A fresh spinoff of the conventional Chinese martial arts genre adds weight to mere fists and kicks with an intriguing premise and rewards one with drama and good acting driven by its stellar cast. Albeit taking issues with certain minute woes such as editing and pacing, Peter Chan's latest feature is indisputably one of the best rendition of a martial arts genre package for a while that promises to please and entertain with a well-rounded mix of action, drama, comedy and a cast capable of holding its own screen presence.
It is 1917 Yunnan and Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) lives a quiet life with his wife Yu (Tang Wei) and their two young sons Xiaotian and Fangzheng. Liu runs a paper mill and the village prospers. One day, two fugitives arrive demanding money and after a long fight with Liu, end up dead. The bigger one is identified as an especially powerful fighter. Liu becomes a local hero but detective Xu Baijiu (Kaneshiro Takeshi), an expert in physiology and pressure points, is puzzled how a seemingly ordinary man like Liu was able to defeat two hardened fugitives. Liu finally tells Xu that he is actually a convicted killer and spent 10 years in Jingzhou prison. However Xu, who notices that Liu is surrounded by a powerful qi force-field, is still suspicious, and when an associate (Jiang Wu) reports from his investigations in Jingzhou, he realises Liu is actually Tang Long, second-in-command of the murderous 72 Demons gang and the favourite son of its Tangut leader (Jimmy Wang) and his wife (Kara Hui).
Peter Chan is fast becoming a brand of direction that's capable of epic productions and squeezing good performance from his cast. This was so for his previous feature film in 2007, The Warlords, an epic production that saw some of the best performance by its stellar cast Jet Li, Andy Lau, and Takeshi Kaneshiro.
And so is Wu Xia (a.k.a. "Dragon" for the Western audience after a renaming decision).
Albeit not as grandeur on the epic scale as The Warlords, Wu Xia boasts very high production values with scenic locations showcasing soothing elements of nature (I loved the luscious greenery and the beautiful waterfalls) and rural regions that are worldly gems amazingly untouched by urbanisation. These are all very well-photographed by Jake Pollock (Monga and Pinoy Sunday) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Initial D), supporting Chan's preferred style of visual priority.
While it may fall under the easy impression of a Chinese martial arts genre, it's not exactly what most will come to think of with a title like Wu Xia and a leading cast with the likes of Donnie Yen. In an attempt not to reveal too much, let's just say that Chan has interestingly rendered a brand new take on martial art films.
With most genre films focusing on sensational fist and kick exchanges between two or more people, Wu Xia shows impressive efforts to throw in drama and comedy into the mix and create a whole new genre that feels along the line of "CSI meets kungfu". Chan builds well upon an intriguing premise of the mystery behind how an average villager Liu Jing-xi is capable of killing two highly skilled fugitives.
For that, we have the quirky constable Xu Bai-jiu.
Portrayed by Takeshi Kaneshiro, he embodies Xu well to constitute towards one of his better performance till date. Kaneshiro is arguably the most memorable personality with Yen giving yet another trademark "wooden" depiction of Liu, who feels like an Ip Mun practicing a different school of fists. Of course, it is not to say that Yen fared poorly (it's just Yen's inability to get out of his skin and demeanour to become a total stranger) as Chan really is a Director who's able to harness good acting chops out of his cast.
Even Tang Wei, who's not given much lines, is able to express emotions well through her body language.
Through slow-motion recaps of the investigated murder of the two fugitives, Chan is able to evoke the audience's attention and interest with an angle on forensic science that seems to suggest that it has been infused into the way law was enforced and conducted way before we know it. This makes a great first half that's possible with the effective writing by Lam Oi Wah (who also co-wrote Chan's The Warlords).
However, the second half gave way to some questionable pacing and editing.
With certain scenes/shots that felt a tad bit longer than required, the action (while expectedly well-designed by Action Director Donnie Yen) also seemed to experience some overly quick editing that made the action jarring to the mind at times. It could just be me, but it was something minor that I noticed nevertheless.
Do not mistake the quality of the action as when it comes (there's about 3 major fight scenes), it truly overwhelms (genre fans as well).
With action that is exhilarating, comedy that is effective, and drama that really adds on to the narrative of the film, this is a whole new package that serves to entertain and please even those who aren't into the martial arts genre.
Peter Chan has proven that tasteful innovation is still possible in today's cinema.