Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Movie Review: Wu Xia 武俠

Director: Peter Chan 陳可辛
Genre: martial arts
Rating: ** (2 out of 5)

Warning: spoilers ahead.

I like a good Cantonese martial arts movie. But ever since the international success of Ang Lee’s (李安) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon《臥虎藏龍》, every kung fu movie has begun to look alike. For instance, they are all filmed on location in picturesque China and enlist hundreds, sometimes thousands, of local actors as extras. Half of these movies have Zhang Ziyi (章子怡) in them and the other half have Zhou Xun (周迅). They even use exactly the same font type for the end credits. It goes to show that Chinese directors are not a very creative bunch.

Wu Xia by Peter Chan

Veteran Hong Kong director Chan, who gave us such sensitive romance dramas as He’s a Woman, She’s a Man《金枝玉葉》 and Comrades《甜蜜蜜》, crossed genres and directed his first martial arts film Warlords 《投名in 2007. Wu Xia is his second go at it. I was hoping for a breath of fresh air in an otherwise overcrowded space; but it wasn’t.

The story revolves around Liu, a martial arts master who walks away from his murderous past to start a new tranquil life, only to be pursued in the underworld by his own father, a ruthless cult leader, and in the upperworld by relentless police detective Xu. The movie borrows heavily from Kill Bill (remember deadly assassin Beatrix Kiddo’s yearn for a normal life?), Les Misérables (substitute Jean Valjean for Liu and Javert for Xu) and CBS’s hit television series CSI (for all that forensic science speak).

Takeshi Kaneshiro playing a crime scene investigator

Donnie Yen (甄子丹) plays Liu. He is Ip Man (葉問) if he wore bad peasant clothes and had a mean father. Takeshi Kaneshiro (金城武), the Taiwanese-Japanese actor who is in every big budget Chinese movie nowadays, portrays the nerdy Xu who struggles with a haunting childhood, a failed marriage and a mysterious ailment, none of which is fully fleshed out in the film. Kara Hui’s (湯唯) normally nuanced acting is wasted on her role playing Liu’s wife, a feeble divorcee whose biggest fear in life is abandonment by men. Veteran kung fu star Wang Yu (王羽) is Liu’s fearsome father and the only authentic character in the film.

Like most martial arts movies, Wu Xia is gory. There is plenty of blood gushing, bone cracking and throat slitting. In the end Liu’s indestructible father is struck by lightning and dies, just when he is about to finish off his betraying son. That means the father-son conflict never gets resolved, but instead a divine intervention brings a hasty end to a loose plot.

One of the many graphic scenes in Wu Xia
Wu Xia has the potential to be a great film, a different film. But it fails in its execution. It confirms my belief that Hong Kong directors still have a way to go in terms of character development and plot advancement. Now that they have perfected their martial arts choreography and Hollywood-style cinematic techniques, they should work on the one thing that matters most: story-telling.

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