Home > Film > Dragon or Wu Xia (2011)

Dragon or Wu Xia (2011)

Dragon or Wu Xia is a fascinating film, underpinning the martial arts action with two major social themes: which is the stronger influence, nature or nurture? and whether at a society level through rehabilitation, or an individual level through redemption, can a wrongdoer reform?

 

Let’s take a central image. I plant an acorn and carefully watch the first green shoots grow into a strong tree. No matter what I might do to the tree during its formative period, it will always grow into an oak. It’s true that some radical surgery might produce a miniaturised bonsai version, but the seed determines the outcome. Translating this into a human context, we might take a view that all babies are born innocent of sin so, if they become wrongdoers, it’s because of their upbringing. Parents are the ones most often blamed for their children’s failures. Or we might stay with the idea of a bad seed and exonerate the parents. No matter what they tried, the child was born a wrongdoer and would always end up in jail.

 

In the opening frames we meet Li Jin-xi (Donnie Yen). Set in 1917, he’s living a peaceful life in rural Yunnan province. A clan member for some ten years, he married Ayu (Wei Tang), an abandoned wife with a son. They now have a son of their own. He works to make paper and is increasingly respected in the community. One day, two villains pass through the village and, because it amuses them, they try to extort money from the owner of the general store. There’s an extended fight and Jin-xi not only survives, but also leaves the two dead. Xu Bail-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a police inspector with forensic skills, takes over the investigation. He’s fascinated by the notion that an “ordinary” man could best two veteran kung fu exponents. Although I could have done without the CSI-style slow-motion recreations of what happens inside the body, the deconstruction and reconstruction of this initial fight is remarkable. I cannot recall seeing anything similar and, without anything more, this is a strong reason to see the film on a big screen so that you don’t miss any of the detail. Seeing where the feet were placed, how a tooth happened to end up inside the jar, how the ear was lost, and so on, is a tour de force. This initial evaluation triggers an investigative battle between the detective and the man with something to hide. It’s surprising they don’t kill each other.

Tang Wei as Ayu holding the disputed son

 

As the detective, Xu Bail-jiu is fighting his essential nature. He was a young, idealistic and empathetic man and, taking pity on a young boy, allowed him to return home. Unfortunately, the boy then killed his parents and permanently damaged Xu Bail-jiu with poison. The detective is left treating himself with acupuncture to prevent the poison from spreading and, sadly, to suppress his empathy. No-one can now be forgiven. When he married, he even handed over his father-in-law to the police for selling fake medicines. He’s chosen to believe the law is infallible and that his role is dispassionately to seek out wrongdoers. He can then wash his hands and leave it to the law to process the criminals. He’s not clear what the outcome of this process should be. The failure of his own decision to give a second chance convinces him rehabilitation is a waste of time. To him, the only good criminal is a criminal behind bars. So when he establishes a good prima facie case that Jin-xi was the second-in-command of the 72 Devils, a notoriously bloodthirsty Tangut tribe, he sets off to the local city to get a warrant for Jin-xi’s arrest. Having borrowed the money, he bribes a judge to get the warrant. In turn, the judge seeks to sell the information of Jin-xi’s whereabouts to the 72 Devils. The detective, with a few police officers in tow, and the 72 Devils therefore converge of the village where our hero has been hiding.

Takeshi Kaneshiro showing Xu Bail-jiu has a dark side

 

We hear Jin-xi talk about his father (Jimmy Wang Yu) and this prepares us for the family reunion when the main group of the 72 Devils arrives. Now we come to the heart of the film. As a child, Jin-xi missed his father when the gang went out on its raids, so he went along and saw exactly what was being done. After a time, he could no longer stand the excessiveness of the violence. Disgusted with himself and what he had become, he ran away and hid in this village. Both Jin-xi and Xu Bail-jiu therefore find themselves in the same position. As individuals, they have become the sum of their life’s experiences. So which side of their personality will win out? Is Jin-xi inevitably the brutal son of his brutal father? Can Xu Bail-jiu reform and become the empathetic man he once was?

 

Donnie Yen has the more difficult role if he’s to engage our attention. From the outset we know he cannot be an innocent villager. He’s therefore more of an enigma until we start to hear him talk about his past. Then we can more clearly identify with his struggle to stay true to his wife and family. Takeshi Kaneshiro does a wonderful job as Xu Bail-jiu. He’s a good man deceiving himself. Self-righteousness has blinded him to the harm he does. Even his police boss offers good advice in vain. Yet slowly we can watch the seeds of doubt take root. It’s a carefully measured performance and it carries the opening third of the film with Wei Tang’s Ayu. She sees the good in both men and has the courage to trust they will both eventually do the right thing. Finally, it’s a joy to see Jimmy Wang Yu back in Hong Kong. He’s marvellously malevolent as the father. Put simply, if the Master can no longer have his son, his grandson will do.

Jimmy Wang Yu as a wonderfully malevolent father

 

Let me finish this review with a mention of a line in this film’s marketing that suggests Dragon or Wu Xia is an adaptation of the One-Armed Swordsman or Dubei dao, a film made in Hong Kong in 1967. Giving credence to this story is the fact this early “classic” starred Jimmy Wang Yu. Well, it’s been my misfortune to sit through this epic drama. Essentially shot in a studio with cheesy sets, it tells the story of a put-upon orphan who’s adopted by a kung fu master. When he proves more skilled than the great man’s daughter and some jealous students, he’s maimed and barely escapes with his life. In due course, he returns to rescue this undeserving shower from a plot to exterminate the entire clan using a quite clever device to neutralise the famous sword fighting style. Our one-armed hero wins because he has learned to fight using his left arm and a shortened sword. Even allowing for the more naive times during which this film was made, it always was embarrassing, being yet another example of Hong Kong’s determination to churn out content regardless of quality. So be reassured. Dragon or Wu Xia is so completely different that I wonder at the decision to even mention One-Armed Swordsman. The problem is casting Jimmy Wang Yu as the father in Dragon or Wu Xia. This creates a link. The director, Peter Chan, should have said he cast Jimmy Wang Yu because he was the best man for the new film. If challenged, he could admit watching One-Armed Swordsman and, having resisted the temptation to commit suicide, learned all that was to be avoided in making kung fu films.

 

If you have the chance to see Dragon or Wu Xia on a big screen, don’t hesitate. Donnie Yen’s fight choreography is wonderful and the story mesmerising.

 

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