Produced by the legendary Jackie Chan, Wushu was marketed as a high-flying martial arts thriller. The trailer pulls almost exclusively from the climactic action scenes where the heroes and villains throw down. Using the most exciting parts in previews is common, but this is an extreme case. Nearly all the footage comes from the final act and misses the ultimate focus. I expect there were more than a few fanatics grumbling through much of the 98-minute running time.
The story is actually a coming-of-age tale depicting teenage friends as they prepare to graduate from the wushu school. They met ten years earlier after joining the school and quickly became close friends. The opening act introduces the young kids and the school before shifting to the present. As teens, they retain an innocent exuberance while preparing for the big competition. Insulated from the difficulties of outside life, the students are able to hone their remarkable martial arts talents.
Wushu is a form of martial arts that does involve fighting, but it’s more focused on the artistic style. Thankfully, teacher Li Hui (Sammo Hung) gives the audience a primer early on while addressing the student body. Participants use weapons like swords and spears, but they contribute to a stunning dance of speed and grace. Certain types of wushu resemble rhythmic gymnastics, with the weapons replacing the ropes and ribbons. There are also fighting competitions (called sanda), but the emphasis is on precise moves over brute force. Wushu gained popularity through Jet Li, who used his status as national champion to become an international film superstar.
The first hour concentrates on the teenage lead characters, who are thinly drawn charmers. Li Yi (Liu Fengchao) and Li Er (Wang Yachao) are Li Hui’s sons and face the challenges of being raised by a single father. He’s a kind, understanding dad, so their interactions are consistently positive. Director Antony Szeto (DragonBlade) shoots everything with such optimism that we’re never too concerned about any minor conflicts. It makes the picture mildly enjoyable, though it loses any lasting effects because of this glossy feeling. During the wushu competitions, the results are pretty obvious each time. There’s nothing wrong with a happy ending; it just affects us more when the obstacles are steeper.
During the final act, the story takes a strange turn and introduces a child kidnapping subplot. Li Hui and the gang must battle a disgraced former student to bring down the crime ring. These are the fight scenes that dominate the trailer, particularly with shots involving the legendary Sammo Hung. Largely sedentary for most of the picture, the portly star brings the power to teach his former pupil a lesson. These sequences offer impressive stunts but feel out of place with the rest of the film. Our heroes are beaten up, tortured and nearly buried alive by the vicious criminals. This is an odd detour into PG-13 territory for what is essentially a kids movie.
Wushu showcases a group of skilled martial arts experts appearing in their first movies. A DVD featurette depicts two youngsters wowing the crowds during a presentation at the Cannes Film Festival. Their graceful, swift moves are remarkable particularly when you realize no wires are used. Within a complete film, however, the technical brilliance can only bring so much. Audiences looking for harder action will be disappointed by the focus on the kids’ time at school. The personal drama is minimal and matches the level of daytime television shows. They’re attractive young actors and have a good energy, particularly the striking Wang Fei as Fong Fong. Her taichi moves are stunning while her character auditions for a film stunts role. The plot never explores Fong Fong and the other characters with any real depth, however.
The other DVD extra is a behind-the-scenes look, which shows the fun being had during shooting. There also were brutal injuries for several cast members while attempting the daring stunts. I admire their skills and the technical proficiency needed to film the moves. It’s also nice to see new faces that might become the Jet Li or Jackie Chan of the future. Wushu is a breezy picture that just never stretches beyond our expectations. Even the plot’s detours near the end play out as expected. Wushu devotees should enjoy the high-flying fights, but the predictable story never transcends the genre.