Beautiful, intelligent and like nothing else. Well, Peter Chan’s (The Warlords, Perhaps Love) take on the wuxia genre was never going to be straightforward?…
When court detective Xu Bia-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro, Red Cliff, House of Flying Daggers, The Warlords, K-20: The Legend of the Black Mask) is sent to investigate the death of two notorious criminals in a remote village, he finds an unassuming papermaker, Liu Jin-xi (Donnie Yen, Ip Man, The Lost Bladesman, 14 Blades) at the centre of the fracas that led to their end. Obsessed that this man must be a trained martial artist to have survived such a conflict, he decides he must be a treacherous criminal in hiding and decides to prove his theory and bring Liu to justice.
Liu appears to be just an ordinary man who came to the village 10 years before, marrying Ayu (Tang Wei, Lust, Caution, Late Autumn) and living with their two sons. Celebrated as an unintentional hero for helping end the terror of two criminals, Xu cannot convice anyone to help him take his investigations further – seeming like, at best, an eccentric with an over active imagination, at worst, a dangerous fantasist.
Yet his investigations soon gain the interest of the leader of evil clan 72 Demons (Jimmy Wang Yu, One-Armed Swordsman, The Assassin, Master Of The Flying Guillotine), who is looking for his second-in-command… and son.
It’s easy to forget that for much of Peter Ho-sun Chan’s career (as a director, at least) he’s steered wildly clear of making martial art or even action movies. The Warlords, the epic re-imagining of the same Qing Dynasty story that became the basis for Zhang Che’s The Blood Brothers still leaves such a powerful impression that his previous work creating intelligent romantic comedies and dramas, like He’s A Woman, She’s A Man and Comrades, Almost A Love Story, and even the US film The Love Letter, are all but blown away.
So when it came to directing his first martial art movie ‘proper’ (as long as you ignore all that action choreography that Ching Siu-tung fella did – yeah, I know, what stuff, eh?), should we be surprised of the results?
Much has been made of the film being a Chinese remake of David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence, but that seems a simplification, and a comparison Chan himself seems rather ambivalent about. Of course, it has many of the same notions – Can a man truly begin a new life without having to atone for the sins of the past? – but then these notions are at the core of many films from the Western genre, where strangers rolled into town attempting to make a new life, before their past catches up with them. Think Shane or Unforgiven?
The bigger influence on Wu Xia comes from Zhang Che’s seminal One-Armed Swordsman and its sequel. It may have been one of the first of Che’s macho-led wuxia films, but it also gave us a rare occasion when our lead does not only survive, but returns to his new life with his love as a farmer rather than become a martial artist again. Inevitably for a martial artist with morals (and for successful films) our eponymous lead is once again brought into this world in the Return Of The One-Armed Swordsman.
Chan and Zen have made it clear that the initial idea for the film came from their mutual love of wuxia genre films. If the reference isn’t made clear enough from sharing the original star Jimmy Wang Yu, then a greater homage is made towards the end. (Even though the decision to do it came only halfway through shooting. Do. I. Need. To. Spell. It. Out?)
The story from Aubery Lam, a director in her own right and regular collaborator with Chan (The Warlords, Perhaps Love, Who’s The Woman, Who’s The Man?), grabs these ideas and more to explore and deconstruct the wuxia genre. Though it may be easy to dismiss it as her female perspective on the action genre, Lam finds a far more personal story within the narrative that debunks much of the machimo at its base (much as Purple Storm did, which she also contributed to).
Ayu’s keenness to use contraception is not only pretty much unheard of in such films, it also acts to say much about her apprehension that Liu will leave her like her first husband did, as well as her growing fears that there may be more to his past than even she knows.
Most interesting is the suggestion that no martial artist appears to be ‘good’. Xu immediately supposes that Liu must be a villain in hiding, and it seems that only other criminals have the martial art ability to bring him down – there appear to be no actual ‘heroes’ available or interested in helping. Lam’s script may play up to the anti-heroes of Zhang Che’s yanggang films, but it goes a long way towards removing the actual ‘xia’ (or ‘hero’) part of the film’s title.
Part of that ‘debunking’ comes in the way Chan approaches the martial arts at the core of the film. Using Xu’s knowledge he does much to demystify exactly what is going on within bodies with pressure points, and so on. He’s admitted in interviews how this was inspired by accidentally coming across a Discovery Channel programme that graphically illustrated how bullets rip through human bodies and cause heart failures.
Detective Xu’s imagined reconstruction of Liu’s struggle with the felons recalls Rashomon or Hero, glamorising the events we’ve previously seen as if through the eyes of a kung fu fan. Which of course will make up much of the audience with Donnie Yen as the lead. It’s a testament to Peter Chan that he manages to pull off a film that makes you think about the genre, and yet also delivers on the action score.
Yen’s fight choreography is as solid as ever, with his battle with lead 72 Demon assassin played by Kara Hui, an actress with a long career in Hong Kong films herself, including The Brave Archer, Dirty Ho, Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars, Infernal Affairs 2, a particular highlight.
