Wu Xia is billed as a martial arts murder mystery, and one needs to wonder whether there are many more genre mash-ups still left to be made (of course making that thought is sufficient for some unknown combination to come forth). That, of course, is the central premise of Wu Xia: that Jinxi’s (Donnie Yen) intervention in a robbery draws the attention of magistrate Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who is convinced that Jinxi’s good deed was only possible through the application of amazing levels of qigong, and therefore suspects Jinxi has a secret for which he is guilty of under the letter of the law. As a summary of the film, that’s really all you need to know, apart from a strong recommendation from me to go see it. The film has elements of a murder mystery, so if I am going to talk about the story, there’s little doubt there’s going to be spoilers: you may be better off not knowing some of the following if you want to enjoy the film unprepared.
So, Wu Xia is perhaps best described as two films that meet somewhere in the middle, rather than as any smooth harmonious blend of the two genres. In the first half, the murder mystery plays with the audience as the story follows the investigative efforts of Baijiu as he tries to uncover Jinxi’s secret. Seen through his eyes, hearing Baijiu’s inner monologue and actualising his memories and visualisations, it plays upon audience expectations: we see the man is hardly the stablest of personalities, having done the martial arts equivalent of an emotional lobotomy after making one bad call. As such, his suspicion of Jinxi both seems reasonable (since it is Donnie Yen playing the role) and suspect because his conclusions are reached through the arcane construction of qi flows and acupuncture points, a process that seems to have the argumentative weight of a superhero origin story (especially in light of his questionable personality).
Now, this tension is what really grabbed me in this film, but then I do have preferences for psychological dramas. This is not to undermine Donnie Yen’s convincing act as a country bumpkin, or Takeshi Kaneshiro as a paranoid schizophrenic, but having seen so many murder mysteries there was always that niggling doubt that the film was ready to deliver a swerve and show that really all Baijiu’s interpretations were really the result of an overheated imagination. Having this part of the film so closely linked to Baijiu’s point of view, we see his inner demons as well as his visualisations of events. Baijiu’s suspicion of Jinxi is based on esoteric knowledge that seems perfectly logical when placed in the context of a martial arts film, but doesn’t seem ‘real’ enough in this age of CSI to rationalise his suspicions. Actualised in CGI pieces representing qi flows and body connections, it strangely seems less real than the cuts that happen later in the film during the large kungfu fight sequences which demonstrate the training of Ironskin technique to explain the villain’s invulnerability to weapons.
But once the second half of the film comes along – when doubt is vanquished as to Jinxi’s true identity, the film becomes a martial arts film through and through, with secret society villains threatening the innocent and the heroes rising to the occasion to protect all that they hold dear. The action sequences in this film are actually quite good; choreographed by Donnie Yen himself, I’m reminded of the surprised enthusiasm I had for the action sequences of S.P.L. (similarly choreographed by Donnie Yen). Even in the first half of the film where the action sequences are spaced further apart and are only the result of Baijiu’s speculation, there is that right balance of plausible solidity and implausible wonder in the fights.
Much credit also needs to be given to Peter Chan for his visual style. Again, there is a certain unevenness in his tone but he communicates an idyllic village that reminds me of the rustic atmosphere of Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth. Similarly, the difference in shot composition between the fight that initiates the film and Baijiu’s speculative visualisation lends weight to the ambiguity at that moment of the film, and the grandiose sequences that tail the film are framed in an exciting and dynamic manner that accentuates the capabilities of its actors.
Where Wu Xia fails is in pacing and entangling two different ends into a single whole. Whilst the conclusion is truly a culmination of everything the film is leading up to, disentangling the audience from Baijiu’s investigation in order to serve the film’s ending is less convincing. The move from such an invested first person narrative to a more distant one feels awkward and rushed rather than genuinely bridging the stories. Yet apart from that failing, it is hard not to enjoy the two disparate parts for their own merits – the tension of the murder mystery versus the dynamism of the martial arts.