WU XIA - Almost a Masterpiece
WU XIA aka 'DRAGON' (martial arts drama in Cantonese)
Cast: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tang Wei, Jimmy Wang Yu and Kara Hui
Director: Peter Chan Ho-sun
Screenplay by Aubrey Lam
Time: 115 mins
Rating: * * * (out of 4)
PREAMBLE: Wu Xia may not be the martial arts flick in the Ip Man vein but it grips us right from the start with an intriguing plot, rich characterisation, breath-taking locales and top class performances. This combination is rare in a Chinese movie, let alone a kungfu flick. But then again, Wu Xia is not just a kungfu flick. It is also a detective mystery with CSI elements, and a family/clan drama with well-developed characters.
The one downside to this effort by director Peter Chan is its supernatural ending that borders on the absurd.
SYNOPSIS: It is 1917, and Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) is a paper-maker in a small village where he lives with his wife Ayu (Tang Wei) and their two children. However, when a couple of bandits try to rob the local store, Liu intervenes and accidentally kills them in self-defence. Or so it seems until detective Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) investigates the botched robbery.
While Liu claims to be just the average guy, Xu (who is also a physiology expert and acupuncturist), suspects that he is hiding a deep secret, and goes all out to uncover the truth behind Liu’s identity. Xu's dogged persistence threatens the peace of the typical clan settlement and even his own life.
HITS & MISSES: The first thing that grabs us is the movie's detailed setting - in an idyllic valley with quaint thatch-roof homes that have cattle grazing on its roof. Scripter Aubrey Lam defines the social structure of the times in a scene when Xu asks Ayu to show him the back door. "There is no need for doors in a village like this," she replies.
The movie's 'CSI touches' are intriguing and even educational. As Xu probes into the deaths, we get replays of the action with illuminating insights into Xu's detective powers. There isn't much wushu-tye action in the early segments but the probes are nevertheless fascinating as Chan adds narrative details and character backgrounds to story.
The cast is top notch, with Donny Yen and Kaneshiro (right) verbally sparring against each other. One can safely say this is one of Yen's best portrayals as a caring husband and father trying to escape a sinful past. Kaneshiro gets our sympathy as the obsessive cop who will risk anything to find truth and justice. His demeanour reminds me of Peter Falk's Columbo. Tang Wei (of Lust, Caution fame) personifies the rural housewife who is fearful that Jinxi would abandon her - just as her first husband did years ago.
And of course, it is nice to see veteran Wang Yu (of One-Arm Swordsman fame) in a cameo as a crime boss, and fighting another one-arm swordsman himself. All in all, Wu Xia, which was one of the highlights at the 2011 Cannes Fest, is a refreshing change to the usual kungfu thrillers. Now, if Chan had rendered a more credible ending, it would have been a masterpiece.
THE LOWDOWN: A must for Donnie Yen fans.