NYAFF 2012 Review: DRAGON (WU XIA), A Solid Detective Story with a Splash of Subpar Martial Arts

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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NYAFF 2012 Review: DRAGON (WU XIA), A Solid Detective Story with a Splash of Subpar Martial Arts
With its New York Premiere happening tomorrow night as part of the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival we now revisit Todd's review from Cannes 2011.

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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More about Wu Xia

HanajunJuly 9, 2012 4:24 AM

Nice review

Usually with each of Yen's films, I would remember at least one moment showing Yen's action talents. This film, however, I will always remember for that dinner sequence between Yen, his family, and Jimmy Wang Yu. Tense and very emotional. Yen's acting was great, and Yu was just a force.

CuttermaranJuly 9, 2012 4:44 AM

There was nothing bad about this movie. In fact it was awesome. Even the action was better staged then most of Yens earlier hyperactive excesses.

https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawlf1M88fFsjRowuEwW2NEivNxgTYzhZo5UJuly 9, 2012 4:44 AM

Good review, and I agree it's sad how much his physical talents have declined, but I would qualify it slightly by saying that he's always been doubled for stunts (since injuring himself on Mismatched Couples I believe), and for a while in the 90s he was notorious for speeding himself up (Legend of the Wolf, Fist of Fury TV show etc....)

QinlongJuly 9, 2012 5:23 AM

I don't really think he has declined that much. As bertie_wooster said, even in his prime Yen has used body doubles and undercranked his fights. So the presence of those two devices in WU XIA is no indicator of a decline per se. Sure, he is not in his prime anymore, but believe me at 50 that kind of martial artist is far from done with (barring some big injury).

Todd BrownJuly 9, 2012 1:20 PM

Compare SPL, Flash Point and Ip Man to this and Legend of the Fist. Even with Ip Man being only four years ago the difference is dramatic.

Don't get me wrong, I mostly like Wuxia and I think it's got a lot going for it. But if you're coming in looking for big Donnie Yen action, you're not going to get it. What fights there are are still significantly above average but a) there aren't very many of them and b) they don't live up to Donnie at his peak.

Todd BrownJuly 9, 2012 1:23 PM

Completely agree ... Jimmy Wang Yu is great in this and totally steals his scenes. Kara Hui is really good, too.

DooKJuly 9, 2012 1:50 PM

Cool reviews. However, I disagree about Donnie passing his prime. The Lost Bladesman, which was made not too long before Wu Xia, features Donnie - with very little use of wirework and doubles for his action scenes - in one of the most intense and creatively staged weapon fights to date. Not once was there a sign that showed Donnie "losing" it.

I think the reason his action choreography in Wu Xia was very different from his other works is because it was Peter Chan's desire to achieve such action and Donnie's duty to fulfill his ideas. That said, I think the action scenes are really refreshing for today's HK action choreography standards.

DooKJuly 9, 2012 1:58 PM

Feel the same way. Donnie has indeed stepped down a bit in terms of physical prowess compared to his physical state in the 90s. But alas, not by much.

Todd BrownJuly 9, 2012 1:59 PM

I still haven't seen Lost Bladesman. I'll have to track a copy down ...

QinlongJuly 9, 2012 2:33 PM

I think the difference in martial arts performance is precisely due to the fact that Peter Chan has dialed down the martial arts in the film. As DooK says, THE LOST BLADESMAN features Donnie Yen on top martial arts form, and I wouldn't be surprised if SPECIAL IDENTITY, with its Yen/Collin Chou re-match, is the same.

Todd BrownJuly 9, 2012 2:35 PM

I certainly hope so! It'll be a good opportunity to make an apples-to-apples comparison, at the very least.