Dragon (Wu Xia) (2012)

Review first published by Grolsch Filmworks.

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Peter Ho-sun Chan’s Wu Xia (named after the Chinese genre of martial arts heroism) comes to the West with the inescapable whiff of compromise. After premiering at Cannes in 2011 to critical acclaim and winning various awards in Asia, it was purchased by the Weinsteins, shelved for well over a year, and finally released in a version meaninglessly renamed Dragon and shorn of some 20 minutes of footage. Yet if this sounds akin to the sort of crude butchery perpetrated by the film’s more ruthless characters, in fact Dragon is never less than coherent, despite offering a mannered mix of detective story, morality tale, family tragedy and Buddhist allegory, all wrapped in virtuoso visuals and some very tricksy action choreography.

It’s 1917, in the small village of Liu in south-western China. When a pair of wanted killers comes to rob the general store, their encounter with humble husband and father of two Jin-yi (Donnie Yen) leaves them both dead, and the local paper maker hailed a hero. This draws the attention first of acupuncture-obsessed detective Xu Bai-ju (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who quickly becomes convinced that Jin-yi is not what he seems, and then of Jin-yi’s estranged family, keen to see their long lost son return to the criminal fold. And so, like Su Chao-pin’s Reign of Assassins (2010), Dragon reimagines A History of Violence (2005) as karmic chopsocky, using its wuxia frame to explore the question of whether it’s ever possible for humans truly to change their ways.

The answer that comes is mixed, which is to say complex and paradoxical. In his driven determination to uphold the law, Xu Bai-ju must also break it, while Jin-yi will take up the sword again if only to sever his links once and for all from a past of mad, bad blood. Only Jin-yi’s father The Master (Jimmy Wang Yu) proves a monstrously immutable force of nature, implacably true to himself to the end, and so, irrationally but inevitably, is brought down by nature itself, as Jin-yi’s heroic struggle to be reborn as a normal man involves a rebalancing not just of himself but of the cosmos.

Here returning to the big screen for the first time in 13 years, Wang Yu once famously starred as The One-Armed Swordsman (1967) – so his character’s Oedipal clash with son Jin-yi is also a grapple with both the shifts and continuities in the wuxia genre down the ages, as Jin-yi rejects wholesale his father’s values while still himself becoming a one-armed swordsman. So the more things change, the more they stay the same – although no kung-fu classic from the Shaw Brothers’ era could boast the sort of multi-angle forensic analysis of a fight sequence afforded by Xu’s detective work, making Dragon an ultraviolent feast for a post-millennial generation inured to the slo-mo reconstructions and internal anatomisations of television’s CSI. The story may be familiar, but wuxia has never quite looked like this before.

Anton Bitel