Wu Xia (Dragon)
(The Weinstein Company; US theatrical: 30 Nov 2012 (Limited release); 2011)
Among geek cult certainties, the martial arts movie is god. It rules in a kingdom above all other substantive subgenres, redefining the action film as much as it celebrates the Shaolin style of fighting. In the past, fans have had to suffer through poorly dubbed, significantly cropped copies of their favorite “chop socky” cinema, a trend that continues on many off-brand cable channels to this day. When given the proper perspective however (read: native language and aspect ratio), these amazing epics suddenly come to actual life. In fact, what was once laughable becomes symbolic and satisfying.
It’s a strong legacy, one any Shaw Brother pretender has to put up with. Perhaps that’s why Donny Yen’s latest, Wu Xia (in English, Dragon) is so special. Not only does it satisfy the need for well-choreographed fisticuffs, but it links them to a story which reminds us of similar Western tales - like David Cronenberg’s brilliant A History of Violence. In this case, a lowly paper mill worker named Liu Jinxi (Yen) stumbles upon a robbery in his small town’s general store. Using a combination of cunning and hidden fighting skills, he defeats the criminals. While the locals love that he’s protected their property, the county officials can’t figure out how a simple man managed to defeat one of the country’s most ruthless, and wanted, killers.
Hoping to discover the truth of who Liu really is goes is detective Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro). At first, he is sold the standard story. As told, Liu left home to avoid an abusive father, met abandoned single mother Yu (Tang Wei), and decided to settle down. For ten years, he’s lived in peace and tranquility. Xu , on the other hand, is convinced he’s a gifted martial artist, or even worse, a former killer. When an investigation leads to some troubling truths, our curious cop faces a dilemma. Then, the members of the 72 Demons arrive to claim Liu as one of their own, turning things deadly…and with Yu and the family facing a threat from the ruthless leader known as The Master (Jimmy Wang), Xu is forced to choose sides - Liu, or the law.
Gracefully acted, brilliantly shot, and effortlessly combining both character study and superb butt kicking, Wu Xia is an excellent post-modern subgenre gem. It glides by on the significant star power of its two main leads, offers moments of real interpersonal depth, and sets up a scenario where we root for our heroes, even if their motives are muddled by issues in their past. For Liu, it’s the life of a gang assassin. His history is marred by a horrible incident involving a butcher’s family and gory sadism. For Xu, the problems are more perplexing. Forced by morality to always do the right thing, he regrets the one time he allowed emotion to guide his decision. Now he must use acupuncture and his knowledge of the body to combat his empathy…and a linger case of near-poisoning.
With Yen and Kaneshiro giving it their period piece best, Wu Xia enthralls. It provides a perfect outlet for their performances and yet never skimps on the real reason we come to such films. Early on, Liu’s actions appear almost accidental. But when Xu arrives and reconstructs them, we soon see how incredibly the kung fu will be. Later on, a pair of killers arrive in town and battle our hero across rooftops and into a multi-level barn. It’s a brilliantly choreographed confront. Finally, when Liu faces off against The Master, it’s magical, especially with the legendary Jimmy Wang as the vile villain. Between the swordplay and the sheer balletic grace of the moves, the stunts are beyond satisfying.
But there is more here than mere mayhem. Wu Xia wants to argue about the nature of man - particularly, posing the question if someone can really change who they are. Liu, under the guise of a ruthless criminal named Tang Long, is accused of unspeakable acts. Yet he argues that he left that life behind and has redeemed himself. He is no longer capable of the carnage he created before. Xu, convinced that, once a murderer, always a murderer, just wants to see justice done. He doesn’t care about the peasant life or good deeds. He rolled the dice once and has a system stained with toxin because of it. He is bound and determined not to make the same mistake again.
So not only is Wu Xia a battle of bodies, it’s a battle of wills. Yen wrestles with his inner 72 demons, while Kenshiro highlights procedure over personality - and yet, we become invested in each of their tales. We want Liu to be right, that he can change his former fatal ways. Xu, on the other hand, needs to be proven wrong. Better yet, he needs to have his simplistic view of humanity reconfigured to take other elements into consideration. The detective become Wu Xia‘s most compelling character. He is soft spoken and sincere, even when he is confusing duty with determination. Counterbalancing Liu’s equally understated mannerism, it’s a study in mannered minimalism…and it works.
For his part, director Peter Chan offers up gorgeous landscapes and rural earthiness. We often see Liu wandering to and from his farmhouse, which has animals grazing on its grass covered roof. We don’t get the stock characters. Instead, potential comic relief like the aged city elders are played with dignity instead of for laughs or critique. The action is captured in complete takes, without resorting to the irritating hand-held dynamic and there appears to be little post-production manipulation or onset special F/X. No, an actor’s ear wasn’t really cut off during the opening melee, nor are we capable of seeing into capillaries, but the limited digital manipulation is one of the movie’s many charms. Unlike RZA’s recent The Man with the Iron Fists, which relied heavily on current technology to make its point, Wu Xia is decidedly old school…and yet it feels wholly new.
This is perhaps the film’s strongest element. It takes old ideas and infuses them with new life, and does so by the simplest of cinematic means - a good script, solid direction, and excellent acting. Had any one of these concepts failed, and we’d have more fodder for those flawed Late Late Movie showings. Instead, Wu Xia is excellent. It reminds us of why the martial arts movie became so popular in the first place.