PLOT: Liu Jin-xi (Donnie Yen) is a pillar of his community. Having mysteriously shown up ten years ago, he fell in love with and married Ayu (Tang Wei) - a doe-eyed single mother, and joined the community as their paper maker. When travelling bandits try to rob him, Jin-xi manages to fend them off- and is celebrated as a hero by his community, but a local police inspector, Xu Bai-ju (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is suspicious of how a simple paper maker could fight off two notorious killers.
REVIEW: Reading the plot synopsis, it’s obvious that WU XIA (oddly renamed DRAGON by the US distributor- The Weinstein Company) owes quite a bit to David Cronenberg’s A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE. Indeed, WU XIA does play out a lot like a period Chinese riff on Cronenberg’s film, mixed in with a little LES MISERABLES- done Shaw Bros-style.
To me, there’s nothing really wrong with this, as I doubt even David Cronenberg would argue that the idea of a bad man gone good had been done time and time again before he made his own (admittedly awesome) film. While HISTORY OF VIOLENCE played out like a modern western, Peter Chan’s WU XIA is obviously highly inspired by the seventies output of the Shaw Bros studio. Both Chan and star Donnie Yen have gone on record saying that this is heavily influenced by that kind of filmmaking, rather than more modern Wu Xia (a term used to categorize period Chinese swordsman stories) -style films, which still crowd Chinese multiplexes to this day.
Yet, in calling back to an earlier era, Chan’s film oddly feels more modern. Most Wu Xia films these days tend to be scored in the CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON- Tan Dun style, but rather than go that route, Chan has composers Peter Kam and Kwong Wing Chan opt for a more modern sound, complete with some modest rock influences during the scoring of one of the fight scenes. In this way, WU XIA feels a lot like the Shaw films, which mostly appropriated Hollywood film scores in their own films (anything by Ennio Morricone, or the John Barry 007-soundtracks were often co-opted).
The modern feel extends to Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character- who uses Chinese medicine CSI-style to investigate Jin-xi’s claim that his killing of the bandits was accidental. Being a Donnie Yen movie, I suppose you can imagine that there’s more to Jin-xi than meets the eye, but for the first half of the film, Chan holds back on the action. This gives Yen a chance to do some of the best acting of his career as the kindly Jin-xi, with a lot of time being focused on his relationship with his adoring wife (the gorgeous Tang Wei, and Ang Lee’s LUST, CAUTION). To Chan’s credit, even if it seems unlikely Jin-xi’s as innocent as he claims, we almost want him to be.
I say almost because, in the end- you don’t walk into a film called WU XIA only looking for drama. Bone crushing fight scenes are expected, and on that level Chan and Yen deliver. While there’s only really three major fights, the fact that so much time was spent on character development means that each has a huge impact, making them all the more memorable. I love Yen, but one of my usual complaints when it comes to his films is that he’s portrayed as so invincible, that it’s hard pairing him up with a worthy adversary.
Chan remedies this, with poor Yen being put through the ringer by his opponents. Each fight has a different energy, with the first being somewhat comical, the second- which pits him against Shaw legend Kara Hui (still in fine fighting form) being fast and furious, and the third being intensely brutal, with Yen taking the most vicious on-screen beating of his career at the hands of Jimmy Wang-Yu, the legendary ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN. Given that Wang-Yu’s seventy, you’d think that the fight would be a little less than convincing, but expert choreography by Yen, and the inspired decision to brutally handicap Yen prior to the fight (in a nice tribute to Wang-Yu’s most famous role) means that we get a fight that’s far from one-sided.
It should be noted that the version of WU XIA (or rather, DRAGON) that I saw is the American version by the Weinstein Co., and in addition to the title change, the film also seems to have been trimmed, with it only running 100 minutes or so, with is at least 15 minutes shorter than the Chinese version. I have no idea what got the axe, but it’s worth noting that the Weinstein version of the film plays pretty well, and doesn’t feel truncated in the way some of his other HK edits have (and thank God, there’s no dubbing, and the soundtrack is intact).
Hopefully, DRAGON/WU XIA gets a good, solid North American theatrical release, as, like the Shaw Bros films it takes a page from, it demands to be seen on a huge screen, and shared with an audience. However, even if this goes the VOD/Blu-ray route, I highly recommend checking it out. To me, it’s one of Yen’s best films, and that’s saying something as he’s been in a lot of good stuff lately. I had a blast with this film, and I think most Kung-Fu film fanatics will too.