CHUN YI: THE LEGEND OF KUNG FU
Queen Elizabeth Theatre
$28 and up
You’ve probably seen the ad on TV or the picture in The Province: a shirtless man, arms spread wide, balanced in the air on the sharp tips of spears held under his chest and thighs. It’s a definite wow! moment. How rock-hard must the guy’s muscles be to keep him from getting shishkabobbed by the weight of his own body?
If that doesn’t have you shaking your head, he’ll later lie on a bed of swords with a second man lying on a bed of nails on top of him, and a third smashing a large stone tablet with a sledgehammer on top of them both.
Then there are forty other kung fu warrior-monks, a few balletic women, and a handful of extraordinarily athletic young boys who leap, tumble, fly, and generally whip around the large Queen E stage, sometimes brandishing weapons, showing what amazing things the human body can do in this wordless physical spectacle “direct from Beijing.”
Like the recent South African revue UMOJA and last summer’s Chinese “action-musical” Heartbeat, Chun Yi: The Legend of Kung Fu combines modern choreography with traditional indigenous forms of martial art and ritual to showcase the male body.
Like Heartbeat, but without that show’s fantastic live music and brilliant costumes, Chun Yi hangs its physical action on a simple narrative frame. A young boy enters a kung fu temple to train as a monk. He learns the discipline from a master, fights with the other monks, and grows in skill and stature. But he also faces temptations and distractions which he learns to overcome before emerging as a master himself.
While Chun Yi contains quite a few fabulous moments, it also has tedious stretches. In the second act especially, the storyline seems more ponderous than profound and is sometimes difficult to follow. The loud recorded music cut out a couple of times on opening night, and a lot of the stage machinery is simply distracting.
But oh, those flying kung fu bodies! The most effective sequences feature super-intense bursts of fast and furious muscular movement by performers who attain remarkable hang-time with their leaps before making extraordinarily soft landings, genuinely challenging gravity if not defying it.
Some of the show’s indelible images for me: young boys doing back flips onto the tops of their heads (ouch!), then flipping back onto their feet without using their hands. A series of super-fast martial moves ending with the performer flipping perfectly into the lotus position. A gorgeous sequence with Chun Yi in torment, hanging upside down, while a temptress dances beneath him, a monk flagellates himself high above him, and other monks do amazing acrobatic things in the harsh red light of what looks like kung fu hell.