Lurking in the periphery of prestige at Cannes in 2011 along with other ignominiously mainstream studio films like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was Peter Chan’s Wu xia, starring Donnie Yen and Takeshi Kaneshiro and re-titled Dragon for its U.S. release. At the festival it stood in its own way—like the revelation this year of Hong Sang-soo's unlikely comedy shown in competition—as counter-programming. Unlike so many of the pared down, modest art films showing around the festival, Chan’s film is a glut, casting a wide, glossy net through its mash-up of martial arts, detective story, period film, parental-domestic drama, and philosophical inquiry. It is exactly this genre-bending range that gives cinematic berth for Wu xia's divergent, contradictory sidetracks, references and flourishes—in short, a filmmaker's interpretations, showing with pleasure how mainstream auteur films can have a place on the Croisette. Finally being released in the States, I fear it will quickly disappear from theatres as did two other strong Chinese films earlier this year, Ann Hui's A Simple Life and Tsui Hark's The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate.
Set at the beginning of the 20th century, Wu xia starts with criminals being accidentally killed by a peasant paper miller (Yen). The town and local officials sing the miller's praise, but imaginative investigating detective Kaneshiro—apparently a schizophrenic, talking to and taking advice from a mental doppelganger—sees in Yen's slack peasant visage a variety of China's most wanted killers on the loose. The opening, bumbling fight scene is restaged in Kineshiro’s mind as a work of martial arts mastery, and as the nebulous evidence grows (in his head), the film draws in Yen's wandering past, his violent family history, and a local gang of some ethnic minority who turned into blood thirsty outlaws after being decimated in a massacre.
Wu xia has a wonderful attitude towards exposition that instead of developing proceeds by introducing new left-field information, deductions and consequences, which Chan's versatile style matches well, if with erratic success. The film can be as dull as placid, television-style shot/reverse-shot confrontations between the two leads but then suddenly diverge to animation of Qi acupuncture points, or to the visualization of a blood clot created by a perfectly thrown punch, two unexpected musical sequences, a self-delivered amputation, etc. and so on. The first level of the plot is usual wuxia stuff of revealing hidden identity, outing a master, challenging him and fighting, but the script and filmmaking decide to choke the easy route not with asides but with anxious, densely styled complicating contexts. A character from Yen's family shows up in the film's final minutes and practically steals the show even though no suggestion of him existed in the previous footage. Like the film's many explanations of how the body works, what violence and medicine does to it, and how to deduce information or effect the world through it, in a sense what Wu xia does is start with the skeleton of convention and then proceed to peer into and prod the recesses—mental, spiritual, ethnic, familial, martial—of what one thought was a corpse but is instead transformed into a beautiful, ungainly thing.