“Wuxia” [武侠] (2011) – Review by Zuo Shou 左手
Directed by Peter Chan
Starring: Donnie Yen, Kaneshiro Takeshi, Tang Wei, Jimmy Wang Yu, Kara Hui
Review of Mandarin version, w/o English subs
[Qualifier: this reviewer is not fully fluent in Mandarin, which may affect the film appreciation]
This film created a lot of anticipation with its genre-encompassing title, career-peaking Donnie Yen as male lead and its plum casting of martial arts film bad-mutha Jimmy Wang Yu, the original “One-Armed Swordsman”.
The film mostly cannot rise to its own high expectation; however, there are some classic sequences, namely with some exhilarating Yen-choreographed fights in the film’s final third with the still-formidable Yu as well as a female old-school counterpart.
Director Peter Chan, a good but not great director in my opinion, makes an ambitious attempt in “Wuxia” to synthesize disparate stylistic elements into an action film. These include the martial arts excitement and tragic drama inherent in the “Wuxia” [“Martial Arts Chivalry”] genre; “Rashomon”-like replays of dubious events; film noir’s philosophy of life as whirlpool of evil; and finally old-school martial arts cinema tribute. The only aspect which Chan unqualifiedly succeeds with is the last, which perhaps is all that necessary for martial arts film fans. I give him credit for showing a deep passion and respect for the “kung fu” film classics, a quality which eventually carries the film over its artistic weaknesses.
The plot is rather simple and involves an unassuming small town artisan (Yen) drawn into a brawl with a pair of vicious bandits whom he inexplicably manages to dispatch, achieving heroic status among the locals. Detective Takeshi Kitaharo discerns the deepness beneath Yen’s still waters, and his investigations lead to a dark underworld.
Donnie Yen makes a problematic anchor for the film. This may make Donnie Yen fans howl, but in my opinion he is miscast in this role. He’s the top martial artist film actor today, a major star in his own right, and his fight direction in “Wuxia” is not to be faulted. However, he is one whose martial arts skills quite surpass his acting ability, which is mainly suited to either genial affability (his career-defining “Ip Man” role, which Yen himself described as a “geek…family man”) or limited-dialogue heavies whose fists do the talking (Jet Li’s prime adversary in “Once Upon a Time in China II”). In this film, he’s required to embody a character of the darkest depths, which seems to be an acting task quite beyond Yen; to be fair, perhaps the vagaries of the character would be beyond all but the most expert thesps. It doesn’t help that with Yen now being identifed with his own iconic “Ip Man” character, in this film he’s required to play almost the opposite, one with a depraved background — a kind of role he hasn’t touched for years (if not decades). Furthermore, recently Yen is doing a welter of TV ads simultaneously, from “Head and Shoulders” to analgesics and extension cords. This trivializes his image and makes a heavier role even more improbable for him to manage.
The second lead Kaneshiro Takeshi, doesn’t fare much better, as he is more of a matinee idol and Asian marketing device with his dual Taiwan-Japanese background than a solid acting talent. He’s also called upon to play some weirdly improbable scenes, including a masochistic one where he tortures himself with acupuncture needles in order to suppress his tendency to absorb the grief and pain he’s exposed to in his crime studies.
So for the the first 2/3 of the film, there’s basically one fight sequence played twice (the Rashomon effect – deployed more as gimmick than art), and besides the not-to-compelling cat & mouse game between the Yen and Takeshi characters and the nice Southern Chinese village scenery (an odd choice for a noir-esque plot), all that one has to sink their teeth into is the character of Yen’s wife Tang Wei. Her main attraction is her career redemption; she’s slowly rehabilitating her integrity after the nearly career-killing choice of her introductory lead role in Ang Lee’s tawdry and reactionary misfire “Lust, Caution”. Tang seems to be the only talented lead actor in the film, even if she’s only got one tiny scene to show what she can do.
It’s all somewhat superficial and contrived, and with an hour or so having passed one realizes how sparse the action has been, and wonders what is the point of it all. And where in the heck is Jimmy Wang Yu?!? Then elderly Jimmy shows up as a sinister Buddhist abbot, and with his appearance the film suddenly realizes its latent potential. With an unnaturally menacing subterranean voice and casualty-inflicting rings on every fleshy knuckle, he’s a truly intimidating martial arts Jabba the Hut in sable robes.
Except for one sidetrack, the remainder of the movie thrills in classic fashion with new-school (Yen) vs. old-school stars Kara Hui (“My Favorite Auntie”, “Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter” – here as a superb knife-fighter) and dominating Jimmy Wang Yu. The climactic battle’s finale is absolutely brilliant…
So in the end, I’m not really sure why they called the movie “Wuxia” as it doesn’t quite embody the “chivalry” that I think of as defining that genre. (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is probably the best-know example of that.) The film overall doesn’t reach the heights of earlier wuxia classics. However, when Kara Hui and Jimmy Wang Yu are battling Donnie Yen in the final reel, it’s as good as it gets in the 21st Century martial arts flick world. This one is really for the genre fans, and the deeper your knowledge of the oldies which this film turns out being Peter Chan’s paean to, the greater the chance you’ll enjoy the multiple resonances. Just keep in mind that the lead-up to the really good stuff just might try your patience.
In the meantime, you might want to see the source of Jimmy Wang Yu’s legendary status; check out his auteur tour-de-force in the scrappy and sublime “One-armed Boxer vs. Flying Guillotine”.
I recommend Derek Elley’s fine online review of “Wu Xia” for Film Business Asia, he scores the movie 8 out of 10, saying “…Part period detective mystery, part martial arts drama, and part pressure-points manual, Wu Xia (武俠) is a sumptuously shot spin on the costume action genre whose only major weakness is a lack of narrative smoothness and tonal consistency…”
Full “Wu Xia” review from Film Business Asia site: http://www.filmbiz.asia/reviews/wu-xia