Action star Donnie Yen heads the cast of director Peter Chan’s martial arts’ detective mystery which also pays tribute to the Shaw Brothers classic “One Armed Swordsman”.
Chinese superstar Donnie Yen stars as “Liu Jinxi”, an apparently humble villager living a quiet life with his wife and two sons.
Occasionally billed as “the Asian Johnny Depp”, Takeshi Kaneshiro stars as “Xu Baijiu”, a deductive detective who is well-versed in physiology and acupuncture. Kaneshiro has appeared in many Hong Kong films including the box office hits Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers“, Peter Chan’s “The Warlords” and John Woo’s “Red Cliff”.
Chinese actress Tang Wei, who rose to fame after appearing in Ang Lee’s controversial “Lust, Caution”, plays Liu Jinxi’s wife “Yu”. Her most recent hits have been the “Finding Mr Right” romantic comedies. Veteran acting legend Jimmy Wang Yu plays “The Master”, the leader of the deadly criminal gang, the 72 Demons. Wang Yu was the first superstar of Chinese cinema, with hits such as the “One Armed Swordsman”, “The Chinese Boxer” and “Master of the Flying Guillotine”. Another veteran of the Shaw Brothers era is the star of “My Young Auntie” Kara Hui as “13th Madam”, the Master’s wife.
In 1917 Republican China, Liu Jinxi lives a quiet rural life as a papermaker with his wife Yu and their two sons, Fangzheng and Xiaotian, in Liu Village, Yunnan. Liu happens to be in the village general store one day, when two bandits attempt to rob it. When the robbery turns violent, Liu intervenes and the would-be thieves are killed in the struggle.
A detective, Xu Baijiu, is sent to investigate the case and discovers that one of the dead bandits was Yan Dongsheng, who is among the government’s ten most wanted fugitives. The local magistrate is pleased and his fellow villagers regard Liu as a hero. However, Detective Xu becomes suspicious as he does not believe a simple villager could accidentally defeat such a formidable bandit.
During an autopsy, Xu notes signs of brain haemorrhaging due to an injury to Yan Dongsheng’s vagus nerve. From this and other evidence, Xu concludes that Liu must be a highly skilled martial artist who conceals his talent through misdirection. As Xu’s investigation delves deeper into Liu’s past, the 72 Demons, a gang of vicious and bloodthirsty bandits, start to take an interest in Liu Jinxi…..
After establishing Donnie Yen’s simple family life in picturesque rural China, the audience is quickly taken into the opening action scene. Donnie is doing some maintenance at the village store when two rough looking thieves try to rob the elderly owner and his wife.
The bandits, played by stunt actors Yu Kang (Flash Point, Special ID, Kung Fu Killer, Ip Man 3) and Tanigaki Kenji (Fist of Legend, SPL, Fatal Contact, Flash Point), are not afraid to use violence to succeed in their crime. Hiding behind a counter, Donnie resists getting involved until it becomes apparent that the lives of the shopkeeper and his wife are in danger. With no real fighting skill, Donnie barges into the biggest opponent, Yu Kang, keeping hold of him whilst he is elbowed and thrown about like a rag doll. The haphazard nature of the struggle combined with some fortunate timing save Donnie from serious injury, as the thieves effectively take themselves out! With Tanigaki Kenji dispatched, Donnie and Yu Kang burst out of the store into a shallow pond. Flailing his arms to protect himself, Donnie lands a lucky blow on Yu Kang’s temple, and the fight is over.
So a martial arts film in which Donnie Yen has no fighting skills then? All is not as it seems! Takeshi Kaneshiro as Detective Xu becomes suspicious and pays a visit to the crime scene. Using inspired moments of slow motion filming to break down what really happened, the robbery replays as the detective envisages it, cleverly revealing Donnie to be a highly skilled kung fu expert! There are brief moments of CGI to convey some of the injuries along with a little wirework, but they are filmed in a way that complements the fighters’ skills within the choreography of the scene.
When Donnie clumsily falls off a bridge and survives by landing on a tree branch, instead of persuading the detective into thinking he is unskilled, it just further convinces Xu of Liu’s Qigong mastery.
