Cannes 2011 Review: WU XIA

Joshua Brunsting

by: Joshua Brunsting
May 16th, 2011

Rating: 3.5/5

Director: Peter Chan
Cast: Kara Hui, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Wei Tang

It's not every day that a martial arts film heads over stateside with as much hype as one that just played here in Cannes.

Awaiting a release from The Weinstein Company, WU XIA (a.k.a. SWORDSMEN or DRAGON) is the new martial arts action film from director Peter Chan, and action director/star, the iconic Donnie Yen. Featuring a relatively solid cast and a premise to absolutely die for, WU XIA has become one of the talks of the first half of this year's Cannes Film Festival, and for just reasons.

WU XIA stars Yen as the loving father Liu Jin-xi, who may be someone wholly different than the person he appears to be. With a dark past and even more mysterious martial arts skills, a detective/doctor and Jin-xi's former master go on the hunt to not only figure out just who the hell this man is, but also bring him to either justice, or a much bloodier end.

Clocking in at just shy of two hours, WU XIA is an action-packed martial arts film that feels about double that length. The biggest flaw with this film is that, while it may be an already trimmed down version, it still needs to get some work done from Harvey Scissorhands over at The Weinstein Company. Using a repetitive gimmick throughout the film (one that I won't spoil here because it does work for a while, but ultimately becomes a baseball bat being smashed into one's skull), the film simply feels a bit sloppy. It feels as though the film was cut, just to cut it, without knowing what truly needed to be left on the cutting room floor.

That said, this is still one hell of a fun film.

Chan is a gifted filmmaker when it comes to the film's dramatic aspects, giving the narrative a distinct and singular sense of rhythm and infusing it with some really solid comedy and emotional resonance. However, it's Yen's action direction that will be the most memorable. Featuring a trio of really solid fight sequences, the film utilizes one in particular, the opening, to great effect. The first act or so of the film is both a fight sequence, and then a replay of that fight as seen through the eyes of the detective, played wonderfully by Takeshi Kaneshiro. It's such a remarkable and really engaging use of time and space within the film that I could have stood to have seen this film broken into two short features, as that is very much what they feel like. Finishing with a duo of equally engaging action set pieces, the film sets up an interesting mythology in the latter half of the feature that pays off the mystery that the film opens with. Given a bit more cleaning up in the editing room, and this thing could be a real box office draw for the always cash-hungry Weinsteins.

Both Yen and Kaneshiro are great here, giving the film an intriguing game of cat and mouse to play off of for the first half. While the film's latter performances aren't fantastic, the emotional core here held up by Yen's character's wife, played by Wei Tang, steals every scene. Not given much to say, Tang has this great ability to emote with only her face, allowing her to play as the WU XIA's center. Overall, while this is an action film, there is much more here than meets the eye.

That all said, while WU XIA is definitely a mess, it's out of this mess that an action-packed and emotionally resonante action film is born. Giving the Croisette a taste of something riding a bit harder on the throttle, WU XIA is a film that will be a welcome addition to anyone's martial arts film collection. It's a stylish actioner that doesn't mind having a sense of humor in the most thrilling way possible.

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