Peter Chan & Donnie Yen combine martial arts tropes with intense moral drama
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
During the NYAFF screening of Dragon, it was noted that the film's Chinese title, Wu Xia, carries a lot of weight. The moderator of a post-film Q & A likened it to calling a comedy film Comedy or a dramatic film Drama. That's the right track, but I think it needs to be finely tuned. It's more like making a movie called Spaghetti Western, Film Noir, Space Opera, or Chambara. These are distinct genres with well-known tropes.
To call a movie Wu Xia is to suggest a certain kind of period martial arts film with certain kinds of story beats and certain kinds of characters. What the film Wu Xia does so well is play to and around those expectations, and even subverts them.
Yet Dragon is not a reinvention of the genre, and it's not a deconstruction either. It's more like a reinvigorating riff. Given his stardom and what audiences want out of his films, it's also an ideal starring vehicle for Donnie Yen, but maybe not in the way you'd think.
Dragon (Wu Xia | Swordsman | 武俠)
Dragon begins as a sort of Chinese pastoral, with a farmer named Jinxi (Yen). He leads a simple life with his family in a home without doors. He's a paper maker in a small village, and his business has brought prosperity to his people. Two thieves enter town and Jinxi barely stops them in a desperate struggle. There's no clean kung-fu about it. It's a brawl, and Jinxi fumbles and flails the entire time. Detective Xu Baiju (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is sent to investigate the case, and he starts to unravel a mystery about Jinxi's past.
Kaneshiro does a lot of the heavy lifting during the first half of Dragon -- it's a detective story with a little CSI rather than a martial arts film. This is one of the twists on audience expectation. Something about Jinxi's fight doesn't add up for our detective. Xu Baiju is an obsessive guy, and he's torn by his devotion to objective facts and his moral obligation to people around him. It leads to a lot of high drama as well as some great comedy, though it's a creepy, paranoid kind of comedy. Kaneshiro is part Sherlock Holmes on opium, part Salieri, and part Lois Lane trying to prove Clark Kent is Superman.
That's where having Yen play a common man like Jinxi is so important. The detective suspects something is up and the audience feels the same way. Why would an action superstar like Donnie Yen play a common country guy in a movie called Wu Xia? It's a bit like casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as a turnip farmer in a movie called 80s Action Film. Not only does Dragon play off its title, it's playing off its lead.
Peter Chan's direction initially emphasizes pastoral life and family drama, which are the grounded aspects of the genre. By the end of an adventure, many heroes in wuxia pictures want to settle down and raise a family, just like the gunfighter in a western -- the martial artist trades his taijijian for a water buffalo, the cowboy gives up his six-gun for a steer or a mule. But you can never really escape the past. There's some talk between Xu Baiju and Jinxi about free will, fate, and karma. They have their own beliefs, or at least beliefs they're trying to make themselves believe. This fatalism, the idea of personal integrity vs. systems of law, and the way that the filmmakers play with an established genre are reminded me a little of Kill Zone (SPL: Sha Po Lang). To say what else reminded me of SPL might give too much of the mystery away.
The second part of Dragon is where the Chinese pastoral turns into the kung-fu berserk. It was bound to happen. Just look at the title and who the star is. But even then, the film subverts certain expectations that you may have about how the action will play out. You think that certain beats will be met, but instead something happens that heightens the personal stakes. If there's a family of films that Dragon belongs to, it's movies like One Armed Swordsman, Shane, and A History of Violence. They're about the past catching up to people and whether or not a person can change.
As Jinxi, Yen tests a lot of his acting muscles. He's essentially playing counter to his usual on-screen persona of Ip Man. If Yen's Guan Yu from The Lost Bladesman is defined by the strength and power of his weapon (the guan dao), Jinxi of Dragon is defined by his straw hat and his tools for making paper windows. But again, something doesn't add up. Yen adds layers to the mystery of Jinxi through some cryptic allusions to his past. He's convincingly troubled, and that goes for the Chinese pastoral half as well as the kung-fu berserk half.
Which brings us to the action, because if you go to see a Donnie Yen movie, you expect action, especially in a Donnie Yen movie called Wu Xia. (I can't think of an English word that has as much weight, though the alternate English title Swordsman might be more meaningful than Dragon.) Yen doesn't reinvent the wuxia film here, though there's a great take on accidental fighting as Xu Baiju pieces together the events that kick off the film. There's no MMA or grappling, there's no infusion of new martial arts to the fighting styles. Instead we get some classic kung-fu, shot competently, and staged with great intensity. Yen even busts out the horse stance at one point, but it's like he's trying to find a fixed point amid the madness erupting around him.
The choreography is really secondary to the drama, and the fights in Dragon are wholly in service to the story. They're intense because that's what the moment calls for, they're brutal because this is a story about Jinxi trying to save his family. It's not just about pretty movements on screen; it's about the emotion of the scene and how the fight can make it resonate. Even a surprising subversion of expectations carries major weight. There's one moment in particular that would have turned into a 10-minute action scene in any other martial arts picture. Instead it becomes a character moment in Dragon, a sign of dedication to a way of life -- an impassioned statement of intent by way of a wuxia in-joke.
It's the merging of all of these things that made me enjoy Dragon so much. Nothing gets reinvented, but everything gets amplified. We get the family drama, we get the detective story, we get the fights. We get the genre in-jokes, we get subversions of the genre conventions. We thankfully don't get those precious winks to the audience that are the bane of many deconstructions, because Dragon is not about deconstruction -- it's a story about fate and who people are at their core. Most importantly, we get a film that fuses the emotional intensity of its drama to the brutal tenor of its action; we get one of Donnie Yen's best films.