Cannes 2011 Review: Peter Chan's Awesome Martial Arts Film 'Wu Xia'
by Alex Billington
May 15, 2011
I love most martial arts movies, but there are a few in particular that stand out above others, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which premiered in Cannes in 2000), and Wu Xia is one of those exceptional films. Now I know why Cannes chose to feature it. Wu Xia (being titled either Swordsmen and/or Dragon in English) is the latest film from Chinese director Peter Ho-Sun Chan, also of The Warlords a few years ago, and it's awesome. While it does have a few fantastic fight scenes, he never sacrifices story for spectacle, which pays off as it's a film that I enjoyed from start to finish and will definitely be revisiting in the future.
The easiest - and honestly best - way to describe Wu Xia would be to say it's A History of Violence but set in early 1900s China, about a paper maker named Liu Jinxi (played exceptionally by Donnie Yen) living peacefully with his family in a small rural Chinese town. Obviously that description hints at the fact that he has a rather intriguing past, and he may just be a martial arts expert even though he's hiding it now. When two thugs attempt to rob the town's general store, Jinxi miraculously defeats them, making it look like it was all just an accident. But when an investigator comes to town and starts to look closer at the incident, he begins to notice that Jinxi may not be the peaceful family man he claims, stirring up his sordid past again.
The one word that kept coming to mind watching this film was indeed "awesome". It's much more of a drama than a martial arts epic like True Legend, but it has a strong enough story to make up for that. And while there aren't a lot of fight scenes, the few we do get are awesome. When the investigator comes to town, he "revisits" the general store crime scene and watches (by putting himself "into the scene") the action take place, trying to discover how Jinxi was able to defeat them. Chan uses slow motion and beautiful cinematography which, unlike with Zack Snyder, is actually integral to the story because it's used to show how every tiny inflection, every last millisecond, is important in martial arts/kung fu. It's exciting to watch.
Donnie Yen is unquestionably the driving force in Wu Xia and carries the weight of the entire film on his shoulders, delivering a fantastic performance that has made him one of my favorite international actors. The rest of the cast, including Wei Tang as Jinxi's wife, is great as well. While I could complain about the lack of fights, that would be unnecessary for this film, and if anything would suggest that they trim about 10 minutes from some of the drama in the middle to tighten it up. But besides that, this is a film that I totally loved. It's exceptionally entertaining, even comical at times, and totally awesome in every sense of the word.
Alex's Cannes Rating: 9 out of 10