An entertaining, family-friendly mishmash of martial arts picture and Indiana Jones-style treasure hunt, Wu Dang shows off some serious talent both in front of and behind the camera, coupled with a stunning setting way up amongst the Taoist temples in the Wudang Mountains.
Vincent Zhao returns to the role of leading man after 2010’s True Legend, which was his first cinema appearance in quite some time, after spending most of the decade prior in television in Hong Kong and China. In Wu Dang, he plays Professor Tang Yunlong, an archeologist with an interest in Taoist antiquities who also happens to look good in a leather jacket and be more than capable of holding his own in a fight. He is sponsoring a martial arts competition at a monastery in the Wudang mountains, a competition held once every five hundred years (!) to promote Taoist styles of martial arts and the sharing of knowledge between practitioners. With him is his young daughter, Tang Ning (Xu Jiao, who played the young boy in Stephen Chow’s CJ7 and more recently appeared in Starry Starry Night), and a treasure map, which Prof. Tang steals from a dishonest antique dealer in the opening scenes.
Also heading for the competition with a map that promises hidden Taoist treasures is Tianxin (Yang Mi, who played Quer the bird spirit in Painted Skin II), a fiesty young fighter who’s joined the competition for reasons of her own. Keeping an eye on proceedings are the temple’s typically inscrutable abbot (Henry Fong), and the stern, capable monk Bailong (Dennis To, Ip Man: The Legend is Born).
Finally, we have the simple layman Shui Heyi (HK action stalwart Louis Fan Siu Wong), who has moved to the temple and begun learning to live as a Taoist in the hope that his ailing mother (Paw Hee-ching) might be cured.
What we get with all these characters is three films in one. First, the martial arts adventure, propelled by veteran action director Corey Yuen’s inventive choreography and with all the settings and tropes you’d expect: hidden ancient temples, highly desirable weaponry of unmatched power, sweeping crane shots of monks training in courtyards.
Secondly, the treasure hunt: we watch the protagonists go after the loot while the director teases us with hints as to their motivations and allegiances.
Thirdly, there’s a sometimes quite remarkably sentimental melodrama driven by the supporting characters which occasionally threatens to overwhelm the rest of the story.
It’s really the last of these that bothered me a bit — some of the periodic switches away from the main action were handled with a light touch, benefiting considerably from Vincent Zhao’s on-screen charisma and Xu Jiao’s wide-eyed enthusiasm.
Other scenes, though, seemed more contrived, as though the scriptwriter had decided that some more emotional content had to be wedged in after the rest of the story was done: perhaps some affirmation of the value of family, or an oddly childlike sudden romance between formerly more complex adults. There is occasional use of techniques that are more suited to television accompanying these scenes, too: we hardly need swelling music and a montage of shots from earlier in the story to remind us of a character who we’ve only been watching for two hours.
All that aside, Wu Dang is still a good deal of fun, and a welcome return to form for Vincent Zhao; I liked this film a good deal more than True Legend. Yang Mi and Xu Jiao give good performances and work gamely at their action scenes, neither having done this sort of thing before, and the setting itself is beautiful to look at — it sells Wudang Shan in much the same way as all those hobbit movies sell New Zealand.
Those expecting to see some of the internal martial arts (taichi, bagua, xingyi) often associated with Wudang might be disappointed — it’s Hong Kong cinema wire-fu pretty much all the way, with some assistance from CGI — but the majority of the fight sequences are creative, frenetic and fun to watch.
See this film for its actors and for a solidly entertaining action-adventure story that manages a couple of surprises despite its familiar genre.