Wu Xia (2011)


Director:  Peter Chan
Cast:  Donnie YenTakeshi KaneshiroTang Wei, Wang Yu
Plot:  A sinful martial arts expert wants to start a new tranquil life, only to be hunted by a determined detective and his former master.

Genre:  Action / Drama
Awards:  -
Runtime:  115min
Rating:  NC16 for violence.

Wu Xia, also known as Dragon in certain regions, premiered at Cannes recently but was not an official selection.  It is directed by Peter Chan, who has made films such as Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996) and The Warlords (2007), and stars a strong cast including Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Tang Wei.

Thankfully, it is not “one of those films” from that worn-out Asian martial arts genre that gained worldwide popularity eleven years ago with Lee Ang’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), but has fallen short of the high standards as seen from some of the mediocre output in recent years.

The story follows Liu Jin Xi (Yen), a down-to-earth villager who has two young sons and a beautiful wife, Ayu (Tang).  After an attempted robbery by two vicious bandits ended in their deaths at the hands of Liu, a smart but nosy detective Xu Bai Jiu (Kaneshiro), who comes to investigate, suspects that Liu may not be what he seems to be.  Evidence points that he could be one of the most feared and cruel killers who had escaped justice ten years ago.  As the plot thickens, a new subplot emerges that would pave the way for a tense, exciting climax.

Director Chan’s take on this uniquely Chinese brand of cinema is fresh and intriguing.  First, the strong focus on storytelling and development of the characters is obvious.  Second, there are considerably fewer action set-pieces in this film than any other contemporary martial arts flick in recent years.  Third, the incorporation of ideas from CSI episodes and traditional Chinese acupuncture give the filmmakers an interesting approach to tackle a story that explores the tension between justice and humanity.  

Except for a kinetic action set piece early on, the first hour moves quite slowly as the mystery unfolds and unlocks itself.  The whole film may be dissatisfying to those who crave non-stop action, but those demanding substance to go with the cinematic experience will be well-rewarded.  The art direction and cinematography are excellent, with much attention paid to its period detail.  It seems all-natural and not staged like a built set.

Perhaps the film’s major flaw lies in its uneven narrative structure.  While separated cleanly into acts, it is not until quite late in the film then do we see the main antagonist, who is played by a fearsome-looking Wang Yu.  Wang’s arrival, while keenly awaited, seems short-lived.  As a result, Wu Xia feels unbalanced with too much exposition in the first half, and a second half that appears unfulfilled.

But this structural flaw could be forgiven because ultimately Chan’s film remains engrossing, and this is mostly due to its revitalized treatment of a tired genre and a cast that show good acting chops.  Yes, even Donnie Yen himself can act.


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