|In the six years since he shifted his aim to China, Peter Chan has directed only three films: Perhaps Love, The Warlords and Wu Xia. Both a filmmaker and a businessman, Chan brought to his first two China films big screen spectacle like epic-scale battle sequences, heavy-handed melodrama and even flashy musical numbers to ensure appeal for a broad audience. Four years after the reportedly soul-sucking production of The Warlords, Chan reins in his ambition slightly with Wu Xia, a smaller but still gripping action drama that offers a much-needed twist to an old genre.
Donnie Yen serves as both star and action director and gives one of his best performances to date. Yen plays Liu Jinxi, a paper maker living a quiet life with his wife Yu (Tang Wei) and their two children in a small Yunnan village. That tranquility is shattered one day when two dangerous criminals arrive in town and attempt to rob a local store. In a messy, chaotic brawl, Jinxi manages to kill the two baddies thanks to what seems like dumb luck, turning him into an accidental local hero.
Detective Xu Baijiu (an amusingly eccentric Takeshi Kaneshiro) suspects that there's more than meets the eye to this seemingly open-and-shut case. Obsessed with science and the human anatomy, Baijiu replays the entire fight in his mind with forensics work, using evidence from the scene to guess each carefully calculated move Jinxi used to take down the two men. Despite Jinxi's insistence that he's just an ordinary man, Baijiu is sure that his suspect is much more than that. Is Jinxi actually a martial arts master in disguise, or has Baijiu been blinded by his obsessive pursuit of justice?
Of course, with Yen playing the paper maker, itís guaranteed that Jinxiís ass kicking abilities are based on much more than luck. Some action fans may be disappointed to find that Wu Xia is more a thriller with action elements than a typical martial arts film with wall-to-wall action. The filmís story is made up of two halves Ė one a CSI-style crime procedural, and the other a drama about a manís dark past catching up with him. Aubrey Lam and Joyce Chanís script takes its time to build anticipation for Jinxi to show off his true power, using the first half to build tension between the inquisitive detective and the reluctant hero. However, that growing anticipation also makes the fight that reveals Jinxiís power all the more satisfying.
Wu Xia works better on a dramatic level rather than a visceral one because of how well the filmmakers tell the story. There are only three major action set pieces in Wu Xia, but each of them represents a major turning point in the story. The action in Wu Xia may be sparse in comparison to recent martial arts films, but the fight scenes are far more accomplished because Chan makes the action serve the story rather than the other way around.
However, Wu XiaĎs story has already been told many times in different genres. As Chan admits in interviews, his film is a stylistic exercise that stresses form over content. Jake Pollock and Lai Yiu-Faiís cinematography beautifully captures the serenity of the Yunnan landscape and the intensity of the action, Derek Huiís tight editing helps build tension even during the dramatic portions, and the sound mix is surprisingly aggressive in places. While his last two films were about creating spectacle, Chan really seems to attempt filmmaking with Wu Xia. The filmís strength is not in the story it tells, but rather how the story is told.
Specifically, Wu Xia is Chan using new ways to reinvigorate the classic wuxia genre. The most original idea is integrating western science into the martial arts world. Chan visually details the way fighting moves affect the human body by literally diving through nerves and organs so we can see the internal effects up close. These computer-generated sequences do offer a fresh perspective on how we view martial arts, but theyíre such a unique storytelling technique that any future attempts to emulate Chanís ideas will simply be dismissed as copycats. As such, Chanís refreshing stylistic departure from old-school wu xia films will likely not have a lasting effect on the genre.
At the same time, Wu Xia is a love letter to the genre it tries to renew. In addition to traditional wuxia world elements like secret clans and super assassins, Chan also includes subtle references to classic wuxia films like The One-Armed Swordsman. He even casts genre veterans Jimmy Wang Yu and Kara Hui in small but pivotal roles, representing Chanís love and respect for the genreís history.
Wu Xia may be the simplest of Chanís three China films, but itís also the most successful because of what Chan is able to achieve working within genre confines. This is particularly true in the filmís handling of the three main characters. While Jinxi drives the main story, Chan also leaves room to develop Baijiu and Yu, in particularly the charactersí motivations. Itís these little details that elevate Wu Xia from a standard genre film to a great genre film.
Wu Xia isnít going to command as much respect as epic commercial blockbusters like The Warlords or Bodyguards and Assassins because of its relatively low ambitions. However, itís definitely Chanís best film since Going Home (his segment in the horror omnibus Three), and absolutely the Hong Kong film to beat in 2011.
(Kevin Ma, 2011)