a.k.a. Swordsman / The Dragon
directed by Peter Chan Hoh-San
2011 / We Pictures / 116′
written by Aubrey Lam Oi-Wa and Joyce Chan Ka-Yi
cinematography by Lai Yiu-Fai, Jake Pollock, and Yeung Jan-Yu
music by Comfort Chan Kwong-Wing, Peter Kam Pau-Tat, and Chatchai Pongprapaphan
starring Donnie Yen Ji-Dan, Kaneshiro Takeshi, Tang Wei, Zheng Wei, Li Jia-Min, Jimmy Wang Yu, Kara Hui Ying-Hung
China, 1917. Liu Jin-Xi (Donnie Yen) lives a peaceful life with his wife Ah Yu (Tang Wei), her son from a first marriage Liu Fang-Zheng (Zheng Wei) and their son Liu Xiao-Tian (Li Jia-Min) in a country town, working in a paper mill. Shadows of a different man Liu Jin-Xi once was begin to emerge when the two martial artist villains try to rob the mill.
Liu Xiao-Tian kills the men in what on first look seems like a series of exceedingly lucky accidents, making him the hero of the village. But Xu Bai-Jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the detective investigating the villains’ death, has his doubts regarding Xiao-Tian. How, after all, should one hapless butcher’s son be able to “accidentally” kill two of the meanest martial artists around? Some of the physical evidence Xu Bai-Jiu finds tells a different story, too, and the detective is soon convinced Xiao-Tian must be a masterful martial artist and experienced killer who is just using this identity to hide himself from the law.
Even though Xiao-Tian must be a changed man from whoever he was before, Xu Bai-Jiu can’t help himself but go after him, sniffing and asking questions and even accommodating himself at Xiao-Tian’s place. Xu Bai-Jiu’s own past has him convinced that his natural tendency to compassion is a weakness before the spirit of the law that must be purged, so he treats his sense of empathy like the illness that keeps him unable to practice the martial arts; not surprisingly, he also doesn’t believe a man can ever truly change, so Xiao-Tian becomes an obsession and a riddle for him to solve.
Xu Bai-Jiu’s investigation has other consequences than those he intends, too, for once it has reached a certain point, the people that made Xiao-Tian the man he once was (Jimmy Wang Yu! Kara Hui!) learn where their old friend now is, and they very much want him back, not realizing that some men do in fact change.
Peter Chan Hoh-San’s Wu Xia is one those films from Hong Kong that makes me doubt the truth of the old-fartish refrain of “things in Hong Kong cinema are just so bad now” I and many other long-time fans of the city’s cinematic output have been singing for about a decade now, for how bad can a regional cinema truly be if it still can produce fantastic movies like this?
In time-honoured fashion, Wu Xia mixes elements of the mystery genre with elements of the wuxia (a real surprise given its title, surely), to form a meditation about the possibility of change in people, the usefulness of suppressing impulses, and even the old question about nature and nurture that may remind some of Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, just with the difference that Chan’s film – unlike that of the Canadian – is not a comedy. (To digress for a parenthesis, yes, I am that weird guy who really thinks Cronenberg’s film is not just a black comedy, but is also meant as one rather than as the bloody drama most viewers seem to see when watching it; I’ll only point at the nature of the sexual role-play between Mortensen and Bello as an obvious hint at that film’s true nature.)
Unlike Mortensen’s Tom Stall, though, Xiao-Tian isn’t only truly alive when he is a monster, and his family life with Ah Yu and the children never has the feeling of somebody going through trained motions without any actual emotions; Xiao-Tian may have only locked away the monstrous parts of himself, but what’s left is not an automaton, but an actual human being.
The movie’s first two thirds are in large parts about exploring its two male main characters (with Tang Wei getting a handful of scenes that flesh her out as a character more than I would have expected from a film with this set-up and structure – it sure helps how much the actress is able to express with just a few looks) as mirror images of each other: Xiao-Tian as a man who has locked away everything destructive and monstrous about himself to become a human being, and Xu Bai-Jiu who has locked away his most human traits – compassion and empathy – to become a better agent of the Law. The former is a man who will not use his martial arts abilities because they are so closely connected to his worst nature, the latter unable to use his because his best nature cost him his abilities. I can’t imagine what the Chinese censor thought about the film’s treatment of compassion and the Law, especially since the film treats Xu Bai-Jiu as being in the wrong with his priorities; it’s nice to still find Hong Kong films that dare to argue for humanist values being more important than the jackboot. Interestingly, the film also seems to express that it’s easier to suppress one’s worst impulses than one’s best. Of course, both of Wu Xia‘s main characters will have to accept parts of what they’ve kept closed up to become fully functional human beings, possibly even heroes.
I was a bit surprised by how well Donnie Yen is able to sell his character’s complexities. I do of course love the man and his generally motionless or scowling face, but he always has been a better martial arts actor than an actor, and this is a film that needs him to express himself outside of fight scenes quite a bit. Yen is still using more body language and posture than facial expression (though he has developed a surprisingly pleasant ability to smile over the years), but he is doing that very well, selling the inner changes his character goes through without having to talk about them.
The well handled philosophical discourse alone would be more than enough to recommendWu Xia, but there is so much more to love here: there are the fantastic fight scenes – of course choreographed by Yen – that dominate the film’s final third; Chan’s curious yet effective decision to treat Chinese village life of the early 20th century as a peculiar mixture of naturalism and bucolic idyll and still have martial arts be more than a little magical instead of “realistic”; the relatively small but important roles of Jimmy Wang Yu and Kara Hui who feature in the film’s two most intense fight scenes; the way the film uses Kaneshiro’s traditional Chinese science and medicine as the base for some CSI-inspired scenes and makes that work too without things becoming ridiculous; how Chan’s direction handles action, near-mythical dramatic family conflicts, human-level emotions and moments of peace with the same assured sense of rhythm and pacing as well as a deep understanding of their importance. In Wu Xia, it’s all good.