We all know that Donnie Yen seemed to have been isolated under one specific genre; and that is hard-hitting martial arts action. Who can blame filmmakers, since the man does have the tools to pull off fantastic fights as we’ve seen in SPL and Ip Man). Well, Peter Chan isn’t exactly the director that Yen absolutely has collaborated a lot with unlike Wilson Yip, but he does have a great Chinese epic under his belt called “The Warlords”. I have to admit “Wuxia” may be more on the side of style than intricate plotting but damned if I said that the film isn’t immensely entertaining. It may be one of the best Hong Kong produced movies aimed for Mainland China….
Serving as both the main protagonist and the fight choreographer, Yen takes on the role of Liu Jinxi, a simple paper maker who lives with his wife, Yu (Tang Wei) and their two kids in a small, quiet Yunnan village. That peace is interrupted when two criminals walked into the village in an attempt to rob a local store. In a muddled brawl, Jinxi manages to get the upper hand and kill the two criminals. Jinxi insists that it was just sheer luck, but an empathic investigator who specializes in meridian points and human anatomy named Baijiu Xu (Takeshi Kaneshiro, K-20) suspects that there is more to Jinxi than meets the eye as he replays the fight in his mind’s eye. Jinxi is revealed as someone with considerable skills in the martial arts; but it seems like Jinxi’s very violent past is about to catch up to him. Did Baijiu’s obsession with justice bring about a threat to the tranquility of this village?
I know what you are thinking, the film’s plot is very familiar and it seemed to have borrowed elements from “A History of Violence”. The script by Audrey Lam and Joyce Chan is very simple but I really enjoyed the way it manages to incorporate the many possibilities of its premise. What kept the film moving and building in its momentum is the way that it draws in the interest from the viewer. The film is divided into two parts, one is the application of Western science and deductive reasoning almost like “Sherlock Holmes” mixed in with the procedural workings of the human anatomy and even Chinese mysticism. The screenplay remains grounded even after the direction takes on the action choreography. There are also tributes to classic wuxia films, as the film also has a sort of a homage to “The One-Armed Swordsman” and even one of those Chinese fantasies about “Qui” or “Chi” being able to generate near-invulnerability.
The script was able to create apprehension between Baijiu and Jinxi, as the first half of the film reveals the investigation into Jinxi’s past. There is some fresh injections of suspense in the film, as the more Baijiu digs, the more becomes revealed of Jinxi’s supposed past. The direction also manages to keep things engaging, as theories and discoveries may sometimes contradict and yet, together it makes sense. Kaneshiro does a good job in playing the detective, as he is both charming and eccentric with his role. Donnie Yen looks the part and plays the part, and it was no surprise that there was more to his character than a simple paper maker, and capitalizes on the anticipation that he truly is as bad-ass as Xu has been led to believe. There is some very subtle comedy involved too, but they weren’t made to take focus off the premise; the humor is secluded mostly in the first half, as Chan maneuvers the script into becoming more serious and even darker the more we go into the film.
The film is actually more of a drama-thriller wrapped around an action film, rather than an action film with non-stop fights and elaborate stunts. It focuses more on the characters than exposition of just how cool a fight scene can be. The second half of the film is mostly where all the action sequences are delivered, and in total, there are about three major fight scenes and all of them are superbly executed and they all remain within the spirit of wuxia. The fight choreography and editing were top-notch as the film displays the science of martial arts and how certain moves affect the human body. It was very clever for Chan to utilize this style in certain areas, possibly inspired by the anime "Grappler Baki", as it makes the fights appear more fresh and engaging. We see some CGI shots where nerves and blood vessels are damaged, as muscles and bone are affected by each hit and parry. Chan also remembers to define the laws of the meridian areas, and pressure points, it helps the film establish its groundwork (but he doesn't overdo it). Donnie Yen may oftentimes over-act, but ever since "Ip Man", Yen appears to have gained more confidence in the execution of drama; even the action isn't as flashy as with his collaborations with Wilson Yip. I found the scenes to be a breath of fresh air.
It also helps when the camera work are always busy, as Chan moves in and out to express the struggles. The arrival of the 72 Demons did truly feel intimidating, as the aura of mystery around a hidden clan of butchers felt much more dramatic than I expected. It also helps when you have genre veterans such Kara Hui and Jimmy Wang Yu in small but important roles to add some visceral feel to the film. The cinematography by Jake Pollock and Lai Yui Fai aids the set designs and costumes to come alive as a film during this period in Chinese life. You feel Yunnan life as you watch, and it was very convincing, accompanied by a good soundtrack, “Wuxia” is indeed a film that pays tribute and respect to the beloved genre.
Peter Chan’s film is indeed a credible attempt to invigorate the almost forgotten genre following “Reign of Assassins”. It may not carry as much impact as “the Warlords” and may not be as historically epic as “Bodyguards and Assassins”, but “Wuxia” is indeed one of Peter Chan’s best movies and maybe the Hong Kong Martial arts film to beat in 2011.
Highly Recommended! [4 Out of 5 Stars] This review is based on the 115 minute cut.
Even with its somewhat unoriginal premise; part "A History of Violence", part "Ip Man" and part "Sherlock Holmes", Peter Chan's Wuxia film is aimed for Mainland China viewers and international audiences. It may well become the Hong Kong martial arts film to beat in 2011. See Full Review here.
If you're into Chinese martial arts, this is probably the film for you. It's long and draggy for women and although there are some philosophies to learn out of it, it's more of an analysis of martial arts and ancient forensic science. The fights were on for almost an entire 2 hour period... all I was thinking was I wonder why Kaneshiro signed up for this film! Granted, I was there mainly because of him so I do like to know the motivation behind his role ;-)