CANNES - Bursting with light and color, and a torrent of martial arts action both swift and savage (arguably the best that lead actor Donnie Yen has choreographed for years), "Wu Xia" is coherently developed and stylishly directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan to provide unashamedly pleasurable popular entertainment.
"Wu Xia" created buzz before its premiere with acquisition by The Weinstein Company, which will release the title stateside as "Dragon." Almost as picturesque as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the film, showing out of competition at Cannes, has a chance of expanding overseas audience base beyond Asian genre ghettos.
Set in 1917, on the cusp of China's transition from monarchy to republic, "Wu Xia" depicts the internal moral struggles of a detective and a paper-maker who may be a renegade mass murderer. Unfolding like a noir mystery in which "Colombo" meets "CSI." It represents Chan's ambition to bridge the gap between Chinese and international tastes by giving a modern spin to the genre, while paying homage to the golden age of Hong Kong martial arts films through the special appearances of legendary action star Jimmy Wang Yu and Kara Hui.
Donnie Yen plays the said paper-maker Liu Jinxi, who has settled in an idyllic, hospitable village in Yunnan for 10 years after marrying single mother Ayu (Tang Wei). The peaceful life of his family of four is disturbed when he accidentally kills two robbers who threaten his paper workshop. The incident has detective Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) sniffing in his backyard. Xu is convinced that Liu's real identity is Tang Long, a runaway member of the 72 Demons, a dwindling clan of Tanguts (former rulers of China's neighboring Xixia kingdom) for whom rape, pillage and massacre are a way of life.
What makes the exposition novel in the genre is the attempt to peel away layers of oriental mystique surrounding martial arts through Xu's quasi-scientific or homeopathic theories of investigation, such as forensic science, physics, acupuncture and qigong, which also adds an endearingly nerdy side to his character. However, the CG-rendered charts of human anatomy are used too frequently until they interfere with the flow of action.
As a self-conscious homage to the brawny, starkly violent martial arts films of which Chang Cheh's classic "One Armed Swordsman" series (starring Jimmy Wang Yu) is exemplary, Yen's devises close-contact combats with a graphic, muscular, vicious style that aims to kill with a single strike. The three-act structure each showcases a climactic combat in distinctly different styles. Liu's fight with a female Tangut (Kara Hui) is the most inventive, as it takes place in an ox pen where they have to skirt nimbly, yet dangerously around a stampede of buffalo.
After going through the motions in a recent string of dramatically unsatisfactory works, Yen and Tang both return to acting form, emoting in a quietly stirring manner. Aubrey Lam's subtle and understated script not only affectingly depict the pure but steadfast bonds of a simple family, but capture the neurosis of both Liu and Ayu, who separately grapple with their scarred pasts and fear that happiness is transient. The most fascinating character, however, turns out to be Xu, for whom the investigation becomes a personal moral and intellectual quest, in which he weighs the impartial efficacy of law against natural human compunctions of remorse and compassion. He too has to exorcise demons from the past, thus deepening the theme of redemption, which applies to Xu as well as to Liu.
Jake Pollock's luscious widescreen cinematography adds a dash of fairytale color to the moist, glossy rolling hills, meadows and bamboo bushes of the ethnically rich Yunnan countryside. While hard rock score of Peter Kam and Chan Kwong Wing (the composing duo of "Bodyguards and Assassins," produced by Chan) tends to be too relentlessly energetic at times, sound is used expertly for maximum threatening effect, especially in the presence of the chief of the 13 Demons (Jimmy Wang Yu).