The action turns up to eleven when Donnie is finally forced to reveal his true fighting skills after Kara Hui and her henchman attack the village. The combat is a mix of genuine physical skills and wire-enhanced, almost superhuman, abilities. It really is a treat to see Kara Hui and Donnie Yen take each other on. Armed with two lethal blades, Hui is psychotic and relentless. Having suppressed his martial arts for the first two-thirds of the movie, Yen finally bursts forth with some Hung Gar-like traditional kung fu skills interspersed with his spectacular trademark kicks. After a rooftop chase Hui and Yen square-off in the confines of a barn. The hand-to-hand fighting is speedy and stylish, enhanced with brief slow motion emphasis on many of the techniques.
If that wasn’t enough of a treat though, the finale is a duel between Donnie Yen and Shaw Brothers legend Jimmy Wang Yu. Wang Yu is as menacing as he’s ever been making you fear for the lives of our hero and his wife and children. Although he is doubled for the more acrobatic stuff, Wang Yu still gets to throw plenty of moves, using his iron shirt kung fu to present Donnie with a deadly opponent in a bloody and bruising battle.
The basic premise of this film is the same as David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence”, but transposed from a small town in contemporary Indiana, USA to a village in early 20th century China. Whereas that film was very serious, violent, and unsettling, director Peter Chan’s interpretation is stylish, quirky and entertaining.
Donnie Yen gives a great performance as the seemingly simple man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He has some terrific scenes with Takeshi Kaneshiro, especially where they discuss the nature of karma, what his father did to his horse and his dark past. They are well scripted and delivered with genuine sentiment, but also draw some distrust from the audience. Is Liu Jinxi really who he says he is? Is he going to kill Detective Xu to hide his past? It’s all done with a subtle smile or look of the eyes.
Like a Chinese Sherlock Holmes, Takeshi Kaneshiro is diligent and worthy as he narrates how he reaches his conclusions through deductive reasoning. Although he only has a small amount of screen time, Jimmy Wang Yu is terrifying as The Master, especially in the film’s finale. Fellow veteran kung fu star Kara Hui also shines in terms of acting and action as 13th Madam. As Liu’s wife, actress Tang Wei actually has very little to do and I’m quite surprised she carries third-billing for the film. There are occasional nods to the One Armed Swordsman films which of course starred Jimmy Wang Yu. His character even makes some fun references to them!
The action is shot with a clever use of CGI to represent an x-ray vision of what is happening to the internal organs from the effects of the acupressure strikes. The camera constantly moves overhead and around, accelerating and decelerating from high speed to slow motion, enhancing the choreography. If director Guy Ritchie made a kung fu film, it would look like this.
It’s all backed up by a brilliant and quite unique musical score from Chan Kwong-wing and Peter Kam. Not surprisingly this film won awards for Best Cinematography and Best Original Score at the 31st Hong Kong Film Awards.
Although this film only really has three main action scenes, I really enjoyed it. The story is well told and acted and it looks and sounds first-class. It also has a dark streak of humour running throughout. When Donnie Yen finally gets to let rip, it’s great to see him doing some old school-style kung fu fighting, with two classic Shaw Brothers veterans.
If you are looking for a well-made, entertaining detective yarn that moves along at a thumping pace, with innovatively filmed and exciting fight scenes, I highly recommend “Dragon/Wu Xia”!
- Donnie Yen was also the Action Choreographer for the film. His personal favourite fight was the scene with Kara Hui which he said was inspired by Yuen Woo-ping’s work on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon“.
- Takeshi Kaneshiro reportedly studied and used a Sichuan accent to bring an authenticity to his character.
- The extras were real villagers and farmers.
- The film’s Chinese title “Wu Xia” translates as “Martial Hero”.
- Until Bruce Lee‘s career took off with Golden Harvest, Jimmy Wang Yu was the highest paid actor in Hong Kong film history.
- Sonny Chiba’s 1974 film “The Streetfighter” used a similar “X-Ray” technique to illustrate the effects of strikes to his opponents.
- The two robbers at the beginning of the film played by Yu Kang and Tanigaki Kenji both appeared in Donnie Yen’s “Flash Point”.