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Original Title:
Wu Xia

China, Hong Kong 2011

Wuxia, Thriller, Drama

Peter Chan

Donnie Yen
Takeshi Kaneshiro
Tang Wei
Kara Hui
Wang Yu
Jiang Wu
Kang Yu
Li Xiaoran
Kenji Tanigaki
Yan Hua

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Wu Xia

aka Swordsmen

Story: Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) lives in a village which runs a paper mill. He has a wife, Ayu (Tang Wei), and two children of which one is from Ayu's first marriage. One day two dangerous criminals come into the village and want to rob a store, but Liu makes a stand against them. Apparently with a whole lot of luck he manages to take down the criminals and is now celebrated as the town's local hero. Shortly thereafter detective Xu Bai-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) comes to the village and tries to find out the exact circumstances of the case. For his colleagues the case is crystal clear and should be closed as soon as possible. However, Xu believes that Liu is everything but a normal village resident with an incredible amount of luck. In his eyes he is an extraordinary martial artist who is moreover wanted as a criminal and started a new life when he came to the village ten years ago. With the newest scientific methods of the year 1917 at his disposal he tries to unravel the exact facts behind the case and uncover the true identity of the inscrutable Liu.

Review: Peter Chan's martial arts thriller brings some new energy and ideas to the outdated genre while the story itself is a homage to classical wuxia-stories, those stories that revolve around swordsmen, chivalry as well as good and evil. The fact that Chan's story is especially based on "The One-Armed Swordsman" won't escape the viewer either, but the western audience will also feel strongly reminded of Cronenberg's "A History of Violence", which on a closer look just has some classical elements of wuxia-stories to it as well. Which is the remake of the other is therefore not important at all, because it is not the story what makes "Wu Xia" so special but the unusual and innovative way it is told. The film depicts a thriller that is mostly carried by its characters, offers a lot of drama and only features martial arts scenes when the story is in need of them. This makes "Wu Xia" a coherent, entertaining and more than anything else meaningful entry into the wuxia-genre. After all you only seldomly get to see well done readaptions of an already familiar theme, but Peter Chan succeeds in delivering just that!

Director Peter Chan is making movies for the Chinese Mainland for six years, before that he mainly made a name for himself with his addition to the horror short movie compilation "Three Extremes" titled "Going Home" (aka "Dumplings"). Since that day he managed to deliver some good work in China with his musical-orientated drama "Perhaps Love". Moreover, his "The Warlords" was also most enthusiastically received by the audience. Both films are ambitious works that almost oozed out the word epic. "Wu Xia" is a different topic. The story is a lot calmer and more subtle and has a special impact just because of that, eventually making it Chans best work to date. This is more than anything else thanks to Chan's very special style of making movies which never makes you miss the fact that the director is an artist after all and that his strength is to get the best out of his actors. The characters in "Wu Xia" are complex despite being inscrutable but can serve as sympathy figures at all times.

Donnie Yen is already 48 these days and only now he has the success he would have deserved years back. Still, he savors it and is now playing the lead role in every other movie that comes out of Hong Kong/China. And this even though he isn't the youngest around anymore and especially in "Wu Xia" you get proof of that as some of the fights are played a bit faster than they were actually shot. Since Yen himself is responsible for the action choreography, though, the fights in the movie are without any doubt top-notch. In fact, there are only three fight scenes in the movie and the first real fight is to be seen after an astounding 70 minutes! Yet, it's actually that tension the movie creates up to this point what makes that face-off so satisfying in the end. Of course to us there is no doubt that Liu Jinxi is in fact an extraordinary martial artist, because if he weren't why would Donnie Yen play his part?

Yen has already made his enormous ego take a backseat for "Ip Man" and by that created one of his best films to that date, but now he even goes a step further and shows truely amazing acting talent. As a man who lives in a tranquil village when his past suddenly catches up with him, a past which makes all the cruel things he did flash before his eyes again, he has to show different emotions and Donnie Yen (even to my suprise!) fully manages to deliver in this respect as well! In his scenes with Tang Wei ("Lust, Caution") he shows his desire for a simple and quiet life with a loveable wife and when he stands before Takeshi Kaneshiro ("House of Flying Daggers", "Sweet Rain") we also see how he tries to keep his act together while everything he loves is threatened to be taken away from him by the detective. Kaneshiro also depicts a very interesting character who has to struggle with his own share of demons which is also the reason why his role doesn't just end up on the sideway.

Apart from Kara Hui ("My Young Auntie") Peter Chan could even win over Wang Yu ("The One-Armed Swordsman") himself for his project which also creates the groundwork for a well achieved father-son conflict. But next to the great acting achievements it is primarily Chan's approach to the story that is so impressive. Xu analyzes with his keen mind and forensic means the crime scenes, the tension in the movie builds up by the minute as it should in a good thriller and to top it off there are also some very nice fights next to the drama which seamlessly fit into the rest of the movie. Apart from the fantastic cinematography which bestows something dream-like and idyllic upon the village at the beginning accompanied by a hidden menace from the outside world it is especially the soundtrack by Kwong Wing Chan and Peter Kam that is convincing, at times being as unusual and yet somewhat familiar as it it the case with "Wu Xia" in general. Peter Chan manages to give a great genre new facets thanks to his very interesting way to narrate the story, underline the strenghts of the genre and replace the weaknesses with his own strengths. Especially because of its nice pecularities this is no doubt the best wuxia movie in years!

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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