiences to enjoy the flow of the film rather than being tripped up by the hiccups of doubts and uncertainties.

With this thought in mind, let’s explore the various Asian films that seek to portray the highlights of these legends:

Ip Man

While most films seek to promote the spirit of martial arts and courage through the life of Bruce Lee, it is indeed an ingenious and strategic move to take a step back, think out of the box and explore the teacher behind the martial arts legend that took the world by storm – Ip Man. As the saying goes, behind every man’s success is a woman. Along the same vein, we can also say that behind every accomplished student lies a great teacher. Much can be said of Ip Man but two significant characteristic of his are determination and resilience, passing down the art of Wing Chun to the later generations in the midst of challenging times. “Ip Man” (2008) and “Ip Man 2” (2010) seeks to portray the kung fu legend’s life in a chronological order, while “Ip Man Zero” closes in on the earlier part of the man’s life.

When the three films are pieced together, one will generally get an overview of a legend’s life. Nevertheless, the three titles should be valued more for their emphasis on positive values such as loyalty, justice, empathy, fairness, equanamity and more significantly, mercy (仁).

The Sorcerer and the White Snake

Based on a Chinese literature classic, “The Sorcerer and the White Snake” (2011) is essentially a touching and emotional story about an enduring  love between a human and a demon, and an investigative exploration into the dire consequences of such a reunion, causing a disruption in the natural flow of the universe. A collision of perceptions and an a visual discourse on the battle between good and evil, “The Sorcerer and the White Snake” is a contemporary take on the old Chinese classic. With Jet Li and Eva Huang at the helm with Ling Feng as the supporting lead, this show is sure to attract audiences worldwide. The extravagant special effects used in the movie is a plus to this great title.

1911 & Bodyguards and Assassins

Sun Yat-sen – often known as the “Father of the Nation” – was a popular figure often portrayed in films and dramas.  And this is especially so in recent years, with film such as “1911” (2011) and “Bodyguards and Assassins” (2010). Throughout the ages, people have always been fascinated with individuals who changes the course of history such as Mother Teresa and  Mohandas Gandhi – and Sun Yat-sen is no different. They are the human embodiment of an undying human spirit, creating a human legacy that transcends death and embodying everlasting change through their inexhaustible courage and tenacity.

While “1911” provides the historical account of the lifestyle of Huang Xing (played by Jackie Chan, his 100th film), the lieutenant of Sun Yat-sen, Sun Yat-sen still serves as a beacon in the dark onscreen. “Bodyguards and Assassins” adopts an entire different filmic structure, choosing instead to focus on the charismatic prowess of Dr Sun where his loyalist are prepared to  flock to their death in a bid to prevent an assassination attempt on his life. Despite the disparate nature of both films, the courageous spirit of Dr Sun lives on through similar thematic elements of patriotism and selflessness that permeates the films.


Considered by many to be a sage and a benefactor to students and mankind alike, “Confucius” (2010), starring Zhou Yun-Fat and Zhou Xun, is a tribute to a great man who has passed down many practices of virtues and values to the later generation, especially in China where it has spread to other Asian countries, of which South Korea is among the countries where Confucianism is still prevalent – even till the present day. It is unfortunate that in recent years, many virtues such as filial piety, humility , respect for elders and the like are eroding substantially, leaving much to be desired when it comes to revitalising the cultural values that has enabled societies to live together harmoniously for years.

After watching the film, a decision to further one’s understanding of the Analects of Confucius will definitely go a long way to understanding why the values and practices espoused in the analects will improve the well-being of societies and countries.

Red Cliffs

Based on one of the four great literary classics of China (the other three being “Water Margin”, “Dreams of the Red Chamber” and “Journey to the West”), both “Red Cliff” (2008) and Red Cliff II (2009) describes one of the defining moments in the story of “Romance of the Three Kingdom” – the battle waged between Cao Cao and the combined army of Sun Quan and Liu Bei that resulted in the splitting of China in three fractions of Wei, Shu and Wu. Despite having a narrow focus, much can be learnt from the battle of wits between Zhuge Liang (Liu Bei’s trusted advisor and military strategist) and Zhou Yu (military advisor of Sun Quan).

These films also offer an opportunity for fans of military strategies to explore the novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, where they may in turn develop an extensive interest in the military strategies of other legendary figures such as Sun Tzu and Sun Bin.

Huo Yuanjia

While the world has their eyes on Wong Fei-hung, few noticed a bright spark that lingers in the background. Huo Yuanjia, a chinese martial legend who battles foreign oppression was almost a forgotten figure until movies such as “Fearless” (2006) (starring Jet Lit) reinstates the man to its rightful place as a heroic fighter and a staunch patriot. Other classic titles on the life of Huo Yuanjia includes “Huo Yuanjia” (1982), which was also directed by Yuen Woo-Ping.

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