In the early days of Hollywood, serials used to play regularly in the theatres.
Each week, audiences would be treated to a new installment in a tale of blazing action, murderous intrigue, and high adventure! The hero would be a detective or a masked superhero or maybe a space soldier hoping to save the planet from certain doom, and each chapter would end with a cliffhanger meant to guarantee the audience would be back next week to find out how it all wrapped up. Steven Spielberg re-introduced audiences to the format in the early 80’s with his popular Indiana Jones series of films, but when imitators couldn’t quite capture the formula, the motion picture serial pretty much went bye-bye … except to re-surface from time-to-time when audiences least expected it.
(Note: the following review may contain spoilers solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of smiler who prefers reviews entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to jump down to the last two paragraphs. Otherwise, buckle up and read on.)
According to legend, Wu Dang mountain conceals some serious treasures. Indeed, a few maps have escaped from the monastery, one falling into the hands of a professor / treasure hunter Tang Yunlong (played by Vincent Zhao). He takes his ailing prodigy daughter, Ning (Xu Jiao), to the mountain to complete in a kung fu championship, but his secret desire is to obtain the hidden seven artifacts for – together – they might hold the secret to curing her sickness. However, a female treasure hunter – Tian Xin (the lovely Yang Mi) – will stand in his way … unless the two join forces to stop a deadly monk with aspirations of stealing the mysticism of Ying Yang in order to be turned into a god!
And therein lies the problem with WU DANG: all of it sounds much more exciting than it actually ends up.
For the record, I don’t believe screenwriter Correy Yuen or director Patrick Leung deliberately intended to evoke the era of the action serial, but I found enough similarities to the classic format that I thought it worth mentioning here and making it the narrative focus of my review. No, it doesn’t have the tremendous action pieces that you’d find in an Indiana Jones knock-off or wannabe, but the ‘flavor’ is still present.
Much of WU DANG proceeds from the ‘scavenger hunt’ plot device: several of these characters are drawn to the mountain monastery, and each of them has hopes of uncovering the treasure for their own purposes – one to heal, one to preserve her family’s honor, and one in the pursuit of power. I can’t help but think if that had been the central driving force behind the picture, then WU DANG could’ve been something special. However, that doesn’t happen, and an awful lot of it descends into standard fighting pieces. Mysticism – while present in significant doses – never really bubbles to the surface. Instead, it’s flattened down into the flash and sparkle of special effects, and that cheapens what could’ve been.
Still, I liked the sentiments. At times, the performances were very good. Having it all flavored with the father/daughter relationship maintained my interest, and the bonus secondary plotline of both father and daughter having a chance to find the ‘love’ that had eluded them in their characters’ histories was an added plus.
Plus, it never hurts having a lovely like Yang Mi to fill up the screen!
WU DANG is produced by Mei Ah Film Production Co., Ltd., Lei Ah Media (Beijing) Limited, Xiao Xiang Film Groups, Inc., and China Zhong Dian Media Co., Ltd. DVD distribution (stateside) is being handled by Well Go USA Entertainment. Technically, the film looks and sounds very solid; there’s some terrific cinematography in here, and much of the fight choreography is pretty inspired. As is pretty customary with these foreign releases, there really are no significant bonus features to speak of: there’s a brief behind-the-scenes featurette (it amounts mostly to production shooting on location) and the theatrical trailer (which does its job of making the feature look much more impressive than it is!).
RECOMMENDED. All I can summon is a mildly ambitious ‘meh.’ WU DANG started strong with hints of an Indiana Jones style serial – the aging professor and his spunky sidekick daughter – mixed in with some fairly impressive fisticuffs. It struggled to maintain that tone consistently, hopping back and forth between its stated desire to feature traditional fight sequences instead of investing more in the magic and mysticism of the secret treasures. Plus, there were some nice moments between father and daughter, as well as a few between daughter and possible new mother, that would’ve had a stronger payoff had the story focused in more on that angle. It’s not entirely disappointing, but, alas, it could’ve been much more.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Well Go USA provided me with a DVD screener of WU DANG for the expressed purposes of completing this review.