When news broke last month that Peter Chan Ho-sun's new martial arts film would feature at this year's Cannes Film Festival, local film industry movers - or at least those generous enough to look at their field from a more impartial position - breathed a collective sigh of relief. Chan's presence in the selection officielle means Hong Kong cinema retains at least a foothold in one of the most important events on the film calendar.
Not that Wu Xia had been given the best possible berth to shine: in addition to being an out-of-competition entry - which meant it was not in the race for the Palme d'Or or any of the other awards being presented today at the final ceremony - the film was shown as a 'midnight screening', the slot normally reserved for movies considered visually or thematically outlandish. The other 'midnight film' was Days of Grace, a violent Mexican revenge thriller helmed by first-time director Everardo Gout.
'We never wanted to be in competition, that's for sure,' Chan says when we meet on the rooftop cafe of a Cannes hotel the morning after Wu Xia's premiere at the festival. 'I probably wouldn't mind if they gave me a place on the competition, but it's not right for that at all - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wasn't in competition when it came here [in 2000].
'When we sought an out-of-competition screening, we didn't know what we were going to get,' he says. 'But when we were offered a midnight screening, it's the choice of you come, or you don't. In fact, originally we were slotted in for the second weekend of the festival, which would have been disastrous with everybody already away. So we pushed and pushed, and with the help of many we got a place on the first weekend.'
Chan says he's not worried about Wu Xia being (mis)understood as a cult film or a novelty because of its beginnings as a midnight film at Cannes. 'To be very honest,' he says, 'I'm way past that kind of mentality as a director - I'm much more pragmatic in my approach. All Chinese films are cult films [in the international market]. We can't look at the kind of awards I've been winning in Hong Kong and think, 'Oh, this is an Oscar-winning film'. We cannot have that mentality. If we can be successful as cult films, just be cult films.'
The director says bringing his film to Cannes 'is a must', as the festival is a good launching pad for martial arts films to break into the global spotlight and market: 'This is a breeding ground for martial arts films, from [director] King Hu in 1975 to the fantastic run of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which, let's not forget, began in Cannes just when Western distributors were saying they didn't know what to do with it.'
Chan had it all worked out from the very beginning, however - and his conclusion is that despite its title, Wu Xia should not be seen and sold as a traditional swordplay-and-fisticuff flick. The promotional reel features two of the film's most riveting action scenes set against music drawn from Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill - an interesting juxtaposition, given Wu Xia is set in a small, far-flung village in southwestern China. In 1917.
Of course, the finished film doesn't feature electric guitars on its soundtrack - but the subversive spirit of that 15-minute teaser represents what Wu Xia sets out to do to the martial arts film genre, Chan says. 'It began with this conversation I had with Jet Li [Lianjie] ... I couldn't find a way to make something new out of a martial arts film. And Jet said, 'What can you expect? We've got only two arms and two feet, how much different stuff could we conjure?''
Rather than look at how bodies move, Chan says, his idea is to look at how bodies are affected by the physicality of those kung fu moves. 'The inspiration for this film came from a medical science television programme I watched two years ago, after I made Bodyguards and Assassins,' he says. 'It talks about how a sniper can expose his quarry's weakness with a single, fatal blow. In that show, the viewer could follow a bullet into the body, as it surges through blood vessels and organic tissues. It looks at how you can die in so many ways from a gunshot: it can be a haemorrhage, or a blood clot, or cardiac arrest. It's not as simple as films make it out to be, that a person gets shot, bleeds and dies.
'Something similar can be applied to martial arts action films. We grew up watching things like people stopping, maiming or killing others by aiming for the meridians in the body - but how exactly do they happen? How does a whack on the head bring about death?
'It's like an anatomy of the killer moves in martial arts - and that's the stylistic choice we began with, and everything was created to serve that, whether it's the story or the characters,' he says.
That's what makes Wu Xia - or at least the first hour of it - such an intriguing experience. While it starts like a traditional martial arts film with a big fight - with the seemingly simple paper-maker Liu Jinxi (played by Donnie Yen Ji-dan) fumbling his way into killing two robbers - the story quickly becomes CSI: Yunnan, as detective Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) looks at the corpses, evaluates the exact causes of their death, and tries to imagine how Liu had deftly manoeuvred the fight and the deaths.
'I needed a less dense plot so that I could have more screen time to deal with the details I wanted to put in about the internal body physics and all that,' Chan says. 'I needed a story that could basically be told in 45 minutes ... it was like The One-Armed Swordsman, in which a player slips into obscurity but his past comes back to haunt him ... But Wu Xia is done like an action film of the 1980s: when I was a production manager for Jackie Chan, I didn't see him discussing characters or narratives. He would say, 'I want to jump from this building to that building - now give me a story to justify that'. I found that laughable back then, but now I'm doing it myself.'
It's an audacious move on Chan's part to call his film Wu Xia: it's akin to a proclamation of providing a definitive reboot of the whole martial arts genre. Of course, he is too media-savvy and canny an operator to take up that albatross, but he does say a breakthrough is needed to bring these film out of a 'dead end'.
'It's not just about the difficulty of marketing it to foreign audiences - even Asian, Chinese and Hong Kong audiences are bored and uninspired by our martial arts films today,' he says.
'That's why the detective work at the first part of the film looks so contemporary and Western - Harvey [Weinstein, the film's international distributor] said it could even be seen as a film noir. And that's exactly what I wanted to achieve at the very start - you could see Wu Xia as a thriller.'
The next step is to see whether viewers will thrill Chan by splashing out for such a drastic take on the genre.
Wu Xia opens in Hong Kong on August 4