That does mean, however, that the audience never doubt for a second that Donnie Yen’s character is in fact a kung fu master, even when Xu’s sanity is brought severely into doubt when it is revealed hallucinating another version of him self watching on. (A Mad Detective style complication that adds little else to the film.) Though this film may look in part at the sort of person Liu used to be, it does not give us a transformation of Viggo Mortensen/A History Of Violence proportions as he goes from family man to powerful martial artist.
But it’s also a great acting performance from Yen, thanks no doubt to Chan and his ability to get outstanding work from his action leads. After all, he put Jet Li on the same stage as Takeshi and Andy Lau and didn’t have him look outflanked. Here Takeshi seems to go a step further towards leaving the heartthrob roles of his past behind to more interesting, intellectual (and often bespectacled) roles.
Tang Wei makes a solid if (appropriately) unassuming impression as Lui’s wife. But the real star is veteran Jimmy Wang Yu, in a rare appearance. Though you might argue underutilised, Wang Yu drips with tangible evil as Lui’s father – definitely not a granddad you’d be inviting round for Christmas jollies!
The film looks immaculate. The art direction by Sun Li gorgeously recreates a remote village, with much of the film shot on location in Yunnan. The sumptuous cinematography by Lai Yiu-Fai (Infernal Affairs, Initial D: Drift Racer, Confession of Pain) and Jake Pollock considers every moment on screen. The scene with one of the robbers floating through the rice fields deliberately evokes John Everett Millais’ famous Pre-Raphaelite painting Ophelia.
Is Wu Xia really a deconstruction of the wuxia genre? In some senses it’s no more than has been done before by filmmakers like King Hu and Akira Kurosawa. The dénouement is rather what you’d expect from a film of its type, and yet this is one of the most interesting and overall successful films in the genre for a while. And that is very welcome indeed.
Wu Xia aka Dragon, was released in UK cinemas by Metrodome Distribution on 3 May 2013, and will be released on DVD from 19 August.
Review originally published 28 November 2011.
UPDATE: 6 March 2013
Comparing the international cut – Dragon
News that the US release would be significantly shorter than the original Hong Kong / Chinese version was greeted with much unease and speculation. Released by the Weinstein Company, it was easy to suggest that the distributors had enforced this, displaying our high regard for Harvey. Ahem. Well, Peter Chan himself described it as a compromise between his artistic vision, and bowing to commercial pressures – having sat previously at both sides of the table. (‘Not without a lot of pain and not without a lot internal struggle.’)
For the main part the cuts come in the first half, tightening up the pace and the inevitable wait for the first, ‘real’ martial art fight, which many might see as a better pacing. It also loses some of the actual ‘investigation’ part of detective Xu Bia-jiu’s work, jettisoning two scenes concerning the inn: firstly where the criminals drink before they appear at the store, and Xu’s interview with the inn owner afterwards. It also loses Xu’s supposition of three notorious fugitives Liu Jin-xi could be; neatly stylised, it adds nothing to the storyline and even confuses. Some scenes are edited, but for the main part this version still allows the beautiful cinematography and superb performances to breathe.
For me, one of the biggest omissions was the scene between Liu Jin-xi and his wife Ayu discussing use of contraception. (Fish bladders, since you ask.) It stuck with me as an unusual and mature inclusion for a wuxia movie. It’s Ayu’s insistence that they use it, even suggesting using a medicine made from mercury as an alternative. This says so much about her; her suspicion of her husband and what he once was, however much she loves him (and Tang Wei’s beautifully understated performance leaves you in no doubt of that). It also suggests this already existed before the events at the store.
Much less is made of Xu’s hallucination of another version of himself, looking on and often goading him into action. In many respects this was my one issue with the original, so I wasn’t upset to see so much of them go (though one leads to yet another omitted scene where villagers goad Xu to leave in song). The problem is that they can’t be excised completely, meaning that those that remain are perhaps more confusing than in the original.
For those that haven’t seen the original (and even some of those that have) I’d doubt you’d miss the omissions here. For those that notice them, however, I think what this version misses is some of the subtlety they brought. Subtitles have been greatly improved allowing audiences to clearly understand what is going on.
It’s a testament to the quality of the film that even in its shorter version, it’s still one of the most intelligent, exciting and inventive films in the wuxia genre in the last two or three decades…
An absolute must-see!
Distributor: Momentum Distribution (UK)
Edition: DVD (2013)
Good transfer of the film, though oddly perhaps no as good a transfer as the original HK DVD, and subtitles are burned in.
Minimal presentation includes other trailers from Metrodome including The Warlords and Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen and other less appropriate titles.
There's also a compilation of three mini featurettes with Donnie Yen, originally including on the Weinstein US DVD/Blu-ray, that might be short but provides great insight into the making of the film.
Distributor: Media Asia (HK)
Edition: DVD (2011)
Beautiful transfer of the film, does the film justice. Minimal extras include trailers and a series of short 'making of' featurettes with the cast.