It really has been a pretty weak year for new films Asia-wise for me this year. Whilst I have caught a couple of special films from unusual territories, most of the really good films from Hong Kong/China were technically released last year. Those I have been looking forward to have disappointed, yet it was with huge excitement I was anticipating the latest from Peter Chan, the rather blandly titled “Wu Xia”. The omens were good, Chan is a director I have a lot of time for, Takeshi Kanishiro is usually excellent and Donnie Yen has really grown as an actor as he embraces middle age. The extended 10 minute trailer that was released earlier in the year wetted the appetite, but I have basically been waiting for some decent subtitles to be made available. And finally they have been, and I am glad to report it is very much worth the wait.
“Wu Xia” is part detective story and part ,well Wuxia. Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) is an unassuming paper mill worker with a wife and two young children. One day he stops a robbery at a local store by two kung fu masters, killing them both. Whilst he is feted by the village as a hero, something is bothering local policeman Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro). These villains were serious bad men, but also highly skilled – how could this man have killed them both? Despite pressure from his bosses to just close the case, he decides to dig further, uncovering the past of Liu Jinxi. But they are both hiding from their past, and with uncovering the truth cause trouble for them both.
What we have here is a post-modern twist on the Wuxia genre. It eschews a lot of the mystical element, giving it a somewhat scientific feel. The elements are all there – a downtrodden general population, a corrupt hierarchy, a general sense of code and honour. We have individuals with almost supernatural abilities. But it is a world viewed through a modern eye. It actually only has three fight scenes, and the first is shown to us multiple times, in a CSI-style reconstruction of events, giving us a little more information as the story unfolds. The second is far more traditional (and to my eyes the best of the three), and the final evokes memories of films I have not seen, but I am aware of.
It is as beautifully filmed as I expected, with the 1917 rural setting beautifully realised, and the modern reconstructions work well. The soundtrack is also an interesting mix of the old and the new, and whilst initially jarring, I thought it worked very well.
Donnie Yen has become a really good actor as he has aged. He actually has little to say, preferring to keep his thoughts to himself, but you really do feel that he is a man who is struggling with the demons of his past life, and his wish to reinvent himself as a more simple, hardworking family man. That is not to say he does not pull off the action with aplomb (doubling up as action Director too), it does have some of the best moments I have seen in a long time.
Takeshi Kaneshiro is always good, so to say he impresses here is merely stating the obvious (and I know there has been some debate about his dialect used in the film, but as I am ignorant about these things it did not phase me). The character of Xu Baijiu though is fascinating. A mix of Sherlock Holmes, Gregory House and Gus Grissom, he is a remarkable creation. Yes, he has an almost otherworldly ability to reconstruct events in his head, but he is also capable of making mistakes, and allowing his actions to overcome his thoughts. So convinced is he that he is correct that occasionally he makes huge mistakes that affect both those around him and himself. I loved it that he was not a fighter too – yes he has talents in forensic science and acupuncture, but he is never going to win a fist fight. He is also troubled by Schizophrenia, which is evidenced visually on screen, and haunted by one act of kindness which backfired on him. A simple scene where he ends up asking his ex-wife for help works brilliantly, giving you a clue as to the man he once was, and how far he has fallen since.
In fact both men parallel each other. Liu Jinxi is a man who wishes to run from his previous life, and find solace in being part of humanity. Xu Baijiu on the other hand has worked hard to divorce himself from his empathy. You could almost say they are parts of the same whole, or on different parts of a circle of understanding. The men eventually form a bond, but it is never a close one, it is more out of a mutual respect than any actual friendship.
Tang Wei also buts in a sensitive portrayal as Liu Jinxi’s wife. A quiet, unassuming woman, she holds a deep fear of being left alone, just as her first husband did. She does not have an awful lot to do, but her presence is needed, as it adds weight to Yen’s character. She easily holds her own in her solo scene with Xu Baijiu, and in the closing moments you believe she is a woman in fear for the life of her Son and Husband, and of what she could lose.
A tiny little rant about the international name[s] for this film. It will be released under the banner of “Swordsmen” (or maybe “Dragon”). Neither of which make an awful lot of sense. There is some swordplay near the end, but the film certainly is not about that. I have read some complain about the generic nature of the real title, but I think that it kind of the point – it is a new look at the genre, a fresh approach. Will it be the first of many? I doubt it, but it is a very worthwhile experiment.
Film of the year so far? Definitely, and one that looks like it will keep giving more on repeated viewings. I do however understand why some might not be so enamoured – it isn’t a traditional Wuxia, and it may not be the action-fest some may crave. It also is a little lacking in the exploration of the villains, who do come across a little one-note. But it does what it aimed to do – try some new clothes on a different genre, and for my money it worked.