AKA: Dragon, Swordsmen
Director: Peter Chan Ho Sun
Writer: Aubrey Lam Oi Wah
Producer: Peter Chan, Huang Jianxin, Jojo Hui Yuet Chun
Cast: Donnie Yen Chi Tan, Kaneshiro Takeshi, Jimmy Wang Yu, Tang Wei, Kara Hui Ying Hung, Yin Zhusheng
Running Time: 115 min.
Donnie Yen is back with another film! Ever since his big breakthrough playing wing chun master Yip Man in Ip Man back in 2008, we have experienced a streak of movies that he starred in. These films were as followed: Bodyguards & Assassins, 14 Blades, Ip Man 2, Legend of the Fist, All’s Well Ends Well 2011, The Lost Bladesman and a couple of small roles in both All’s Well Ends Well 2009, and The Founding of a Republic. That should tell you how valuable Donnie is to the industry in the current, with offers placed to the table and with Donnie pondering over what to work on. But has his recent input really been doing justice to films before them? We all have our own opinions but in my mind, it has shifted to being of different qualities and satisfactions. But I’m glad to announce that Wu Xia is the icing of the cake out of all these post-Ip Man movies. It’s also the most ambitious effort from Peter Chan thus far.
Donnie Yen plays peaceful familyman and papermaker Liu Jin-xi who travels between his shack in the middle of a forest to a small village on the Yunnan/Sichuan border everyday to work and support his wife Ayu (Tang Wei) and two kids. During a workday at a store, Liu comes across two out-of-towners with the intention to rob the place. But to the owners’ luck, Liu intervenes and manages to overcome the two and even have one of them killed. This results in a big investigation conducted by Constaple Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who during the inspection of the corpses as well as questioning locals about the people involved realizes that the one Liu accidentally had killed was actually a notorious criminal belonging in a Top 10 List of wanted criminals and that Liu might not be the man he appears to be. Xu then raises his suspicion on Liu and is prompted to try digging up secrets concerning Liu’s true identity, which from there leads to all sorts of things, including the arrival of a gang of outlaws called The 72 Demons (lead by Jimmy Wang Yu, in his first onscreen appearance in 18 years), which I won’t spoil any further.
The story takes cues to traits found in the wu xia (literally referring to martial arts and legendary warriors in mythical or ancient times) genre and if you’re a fan of these films, you won’t be a stranger to what to expect. However, don’t expect anything too familiar because the film is not an ordinary wu xia film. Wu Xia plays out with obvious western influence (the TV show CSI and David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence reportedly being the most evident ones). But one can also see that Peter Chan has injected different elements, film techniques and visuals for enhancement giving the film a different look and whole new twists to the genre the film represents. The storytelling involves the power of martial arts, human anatomy, crime investigation, suspension, depth, emotion, visual attraction; all pulled off through explanatory dialogue and illustrations. It’s like watching kung fu, crime, mystery/thriller, drama, and neo-noir altogether making the film style here unique.
The other strong aspect of the movie is the acting. Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tang Wei are really showing their efforts whenever they appear onscreen and for once never overacted or acted out of proportion but absorbed themselves into their characters and giving them the attitude and mood in the right moment. Takeshi, in particular, is phenomenal in that he portrays a character he’s not known for and trying to be and maintaining the characteristics and mindset of his character. But I have to give this one to Donnie and Jimmy Wang Yu because I feel their roles were both heavily profounded. Donnie has come a long way with lots of downs in the acting department. But since An Empress & The Warriors he has constantly kept trying out different roles to improve his acting skills and the outcome is paying off and shows in everything he has been doing more and less. Wu Xia is one few testaments of how good his acting skills have become and how further he can take it. Jimmy Wang Yu, on the other hand, is pure dopeness in his vicious role as a tangut leader. In a total screen time of just 10-15 min, you’ll see an actor gather so much menace and depth simultaneously that it gives those words a new meaning. Watch his two key scenes and learn.
For martial arts film fans, the action here designed by Donnie himself are very satisfying and quite refreshing but don’t expect an action-packed film because the emphasis here is mostly on the story and characters. There’s not a whole lot in the first half but once the second half kicks in you’ll be offered to some very good moments of martial arts choreography. Since SPL came out, Donnie’s way of choreographing action scenes have seen alot of hype, praise and comparisons to other action stars and kept the momentum up in other films such as Flash Point (which is still his most talked-about work to date). Donnie has done pretty well in recent years as well with Legend of the Fist and proved himself to be as successful choreographing action in period action films as he does in contemporary action films with The Lost Bladesman. In this film, he shows us what he can do with martial arts choreography in correlation to the strength and visuals of storytelling, for which something new with the action has been accomplished. If there’s one choreographer that has complexity, variety and overall creativity of another level today and keeps evolving his craft, it’s Donnie.
Overall, Wu Xia is one of the best Hong Kong/Chinese films this year, the best film from both Donnie and Peter Chan, and a film that will be damn hard to surpass. If there’s any form of competition that is happening or is going to happen to outbeat it, it will be a hard task for these people.
DiP’s Rating: 10/10