Cannes Movie Review: Wu Xia (Dragon) (2011)

ON
Donnie Yen in Wu Xia
Photo: The Weinstein Co.

One day after the Weinstein Co. acquired North American distribution and remake rights to Peter Ho-sun Chan’s Wu Xia (Dragon), the Out of Competition title screened at the 64th Cannes Film Festival. Playing as a 1917-set, martial arts version of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, Wu Xia boasts a fascinating story and some excellent action scenes, choreographed and featuring Donnie Yen. There are moments when it plays a little too long leaving for a few dead spots throughout, though this does make you cherish the action scenes that much more when they arrive.

Set during the late Qing Dynasty, Wu Xia opens as a pair of thieves attempt to rob a general store in a small village. Their robbery is, however, foiled by an act of bravery by Jinxi (Yen), a local papermaker, father of two and husband to Ayu (Tang Wei). After an investigation of the crime scene by Detective Xu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) it is learned one of the bandits was among the ten most wanted people in the land. Xu’s chief is happy it happened under his jurisdiction while Xu begins to question how a seemingly innocent papermaker was able to, by stroke of luck, kill two seasoned bandits, one of them by issuing a single, but fatal, blow to the head.

Takeshi Kaneshiro (Chungking Express), who last impressed me in John Woo’s Red Cliff and House of Flying Daggers before that, plays Xu as something of an early era C.S.I. investigator, a description Chan embraces, using CG to detail each suspected blow to the victims as Xu scrutinizes the crime scene.

As the audience, we saw the scene as it happened, but as Xu investigates he sees it a different way. Were we deceived? Did it actually happen as Xu sees it or is his imagination getting the better of him?

Believing Jinxi to be more dangerous than he is letting on, Wu Xia‘s comparison to A History of Violence becomes more apt, though I don’t want to give too much away as the majority of the fun is in experiencing it first hand.

While Yen and Kaneshiro both handle their respective roles quite well, the bulk of the credit for this film goes to screenwriter Aubrey Lam (The Warlords), whose script presents a story of this sort unlike any I’ve seen. Depending on how knowledgeable you are of the twelve standard meridians in Chinese acupuncture you may be more ahead of the game with this film than me as they play a pivotal role in Xu’s personal life and investigation. Audience members with a greater respect for the medicinal treatment may find even more value in the film than I did.

As a film, Wu Xia wasn’t what I expected and when I looked up what the title actually meant (no, it’s not “dragon” as the Weinstein Co. has arbitrarily renamed this picture) I was intrigued by what I found.

Wuxia is actually a genre of Chinese fiction centered on martial arts with a hero at the center of its story that “fights for righteousness and seeks to remove an oppressor, redress wrongs, or to bring retribution for past misdeeds.” You’d never guess that based on the detective story that makes up the first half of this film.

With Weinstein taking control, however, I would suspect the opening 60 minutes or so will be trimmed down to speed up the story and get to the latter half where more of the genre’s trademarks can be found and the action ratchets up a notch. The foundations of wuxia, however, are set in the early goings with references to such skills as Qinggong, Neijin and Dianxue, and don’t worry if you’re not familiar with these terms, I wasn’t either, but exploring the particulars of this genre is actually quite fascinating if you’re interested.

Where Wu Xia is going to find trouble upon domestic release is in any attempt to appeal outside genre enthusiasts. The problem isn’t the performances or even the story per se, but in the film’s tonal ambiguity. Several moments in Xu’s initial investigation are quite comical, but I’m not sure if the tone will translate to a domestic audience. Then there’s the matter of convincing audiences to take the more mystical aspects of the story seriously, something that’s often proved to be difficult for a culture more likely to laugh at what they don’t understand rather than respect it for what it is. I only mention this in response to ill-timed snickers that could be heard in my Cannes audience.

Overall, Wu Xia is a solid film that simply needs about ten minutes snipped from its running time to quicken the pace. I’ll be curious to see how it’s marketed because there is a serious possibility of reaching a wider audience considering comparisons that can be made to today’s primetime police procedurals and the fact very few martial arts films have been hits since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won four Oscars in 2001. I’m not saying this film is on that level, not by a long shot, but the fact the Weinstein’s obtained remake rights as well as distribution rights tells me they see the potential this film and its story holds.

GRADE: B-