NYAFF 2012 Review: DRAGON (WU XIA), A Solid Detective Story with a Splash of Subpar Martial Arts
Say what you will about The Weinstein Company re-titling the latest from director Peter Chan Dragon for the English speaking market - and we say it's horrible - but they may actually have something of a point in moving the title away from the Chinese original of Wu Xia. Because Chan seems surprisingly disinterested in delivering any sort of conventional take on what most fans of the wuxia genre would expect from a film of that title. Which isn't to say that it's not good - because it is, very - but expectations may be skewed a bit in the wrong direction.
Wu Xia begins, surprisingly enough, as a detective story. When a pair of thugs try to rob the general store of a remote town they are fought off by local paper maker Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) and killed in the battle. The subsequent investigation - led by quirky detective Xu Baiju (Takeshi Kaneshiro) obsessed with solving crimes by observation of minute details and a rich knowledge of human physiology - quickly confirms who the dead men are and how they died but while the town is busy proclaiming the humble paper maker a local hero our detective becomes convinced that there must be more to him than meets the eye. For no untrained man could have dispatched two hardened criminals in such fashion.
And so the first half of Wu Xia plays out not as a martial arts epic nor as a meditation on honor - the two prevalent themes in wuxia films - but as a heady game of cat and mouse with Xu playing out theories of who Liu might really be. He's right, of course, there's more at play here than meets the eye and before all is said and done a secret society of assassins comes out of the woodwork to wreak havoc in this once peaceful town.
Leaning significantly more towards drama than action, Wu Xia is a beautifully photographed piece of work from the always visually impressive Peter Chan with an all star cast that includes Kara Hui, Tang Wei and - in a lovely nod to the film's origins as a remake of The One Armed Swordsman (a plan quickly abandoned) - Jimmy Wang Yu. Chan draws strong performances from his entire cast and the production values are simply stellar throughout. The script is engaging, the characters interesting and, when the action finally comes into play, the action is inventive and high energy.
Many will, no doubt, approach Wu Xia as a star vehicle for Donnie Yen - who also serves as action director - and on that level there is both good and bad. The good is that this is as strong a dramatic performance as Yen has ever turned in, Chan proving himself again to be a strong actor's director. Yen has taken a lot of heat over his career for focusing on the action while turning in wooden performances but this is very definitely not the case here, his Liu being a rich and complex man who Yen delivers well. The bad, unfortunately, comes in the action. Not that the martial arts sequences are bad, per se, but it is becoming increasingly clear now that Yen's physical skills are on the decline and are already significantly below the level of just a few years ago. As with several recent Yen pictures the use of a body double is fairly common while every fight sequence has had the speed manipulated significantly. In Yen's prime neither of these things would have been dreamt of, now both are required.
While Wu Xia will not cause the stir that pictures such as Crouching Tiger and Hero did on their release it is, nonetheless, one of the better films of the type from recent years and a welcome attempt to push the historical epic in a new direction.
Dragon (Wu Xia) screens as part of the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival, Monday, July 9 (7:45pm) at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center. Prior to the film actor Donnie Yen will receive the Star Asia Award. Click here for more info and tickets. Please note tickets are selling fast and the likelihood of a standby prior to the screening is very likely.
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