Starring: Donnie Yen Ji-dan, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tang Wei, Jimmy Wang Yu, Wai Ying-hung
Directed by: Peter Chan Ho-sun
Category: IIB (Cantonese and Putonghhua versions)
From last year's Detective Dee to Detective Xu in the new film, Wu Xia, Chinese crime solvers are breathing new life into the costume martial arts genre. Set nearly a century ago during the dawn of republican China, director-producer Peter Chan takes the present-day fascination with 'crime scene investigation' and gives it a thoroughly Chinese twist that is simultaneously classic and modern.
It represents one of the freshest scripts by Chan's frequent collaborator, Aubrey Lam Oi-wah, largely devoid of the sentimentality and glibness that has marred previous efforts. Despite the generic title (a term referring to both chivalrous fighters and the genre as a whole), the scenario's sleuth is a rugged individualist. Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is almost Sherlock Holmesian in his allegiance to science, in this case the Chinese sciences of physiology and acupressure.
The film's visualisation of his reasoning process is perhaps the production's main distinguishing visual characteristic, as Xu attempts to get to the bottom of a couple of puzzling murders in a quaint Yunnan village paper mill. Local officials and townsfolk alike praise the heroic deeds of mill operator Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen, above), but Xu senses something isn't right.
The scenario is provided with an extra dimension in that Xu's rigid pursuit of 'justice' results in greater mayhem than had he merely accepted the obvious conclusion. While the picture is technically tops, the manoeuvring between the fantastic and the prosaic is sometimes uneven on both a textual and emotional level, occasionally relying on obviously manipulative devices such as close-ups to trigger a viewer's response. Thankfully, such moments are few and far between as Xu comes closer and closer to unravelling the mystery.
It's pretty much a man's film with the exception of some impressive fighting by Wai Ying-hung in the role of a key member of the underworld 72 Demons clan, whose connection to one of the principals is eventually revealed. One wishes Tang Wei, extremely sympathetic as Liu's wife, was given more to do.
The male leads, however, are given stellar showcases. Yen, not surprisingly, excels in his self-choreographed action scenes, and Kaneshiro's gravitas endows what might have been a flat characterisation with hinted depths and dry humour. But the element that genre aficionados will find especially gratifying is the presence of Jimmy Wang Yu in a plot twist evoking his 1967 masterwork The One-Armed Swordsman and furnishing Wu Xia with an emblematic link to wuxia's cinematic past.
Wu Xia opens today