Review: WU XIA 武術 (2011) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Review: WU XIA 武術 (2011)


RATING: 2.5/5

Opened to favorable reviews at the recent Cannes Film Festival, Peter Chan's WU XIA is an interesting if uneven mishmash that mixes old-fashioned martial art genre and CSI-style whodunit -- all in the manner of David Cronenberg's A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005). This movie also marked a stunning comeback for Donnie Yen since IP MAN 2, whose past two highly-anticipated efforts (2010's LEGEND OF THE FIST: THE RETURN OF CHEN ZHEN and 2011's THE LOST BLADESMAN) are nothing more than disappointingly overblown spectacles. Except this time don't expect the kind of action-packed vibe you normally expect from a Donnie Yen movie. Such result might disappoint a lot of fans but those who are adventurous enough to game for something different, WU XIA is surprisingly quite a unique movie to watch out for.


Set in 1917 at the small town in southwestern China's Yunnan province, the movie focuses on a seemingly everyman named Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) who works as a paper-maker and lives a peaceful family life with his beautiful wife Ayu (Tang Wei) and two adorable young sons, for the past 10 years. But all that abruptly changed when he accidentally kills two robbers who threaten his paper workshop. The incident instantly leads detective Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) comes sniffing around, in which he suspects the supposedly open-and-shut case is actually more than meets the eye. With a peculiar obsession over science and human anatomy, he uses his skill to re-investigate the case and convinced that the death of two robbers are hardly "accidental". In fact he believes that Liu Jinxi knows a lot of kung fu skills, although Liu Jinxi himself claims he's just got "lucky".

Still Xu Baijiu insists to investigate further and hang around the small town long enough to dig out the truth behind Liu Jinxi's murky past. He subsequently learns that Liu Jinxi is a fugitive, whose real name is Tang Lung. Tang Lung, of course, is one of the notorious killers of the infamous 72 Demons who used to butcher a lot of people in the past. It doesn't take long before the members of the 72 Demons, lead by "The Master" (Jimmy Wang Yu) manage to identify Liu Jinxi's whereabouts and hellbent to bring him back at all cost.

For the first third of the movie, Peter Chan redefines the wu xia genre (which translates as "martial-art chivalry") with a refreshing CSI and Sherlock Holmes-narrative style. It's particularly fascinating to see how the obsessed Xu Baijiu goes through minute detail to reconstruct the actual fight between Liu Jinxi and the two robbers in the paper workshop, complete with CSI-like effect where we get to see a fresh perspective on how each fighting moves affect the human body, nerves and organs internally. Coupled with a few stylistic moments of slow-motion fight scene (e.g. spurted blood from mouth, punched-out broken tooth), WU XIA is close on tracks of being the most groundbreaking martial-art movie in a decade since Ang Lee's CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and Zhang Yimou's HERO. Well, if only Chan chooses to continue that refreshing path, the result would have been a masterpiece.

However, once Xu Baijiu is out of the picture for the major bulk of the running time, the movie begins to squander a few. The middle part is especially draggy, and some scenes could have been omitted entirely (namely, the unnecessary backstory behind Xu Baijiu's past and his estranged relationship with his ex-wife). There are times that the movie tends to go overly melodramatic, and at one point it's kind of awkward to see Chan resorts into his own PERHAPS LOVE-musical montage where a group of villagers chanting not one, but two folksy tunes.

As for the fight scenes, they are surprisingly sparse than the average Donnie Yen's movie you normally get but they still muscular and exciting enough to make you pay attention. Among Donnie Yen's stunning action direction are the opening fight between the two robbers and the middle part where he squares off against the double sword-wielding female fighter (Kara Hui) in the open village, climaxes in a rooftop chase and ends up in a fight-to-the-death at the den filled with buffalos.

Aubrey Lam's script is fairly impressive that breathes life in term of its narration context and nuanced characters-development. The dialogues as well as the verbal interactions, especially involving Liu Jinxi and Xu Baijiu are cleverly depicted that keeps you interested throughout the movie, even though there are no fights involved.

Speaking of nuanced characters, it's a surprise to see Donnie Yen truly excels in his acting department. His unique transition between an everyman and a deadly martial-art fighter is well developed. Kudos should actually goes to Peter Chan, who make good use of Yen's wooden acting in a distinctively unique result. Takeshi Kaneshiro is perfectly eccentric as an obsessed detective he's born to play such a role. As mentioned earlier, his interactions with Donnie Yen's Liu Jinxi are among the movie's highlights. The versatile Tang Wei, who plays Liu Jiuxi's wife, is equally credible as well. Her role could have been a thankless role but Tang Wei emotes considerably well enough in a quietly affecting manner.

Too bad the biggest disappointment of all, is the legendary Shaw Brothers veteran Jimmy Wang Yu. Although his big screen return to acting role since 1992's SHOGUN AND LITTLE KITCHEN is a novelty, his character is so glaringly over-the-top he's more of an outcast to be fitted with the rest of the actors here. Not only he overacts a lot he's almost laughably bad, he's also hard to root for. Speaking of over-the-top, his final showdown with Liu Jinxi is a total letdown. Yes, there are notable tribute to his own 1967's kung fu classic THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, the particular fight scene is somewhat lackluster. If that's not insulting enough, Chan goes haywire by ending the fight with an absurdly supernatural twist. It sounds bizarre but you'll know once you see the way how Jimmy Wang Yu's death will ends up. Overall this reckless third-act alone almost crippled the entire movie into near standstill.

Technical credits are top-notch, with Jake Pollock and Lai Yiu-Fai's ultra-crisp cinematography of the idyllic pictorial view of the Yunnan countryside and Yee Chung-Man's production design is similarly impressive as well. Chan Kwong-Wing and Peter Kam's music score is both inventive and unique enough to suit the refreshing mood of the movie by combining eastern and hard-rock influences.

While WU XIA is hardly qualifies as the best movies for both Peter Chan and Donnie Yen, at least it should be applauded as a rare Asian movie with a slight difference.




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