The most entertaining 98 minutes since my Mandarin acquisition experiment began one year ago were probably spent watching Wu Xia (武俠), released in English as Dragon or Swordsmen. A surprising collision of traditional Chinese themes and contemporary Western influence—as reflected in the exceedingly eclectic musical score—Peter Chan’s 2011 film boasts a gripping plot, a memorable psychological duel, and existential themes that were as effective in riveting my attention as were the kick-ass martial arts sequences.
Wu Xia, like most movies in the martial arts genre of the same name, is unquestionably a “bro film” and dispenses generous helpings of violence, blood, and grotesque evil. In other words, it’s not the best choice for family movie night. Yet it’s not only cathartic, but also gorgeously filmed, well acted, and thought provoking.
Donnie Yen and Takeshi Kaneshiro play the lead roles of Liu Jinxi and Xu Baijiu, respectively. Liu Jinxi leads a life of picturesque simplicity with his wife and two sons near a small village, where he works as a papermaker. He happens to be in the village general store one day when two bandits arrive, demanding money and abusing the staff. He valiantly confronts the thugs. In the ensuing chaos, as the nefarious pair’s blows unwittingly land on each other rather than on the papermaker, Liu Jinxi somehow manages to kill both of them and leave the scene unscathed.
He becomes the village hero when it is discovered that one of the thieves was a notorious wanted criminal. Yet Xu Baijiu, the perspicacious and relentless detective assigned to the case, suspects Liu Jinxi is not quite the lucky simpleton he appears to be. “How could an unarmed papermaker defeated a trained killer like Yan Dongsheng?” he wonders, his mental dialogue providing narration for the film. “Liu Jinxi, what kind of man are you?”
After reconstructing the fight scene, the detective works tirelessly to unravel the mystery of the papermaker’s past and true identity. Meanwhile, Liu Jinxi struggles to preserve his idyllic life as a family man and model villager while engaging Xu Baijiu in psychological battle.
The contrasting complexity of both characters gradually unfolds, underpinning an exhilarating plot and a series of intriguing philosophical questions. In the characters’ own words, in translation:
“Men are just stinking sacks of fluid with no redeeming qualities. Good or bad, it’s determined by our physiology . . . Only physiology and the law don’t lie.”
“No one truly has free will. When one man sins, we all share his sin. We are all accomplices.”
“Captain, what has the world come to?” / “Whatever the world has become, you have no choice but to be a part of it.”
The cynical import of these affirmations is embodied in visual imagery of yoked beasts of burden, butchers, raw meat, and people munching with evident pleasure as they discuss sadistic and cannibalistic acts. Likewise, the leader of the terrifying 72 Demons gang and his wife, portrayed by Jimmy Wang and Kara Hui, respectively, incarnate the desperation of evil.
Yet the bucolic village and Liu Jinxu’s family, especially his sweet wife Yu, played by Tang Wei, offer a vivid contrast, symbolizing harmony and human tenderness. Ultimately, in face of affirmations about the inevitability of karma, physiological causation, and the cold judicial system—at once corrupt and implacable—the dramatic question Wu Xia asks is whether people can overcome their conditioning and uncover heroic nobility in the midst of despair.
Wu Xia premiered in China in 2011. An edited version, 20 minutes shorter than the original, was later produced and released in the United States in November 2012. I purchased and downloaded from Amazon.com this condensed version, on which I have based the present review. Later, I watched the full original version and realized that the cuts and other changes made for a much better movie.
Thus I highly recommend you watch the shorter, 98-minute version of Wu Xia or Dragon. Though a few details are better explained in the original version, the scenes that were cut generally detract from the film’s dramatic focus and entertainment value. Whoever edited the film did a surprisingly skillful job and helped make a good movie great.
For example, in the original movie, on a couple of occasions the villagers spontaneously burst into collective songs about Liu Jinxu. But this is not a musical! The scenes seem completely out of place. Another scene that was fortunately eliminated shows a restaurant manager making a joke about a substance that improved his sexual prowess. It’s not a very funny comment, and contributes nothing to a fast-paced martial arts thriller about human darkness and redemption.
Most of all, the edited version took the eclectic and electrifying musical score and amped it up a few notches to great effect. While the original movie’s soundtrack is effective in adding excitement to the fight sequences, the condensed version also uses it to add suspense and beauty to various other scenes.
Wu Xia is only the second movie I have seen by Peter Chan, a director and producer from Hong Kong—partly because many of his previous works were in Cantonese or English. The other is The Warlords, a very solid piece that I would recommend, but not nearly as strongly as some of my favorites such as Wu Xia, Hero, or Shower.
It was my first movie starring Donnie Yen, which is perhaps surprising considering he is one of Asia’s best paid and most famous actors, and arguably China’s top action star. Again, I believe this may be due to his being from Hong Kong and thus often acting in Cantonese-language cinema.
By contrast, I have seen several other movies starring Takeshi Kaneshiro and have become a fan. Of mixed Japanese and Taiwanese heritage, Kaneshiro excelled in House of Flying Daggers, The Warlords, Red Cliff I, and Red Cliff II—all in my Chinese films table.
Two other actors were familiar faces for me. Tang Wei is effective alongside Donnie Yen as Liu Jinxu’s demur wife Yu. She has a very different and more prominent role in the racy but well-made 2007 film Lust, Caution.
In Wu Xia, a surprisingly unimportant role of assistant detective is played by Jiang Wu, a talented actor who plays highly disparate characters in Shower and A Touch of Sin.
Wu Xia seems to be entirely in standard Mandarin. I recommend it unequivocally as listening practice for anyone studying the language, but also to anyone else who loves great cinema—in particular skillfully choreographed martial arts sequences, gorgeous cinematography, creative musical scores, and suspense-noir with psychological and philosophical undertones.