In Qin Dynasty China, General Meng Yi (Jackie Chan) is forced to escort his beloved Princess Oh Soo (Kim Hee Seon) to the Forbidden City where, for the good of her people, she must become the Emperor’s concubine. Attacked by enemy soldiers, the princess’ carriage is forced off a cliff, whereupon General Yi dives to her rescue… and wakes up in the 21st Century as kung fu fighting archaeologist, Jack (Chan again). Haunted by dreams about the lovely princess, Jack leads a lonely life aboard his hi-tech barge in Hong Kong until his duplicitous best buddy, William (Tony Leung Ka Fai) ropes him into a quest to uncover the lost kingdom of Dasar and its mystical levitation technology. They hotfoot it to India and witness a flying guru. While Jack tries to decipher ancient inscriptions, William steals some precious stones “for research.” Chased by Bollywood extras, Jack finds refuge with shapely high-kicker, Samantha (Mallika Sherawat) at a martial arts temple, while flashbacks reveal how Yi and Oh Soo’s romance reached its tragic end. In a mad quest for immortality, the Emperor has himself entombed with all his concubines, leading to a race against time before Oh Soo is buried alive. Meanwhile, William makes a secret deal with evil tomb raider, Professor Koo (Sun Zhou), before reuniting with Jack to discover a spectacular, floating kingdom hidden underground. Here, Jack is shocked to find Princess Oh Soo lives on as a flying, immortal spirit waiting for Meng Yi to return.
Away from the execrable Rush Hour series, clown prince of kung fu, Jackie Chan periodically returns to Hong Kong cinema and delivers more engaging fare. The Myth is his most ambitious and enjoyable effort in years, a slick, time-twisting adventure/tragic romance spanning two time zones, three countries and featuring an international cast conversing in three different languages. Its success is all the more surprising, because director Stanley Tong was previously responsible for reprehensible pap like Rumble in the Bronx (1995), First Strike (1996) and China Strike Force (2001). Here he finally lives up to his dynamic debut, Supercop (1993), with historical epics, Chinese ghost stories, Indiana Jones and Jackie’s own Armour of God (1986) all factoring into the mix. The story draws upon actual historic events (the First Emperor really was obsessed with immortality and entombed with his concubines) and weaves that endearingly picaresque, make it up as you go structure common to Jackie Chan films, with a surprisingly strong through-line of wistful romance. Such a melancholy love story is atypical for its star, but welcome and deftly illustrated via poetic flashbacks: a portrait artist notices Princess Oh Soo lights up only when Meng Yi is near; the lovers huddle for warmth in cave; the dancing concubine performs “for your (Meng’s) eyes alone.” These scenes show an understanding of the wu xia genre as well as recognising Tsui Hark, Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou’s achievements in the genre.
Kung fu fans uncomfortable with all the mushy stuff needn’t worry. Chan may be slowing down in his old age, but choreographs some fantastic swordplay and slapstick fu. A memorable set-piece, with the protagonists glued to a conveyer belt, provides a shameless excuse to strip Bollywood beauty Mallika Sherwat down to her underwear, so she can show off her lovely, lethal legwork. Meanwhile, Tong delivers epic action in the Kurosawa style. The opening battle features armoured hordes clashing amidst the sweeping desert vistas, exploding balls of fire, a runaway carriage and one, lovable, HK cinema eccentricity: a kung fu kicking horse! Meng Yi’s last stand, as he fends off one thousand men, single-handed impresses more than anything in 300 (2007), capped by an unforgettable shot from the point of view of a flying, severed head. Cinematographer Wong Wing Hang ensures a glossy looking production, with fantastic Indian and Mainland China locales (featuring the great wall and the famous terracotta warriors).
Not everything works. By delaying the villain’s appearance until late in the game, Tong robs the quest of its urgency. While Professor Koo’s motivations are solid enough (He wants the emperor’s anti-gravity meteorite and his secret immortality elixir), his back-story with Jack remains vague. Fans will be disappointed Chan doesn’t fight him to a standstill, but steps aside while a minor character finishes the job. However, what the film lacks as a martial arts actioner, it makes up for in emotion. Not just the love story, but the relationship between Jack and his greedy, but self-loathing best friend and the loyalty shown by General Yi’s troops, even beyond the grave. There is even a slight, philosophical undertone wherein Jackie debates with a holy man the differences between false idols (money, flying gurus, magic stones) and true spirituality (love, loyalty, and kick ass moves). The Myth also features Jackie Chan’s best acting in quite some time. He sparks well off accomplished Korean actress Kim Hee Seon, the spirited Mallika Sherwat, impressive Mainland newcomer Shao Bing, and multitalented character actor Tony Leung Ka Fai - who enjoyed brief global stardom in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Lover (1992).
Although available on region 1 DVD, collectors are advised to seek out the region 3, two-disc special edition which includes a making of documentary, deleted scenes, music videos (a love duet sung in Cantonese by Jackie and Korean by Kim Hee Seon) and footage from the film’s Hong Kong premiere. Highlights include the crowd’s collective gasp when Mallika Sherwat steps onstage in a revealing dress and Jackie clowning around with Kim Hee Seon, by deliberately mistranslating her speech (“She says working with me was the highlight of her career!”)