I’ve always had a soft spot for Hong Kong cinema, and being a big fan of Peter Chan’s films since I watched Perhaps Love all those years ago, I was all hyped up for the kick ass kungfu goodness that was Wu Xia.
Predictably this genre blender, which combines the best elements of martial arts with mystery, did not disappoint.
With Chan at the helm, and Donnie Yen (also the lead actor) heading the fight sequences, Wu Xia boasted exceptional choreography, excellent aesthetics, and proficient storytelling. The result was a near picture perfect production – one with an intellectually stimulating setup, and an emotionally satisfying payoff.
The tale takes place in a remote village in Yunnan, China and unfolds like an episode of CSI. Donnie Yen plays mild-mannered Liu Jinxi, a paper maker, who happens to foil a robbery by two notorious criminals at the general store. Drawn into the investigation is Takeshi Kaneshiro, in the role of nerdy detective Xu Baijiu, who suspects that Liu is nothing like what he claims to be.
Police procedure comes in the way of gainful exposition and clever re-enactments (ultimately these take place in Xu’s head, in saturated color), spiced with forensic know-how, principles of acupuncture and homeopathic Chinese cures. It’s a fresh perspective – one that puts paid to martial arts mysticism, and grounds it in real world science.
That is not to say that martial arts aren’t the highlight of the show. The fight scenes are believable, epic and violently visceral, if sparse. Still, each one is captured perfectly through the use of dynamic camera angles and close ups, and made all the more characteristic by the focus on “hard” fighting styles.
Donnie Yen manages a convincing performance as Liu, but it’s Takeshi Kaneshiro who shines as the conflicted officer of the law. He executes Xu’s internal monologues (and the really corny provincial accent) with panache, and in his bumbling yet determined way, ends up stealing the show (he’s also the real hero at the end, but you’ll have to watch it yourself to find out why).
Central to the film is the theme of redemption – both Liu and Xu have their fair share of personal demons to exorcise, and this thread, like a tangled skein, unravels as the story progresses. The pacing is near perfect, each scene a layer that peels back to reveal some tasty tidbit of characterization; some morsel a discerning film goer can latch on.
Wu Xia is arguably one of Peter Chan’s greatest works, a thoroughly enjoyable piece of storytelling that modernizes and reinvigorates the martial arts genre.
It’s a must watch for any martial arts movie fan, though peeps who are in it for instant gratification rather than the artful plot might find it a bit of a drag (in which case I say “Humbug!” to you).
Now, if only there were a Wu Xia 2. XD