Review: 武俠 Wu Xia

Posted by Grey Saturday, August 13, 2011

A seminal reexamination of one of Chinese culture's most unique literature form, Peter Chan Ho-Sun's Wu Xia reinvents the martial arts genre with a bold dash of noir, presenting a true Wu Xia epic film of our time.

Wu Xia (武俠)
Release Date: Cannes Film Festival: May 13th, 2011
Asia: July 28th, 2011
Genre: Martial Arts
Language: Cantonese
Directed by: Peter Chan Ho-Sun
Produced by: Peter Chan Ho-Sun
Huang Jianxin
Jojo Hui
Written by: Aubrey Lam
Donnie Yen
Takeshi Kaneshiro
Tang Wei
Jimmy Wang Yu
Kara Hui

First and foremost, an understanding behind the title of the film is prerequisite to appreciation the film. Thankfully, there's always Wikipedia:

Wuxia (武侠) is a broad genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists. Although wuxia is traditionally a form of literature, its popularity has caused it to spread to diverse art forms like Chinese opera, manhua (Chinese comics), films, television series, and video games. Wuxia is a component of popular culture for many Chinese-speaking communities worldwide.

Directed by Peter Chan Ho-Sun, one of the most respectable and prolific film-makers in Hong Kong, Wu Xia offers unrelenting martial arts entertainment and will no doubt be an ideal Summer blockbuster. However, with Chan's ambitious aim to revitalize the genre by an innovative injection of the modern thriller and noir detective element, the film marks a new high point both in the prolific career of the producer-director, and in the much-beloved film genre of Wuxia.

Starting out as a reimagining of Chang Cheh (張徹)’s 1967 Wuxia classic, One Armed Swordsman (獨臂刀) as a result of Chan and Yen's conversation on their common passion for the martial arts films in the 60s and 70s, Wu Xia soon evolved into an ambitious project that serves to modernize the ailing genre of Wuxia/martial arts for audiences both Chinese and international. Paying homage to the aforementioned golden age of Chinese martial arts films, an incredible combination of noir detective and CSI-esque forensics was integrated to the otherwise familiar theme of vengeance and redemption, ensuring the film's accessibility far beyond the traditional audience base in Asia.

Following the film's premiere at Cannes Film Festival, The Weinstein Company has acquired the release rights of the film in US, and will be releasing the film stateside as "Dragon". While I wholeheartedly agreed that the change of title for the English-speaking market is at best awkward (perhaps Weinstein is somehow in hope of stirring some kind of retroactive appeal for those audience who enjoyed its previous major Asia release, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) I understand the necessity behind the re-titling for marketing purpose and optimistic on the film's prospects in the Western market.

Set in 1917 as China is in the midst of a tumultuous transition from a corrupt monarchy to an equally corrupt republic, Donnie Yen plays Liu Jinxi, a humble paper-maker, who lead a life of tranquility in the idyllic village town in southwestern China's Yunnan province with his wife, Ayu (Tang Wei), and his two sons. When two vicious robbers arrive at the General Store in Liu's presence, the benign villager took a stand and "miraculously" dispatched both thugs despite his bumbling ways. The extraordinary incident soon caught the attention of detective Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro).

Xu, a master detective who utilized an almost-scientific repertoire of expertise from forensic science, Chinese acupuncture, and traditional detective smarts, soon deduced that the unlikely local hero might just be a highly-skilled mass murderer on the run from the law or something else. Xu's unrelenting investigation to uncover the true identity of Liu soon take a turn for the tragic as the lives of the family of four as well as the peaceful village are forever shattered by the aftermath of the revelation.

While one might find the plot reminiscent of "A History of Violence", David Cronenberg's critically acclaimed adaptation of the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, I can assured you the film explores distinctly different elements of the redemption theme, as Chan continues his signature cinematic study on the human condition. In Aubrey Lam's excellent yet understated script, the eventual revelation of the Liu's complex character is a deep character study of the character in which his past dark secret shaped his unique, almost-zen philosophy of the cause and effects of the nature of life.

Both Yen and Tang portrayed their characters in a satisfyingly quiet manner, suitably adapting to the subtle yet moving script. The recurring theme of the characters's respective scarred pasts continue to reflect their hidden fear of grappling with the fragility of the seemingly transient happiness. The only question coming from Ayu following the revelation is particularly heartbreaking, adding to the strength to Tang's capable performance, and a notable depart from the usual eye candy role of female in the male-dominated Wuxia genre. Meanwhile, the scene where Liu wept in silence at his son's bed is indicative of Yen's best dramatic performance yet.

However, the most complete yet intricately complex character of the film is Xu, the quirky detective who peculiar methods was easily the source of some of the more light-hearted moments of the film and yet was ironically the character who constantly faces the ghost of his past throughout the film. Quite possibly Kaneshiro's strongest performance in his prolific career, detective Xu embodies the bold innovative master strokes from the brilliant direction and script. A man of science in the golden age of seemingly magical martial arts, the detective utilizes an awesome combination of forensic science, physiology, physics, understanding of Chinese acupuncture and qigong, among many others, together with the regular detective habit of paying close attention to details in his investigation. As a result, the first half of the film was dedicated to an exhilarating chain of sequences with Xu reenacting the crime scene a'la CSI (cue computed generated sequences of the human anatomy), with a touch of noir.

In addition, Xu is also a no-nonsense lawman who controlled his overflowing compassion by way of Chinese acupuncture needles and yet suffering greatly for his unrelenting quest for justice in a hopelessly corrupt world. The background story of the character was further laid out later in the middle act, providing an amazing level of depth to the tragic character. Towards the end of the film, the theme of redemption is further deepened with Xu's quest for justice evolving into a personal moral battle to put the ghost of the past to rest.

In line with the film's intent to pay homage to the classic Wuxia film of yesteryear, both martial art movie icon Jimmy Wang Yu (incidentally the One-Armed Swordsman himself in the aforementioned classic 1967 film) and veteran Kara Hui appeared on the film to lend some menacing presence as the antagonists of the film. Wang, in particular, was a major acquisition of the director, for the moving confrontation scene surrounding a childhood memory before the final action sequence.

While the film leans more heavily towards drama than action, Chan maintained an outstandingly high production values for the film. Cinematographers Jake Pollock and Lai Yiu-fai took advantage of the luscious beauty of the location, bringing audiences a contradicting mix of colorful scenic sequences and the stark despair in the darker scenes. Meanwhile, the action set pieces, while only a handful, are masterfully directed and choreographed by Yen, and are easily some of the best work of the veteran.

The Rundown

Being a film that seeks to reinvent the much beloved genre of Wuxia films with the namesake of the genre being front and center (not unike a noir detective film being entitled as "Noir"), Wu Xia is undoubtedly an ambitious undertaking by the acclaimed director. With top notch production values, exhilarating action sequences, and the signature humanist touch of the director, Wu Xia is an innovative approach on the run-of-the-mill genre that worked on many levels, resulting in an exemplary take on one of the most loved genres in Chinese pop culture. This is one film no Wuxia fans or any self-respecting movie lovers ought to miss.


The trailers for the film.

Here are a collection of posters for the film.


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