There’s always place for a decent Wushu film to spice up the year’s viewing, and this offering from Peter Ho-Sun Chan certainly doesn’t disappoint as it takes us on a rather scientific approach to a somewhat ‘History of violence’-esque storyline, set in 1917 as we wonder whether a common rural villager is who he says he is.
Liu Jin-xi (Donnie Yen) is a village craftsman who works mostly with paper, living a quiet life with his wife and two sons. That is until two notorious criminals enter the local goods store. Somehow Liu manages to save the shopkeepers life and kill the two criminals, but when an astute detective Xu Bai-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) comes to investigate the case, he’s convinced there’s more to Liu, and that overcoming these two gangsters required some kind of martial-arts training. What’s more is that he’s convinced this type of training has links to a vicious local clan.
This is for more than your average Wushu fan as it brings in some pseudo CSI techniques as Xu enlightens you on the biological mechanics of the human body to aid himself (and the viewers) and his investigation. As the film delves into the clan underworld, the narrative also takes a notably darker tonal shift.
The Bottom Line
It is essentially a simple story that gets interesting very quickly. The use of the ‘unconventional’ filmmaking techniques (for this genre anyway) is quite refreshing as the emphasis is less on the martial arts and more on the characters and their initially nuanced interactions. Taking one into the human body’s cardiovascular and nervous systems echoes the eastern philosophical approach (to life and combat) whilst it’s also carried throughout the film with the theme that everything is connected, with an action and a reaction.
There are some notably shocking moments in a style that is rather customary to this genre (but that’s perhaps been missing in some recent, more mainstream, offerings).
Donnie Yen (Hero) makes for an intriguing leading man opposite the resolute figure of Kaneshiro (House of Flying Daggers) whose character bears its own near tragic past; the two are at their polarized best in a scene which is simply comprised of them walking in the woods with a unique POV. These two make up the most developed characters, although Ah Yu played by Tang Wei (Lust, Caution) provides the essential emotional heart as she places her faith in her husband Liu – ‘a man with no past’.
With a rich enough story it must be said that the film itself is a visual feast, as it seldom bulges beyond the character intimacy even when the broader underworld elements are introduced, including a stylized and well shot roof-top running sequence.
Also worth a mention is the fact that the ‘fantastical’ elements prevalent in other more household-name films like ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’, and ‘House of Flying Daggers’ things like flying (or extreme jumping) for instance, is drastically diminished (some viewers may be thankfull for this) to generally remain within the laws of physics, or Chinese movie physics.
Overall though: an intriguing, entertaining and emotionally rich tale.