The Weinstein Company has been on an acquisitions tear at the Cannes Film Festival this year and one of their pick ups, the Midnight Movie selection “Wu Xia,” certainly reflects the kind of film that interested Harvey and Bob even back in their Miramax days. A genre film with an impressive pedigreed talent and sold on Donnie Yen kicking ass, “Wu Xia” seems ready made to be a niche hit. But with only three fights — at the beginning, in the middle and at the end — the film stretches into a far-too-long two-hour running time to tell an ultimately tired story about a man looking to reform himself and has to reckon with his past first.
The story centers around the seemingly timid and meek Liu Jinxi (Yen). The owner of a paper mill that has brought prosperity to a small rural Chinese town in 1917, he lives a peaceful existence with his wife and two sons. One day, two toughs show up and attempt to rob the general store and Jinxi is drawn into a mess resulting in a 2-on-1 battle that ends with both men dead, seemingly more by luck than by anything Jinxi did. Spending most of the fight with the arms wrapped around the waist of one of the assailants, he is bounced around the store and into an adjacent pond. To the naked eye it looks like Jinxi largely flailed about during the fight but when Detective Xu comes into town to investigate the deaths, he suspects that Jinxi might be a lot more than who he says he is.
Played by Takeshi Kaneshiro, Xu isn’t quite ready to close the case. The two dead are wanted criminals and his higher would prefer to crown Jinxi a hero, but Xu believes that the vegetarian paper mill owner is hiding something and may not be who is. “[I] can’t trust humanity, only physiology and the law,” Xu says. A firm believer that a man can be incapacitated by simply exploiting his 12 meridians (that’s acupuncture talk), Xu begins to suspect that Jinxi harnesses incredible martial arts skills that take advantage of this knowledge, and moreover, that he may actually be a wanted killer hiding out in this tiny village.
Jinxi and Xu then circle each other warily. They share some philosophical back and forth — Jinxi contends that we are all accomplices in each other’s sin, that karma is a reflection of that (yeah, pretty heavy stuff for supposed actioner) — but this is the point where the film begins to slow down. Xu knows who Jinxi really is, Jinxi knows who Jinxi really is, hell, even the audience is aware there is more to this guy, yet the confirmation of who and how he came to be in the village and raising a family takes far too long to establish. Once we finally learn about the deadly clan he once belonged to, the action kicks back in and this is where the film shines. After watching Kenneth Branagh cheat his way about the fights in “Thor,” it’s wholly refreshing to see excitingly staged hand-to-hand fights where the geography and choreography are impeccable, and you can actually see each punch and kick. Director Peter Ho-San Chan wisely doesn’t get too fussy with the camera and knows that just letting Yen do this thing is all we really need. The second fight, in particular, which starts with a chase across the rooftops of the villages and ends in a bull pen is the high mark for the film.
But as we head into the final act, the plot churns with a whole sins-of-the-father/sins-of-the-son thematic twist that feels pretty stale, but luckily, the film closes with a final reel-worthy battle. But it will be interesting to see how his movie plays to its core. It’s definitely not a straight up chop socky flick, and spends more time with Jinxi’s familial woes and musing on how the scales of justice deserve to be balanced without anything of much significance to say about it. We wouldn’t be surprised — and frankly we’d advise — the Weinsteins cutting 10 to 15 minutes out of this thing if only to get the story moving along. The lush cinematography by Jake Pollock and the rock ‘n’ roll like score are also highlights, but they don’t hide the fact that “Wu Xia” is mostly a period melodrama with a few fights to keep things interesting. [C+]