Film: Wu Xia
UK Release date: Tbc
Director: Peter Chan
Starring: Donnie Yen, Kara Hui, Wu Jiang, Takeshi Kaneshiro
Running time: 114 mins
Genre: Martial Arts/Action/Drama
Reviewer: Adam Wing
The greatest action star in the world is back, so lets answer the most important question first. Somewhat surprisingly, he doesn’t take his shirt off once. Unbelievable I know. Donnie Yen is back in business and doing what he does best, kicking the crap out of anyone that gets in his way, and he’s doing it fully clothed. Don’t expect another stereotypical action movie though, because there’s more to Wu Xia than meets the eye. In addition to choreographing the action, Donnie stars as a mild mannered paper maker who wouldn’t say boo to goose. Unless the goose tried to pick a fight of course, then all bets are off. There’s a joke about the goose and a need for speed there somewhere but we’ll let it go for now.
Donnie’s biggest threat comes from Kaneshiro Takeshi as an eccentric detective who doesn’t believe a single word Donnie is telling him. If that’s not enough for you, director Peter Chan (The Warlords) also casts Shaw Brothers legends Jimmy Wang Yu (The One-Armed Swordsman) and Kara Hui (My Young Auntie) in pivotal fighting roles. Chan’s latest comes on like an episode of CSI first, Ip Man second. It’s a curious concoction for sure, but in choosing a less than linear path Chan has made a far more interesting movie. A hit with fans and critics alike, not only was Wu Xia the only Chinese-language film to play at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival; it’s also the freshest action movie to arrive in years.
Paper maker Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) lives in a quiet village with his wife Yu (Tang Wei) and two sons. One day, Liu is caught up in a robbery at the local store and by sheer luck, manages to kill the two criminals committing the crime. Detective Xu Baijiu (Kaneshiro Takeshi) is a little less hasty to draw conclusions however, and after thorough analyses of the crime scene comes up with his own elaborate theory. Through Xu Baijiu’s eyes, Jinxi is in fact a brutal killer and a high-ranking member of the 72 Demons Gang. When word of Jinxi's encounter gets out, the gang’s leader (Jimmy Wang Yu) and his wife (Kara Hui) set out to make amends by any means necessary. Jinxi’s past comes back to haunt him in spectacular bone-crunching style and Yen provides his greatest performance to date.
Wu Xia is so much more than an action film; in fact there are only three fight scenes to choose from in the entire movie. Most of the first act is spent dissecting the initial encounter, with a CSI style investigation that utilises CGI technology to explain the finer details of Jinxi’s showdown. If it’s a typical Donnie Yen action extravaganza you’re after, chances are you’re coming away disappointed. Character development takes precedence over bombastic action, with Chan keen to build on the mystery surrounding Jinxi’s past. The first fight scene is played out from two different perspectives and the special effects are put to great use, but it’s not until the end of the first act that Donnie truly finds his dancing feet.
Donnie’s performance is perhaps the films greatest achievement though. Not exactly known for restraint (Ip Man was an improvement), he really does reign in it with a surprisingly subtle performance as the (whisper it quietly) slightly ‘simple’ paper maker. Rather annoyingly, he looks younger here than he has in years. I’m starting to think Donnie might not be entirely human. Not only is he living his life backwards (action stars don’t usually leave it this late in life to hit the big time), but he’s also taking the shape of a pumped up Peter Pan - with less spandex of course. The relationship he forms with Xu Baijiu is given plenty of room to breathe and as a result, Jinxi is quite possibly his most rounded character. It’s refreshing to witness a martial arts movie that doesn’t build its plot around the action sequences. Wu Xia puts character and drama first, before unleashing the kind of thrills and spills we have come to expect from the shirtless wonder.
The plot is nothing new but the delivery feels fresh and exciting. Chan encases old school styling in modern technical flourishes that amplify the story rather than drown it out. The action scenes, when they do occur, are as audacious and exciting as you can imagine, and the CGI enhances the spectacle rather than detracts from it. Donnie can do action movies with one arm tied behind his back, which makes the final face off all the more appealing. It’s great to see him flexing his acting muscles for a change too, even if we do only ever really tune in for one thing, and when the action does kick in it doesn’t disappoint.
Wu Xia might look like a typical martial arts movie on paper, but with Chan at the helm it’s so much more than that. As for Yen, his latest might not be as commercial as what we’re used to, but if you’re looking for a movie that breathes new life into the action genre, Wu Xia will prove hard to beat.