Dragon (aka Wu Xia) (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Metrodome) Running Time: 94 minutes
In 1917 in the small Liu Village on the border of Yunnan, Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) is a paper maker who lives a quiet life with his wife Ayu (Tang Wei) and their two sons, Fangzheng (Zheng Wei) and Xiaotian (Li Jiamin). When two bandits arrive at the village to rob a paper shop, the meek Jinxi is hiding in the back but tackles the robbers when they attack the elderly shop owners. During the fight the two robbers are killed and Jinxi is considered a local hero but detective Xu Bai-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who has been drafted in to investigate, is suspicious of how such an unassuming man could kill two skilled fighters. With his knowledge of physiology and acupuncture he pieces together the unique methods and causes of the bandits’ deaths, concluding that Jinxi is in fact a member of the murderous 72 Demons.
If one is to assume that martial arts films, and in particular those based in days gone by, have covered all the bases then this offering from Peter Chan is here to change that perception – for here is a martial arts mystery thriller. While Tsui Hark may have made inroads with his fantasy based Detective Dee and the Mystery Of the Phantom Flame, Chan’s Dragon (known in its native China as Wu Xia, which in itself is equally misleading) keeps things closer to home and within the limits of the everyman.
The premise is a simple one: Bai-jiu is certain that Jinxi isn’t the simple layman everyone thinks he is but can’t prove it. Even the audience doesn’t know and Chan clouds our view with some masterful misdirection presenting the fateful fight sequence twice – how it went down and how Bai-jiu imagines it went, with him in place as a keen observer. Our keen sleuth isn’t beyond tempting fate in order to get answers, even if it means endangering Jinxi’s life, and although he doesn’t get the answers he wants, his imagination says otherwise.
Slivers of useful information from the local town folk increases the suspicions and even when Jinxi admits his past along the lines of what Bai-Jiu was thinking, no concrete answers are forthcoming. Unfortunate for everyone, the 72 Demons learn of the possible location of their prodigal son, they conduct their own investigation, under their own methods.
Bai-Jiu’s musings serves as something as an education as we gain an insight into the various studies of chi and the numerous points of the body it can effect and how simple things like acupuncture or even a random punch can have both positive and fatal effects. Bai-Jiu himself claims that his overactive chi system has left with him without the ability to empathise, which explains his wilfully hazardous treatment of Jinxi.
Of course it wouldn’t be a Donnie Yen film without some top notch punch ups and Dragon is no exception. Choreographed by Yen himself, only the dual perspective paper shop fight appears in the first half while the second half delivers some spectacular set pieces taking in wire fu and lightening fast hand to hand combat.
One fight involving veteran Kara Hui as the Demons’ master’s wife shows the then fifty-one year old is still a force to be reckoned with while the legendary Jimmy Wang Yu (of One-Armed Swordsman fame) takes on the role as the evil master for the film’s climactic fight against – of the irony – a one armed Jinxi!
A silently brewing but equally potent side story involves the effect of the truth about Jinxi on his family. Wife Ayu, essayed with nuanced deftness by the much maligned but hugely talented Tang Wei, seems to know that her husband is keeping something from her but doesn’t want to admit it to herself. Previously married with a child, Fangzheng, Ayu’s first husband abandoned them one night after saying he’d see them later. Every time Jinxi, bids them Ayu same farewell, she fears history will repeat itself. When Jinxi’s past finally catches up with him, Ayu and the boys are first in line to suffer the fallout.
For the time period this is set in, Chan has gone to great lengths to uphold the great tradition of authentic looking sets that we know Chinese cinema never fails on. The only thing that compromises this is the use of CGI during some of the action scenes, but this is kept to a minimum so it’s not too intrusive. Other areas, such as the cutaways to the internal body shots for Bai-Jiu’s biological theses, may seem a little out of place visually but necessary all the same.
This may or may not be the deal breaker for some of you but the version of the film presented here is in fact the US cut, some twenty two minutes shorter than the original Chinese version, which runs to one hundred and fifteen minutes. Changing the title (at the behest of US distributor Harvey Weinstein, who thought Wu-Xia would put US viewers off) is one thing but cutting the film is another.
Granted the cuts don’t ruin the flow of the story that much but some salient scenes that add an extra layer of depth to Bai-Jiu’s dissertations as well as his relationship with Jinxi have been jettisoned to make the first half go by quicker. Honestly most viewers won’t notice but I am sure a lot of purists out there will object to Weinstein’s action – something that has been a hot topic of conversation of late among Asian film fans outside of Asia.
All in all Dragon/Wu Xia is a hugely enjoyable slice of period piece martial arts drama that ticks all the boxes for martial arts fans while possessing a strong and well thought out story to keep things moving, and the viewer wholly engaged in between the top notch and breath taking fight sequences.
5.1 Surround Sound
Donnie Yen Featurette
Rating – ****
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