Director: Peter Chan
In Peter Chan‘s action packed epic Wu Xia (or Swordsmen), the successful Chinese director takes the classic wu xia genre of films made popular by the Shaw Brothers studio and adds twists and turns making it a mystery martial arts film. Starring one of the biggest stars in the Chinese film industry Donnie Yen (Ip Man, Fist of Legend) the film does an excellent job of balancing both the kinetic flying kicks and fists that make the style popular, with a layered plot that is reminiscent of David Cronenberg‘s A History of Violence. While the film is careful to pace itself with large action set pieces, once the punches start flying it’s a non-stop adrenaline ride that will leave you wanting to mimic Yen’s signature style of fight choreography.
The film opens in a tranquil village where life is simple and peaceful. Liu Jin-xi (Yen) is a happily married husband and father to two children, one his own and one from a previous marriage. The tranquillity of the simple life is shattered when one day two violent criminals arrive in town and attempt to rob the local general store. Luckily for the store owner, Liu Jin-xi is close by and through a combination of luck and seemingly amateurish attempts to fight back, he is able to thwart the robbery. However this attack draws the attention of detective Xu Bai-jiu (Takeshita Kaneshiro) who is not confident the retaliation by Liu was possible, were it not that he himself was also either a criminal or a a martial arts expert, or perhaps even both. The investigation scene where he astutely recreates what actually happened in the general store is pure magic and hands down one of the most striking action scenes committed to film.
Pestered by the constant questions the detective has for him, Liu begs for him to leave the small town so he may return to his peaceful life, otherwise great unforeseen consequences might arise. As is the case with any great martial arts film, the investigation sparks the arousal of a dangerous enemy for Liu, the clan of the 72 demons, a group he may have once been associated with. Martial arts legend Jimmy Wang (The One Armed Swordsman) plays the intimidating leader of the criminal group and once he learns of Liu, he believes that he may have tracked down his long lost son and desires to take retribution by taking back his grandson.
For anyone familiar with Yen’s fight choreography, you will instantly recognize the joy it is to watch him perform martial arts. Along with thoughtful direction from Chan to differentiate the film from others in the genre along with making the mystery of Liu’s past an important element to the story, Wu Xia has all the hallmarks of the classic genre while bringing something new and fresh to the table. The major criticism of the film is that certain scenes feel overtly long, driving up the running time to something that could have been better paced. For any fans of true martial arts there is no denying that Wu Xia has the potential to be one of the stand-outs of the genre.
Note: This is a repost of our 2011 Cannes Review
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