Although sometimes translated as “Swordsmen,” wu xia more commonly refers to a genre of Chinese fiction featuring martial arts heroes and in some ways this is a much better title than the hopelessly generic American title of Dragon (no doubt a Weinstein choice as they are handling the American distribution of the film). Add in martial-arts superstar Donnie Yen and you’d be right in expecting some great fight scenes and tight choreography. However, anyone going into Dragon expecting a balls to the walls kung-fu epic will either be sorely disappointed or pleasantly surprised, depending on how open a mind they have.
The film opens in 1917 in a tiny mountain village where Liu Jinxi (Yen) works as a paper maker and dotes on his loving wife (Tang Wei) and two young sons. Things in the village are simple: paper is made by pounding grass by hand and cows idly eat grass on Liu’s rooftop while his wife prepares congee. There is no hint of the Western industrialization that will soon sweep over the rest of the world as Jinxi and family enjoy their pastoral existence.
That is, until notorious criminal Yan and his crony show up and try to rob the paper factory. Suddenly Liu is forced into the ensuing brawl and not only survives, but vanquishes both thugs without breaking a sweat. Humble Liu is reticent about being hailed as a hero, but as the case attracts the attention of police detective Lu (Kineshiro), questions about his past start to threaten his peaceful village life.
Playing somewhere between a detective thriller and a martial arts version of A History of Violence, the film deftly shifts between the perspective of detective Lu, a hardline lawman who values strict adherence to the law over family, friends and his own well being, and Liu, a man trying to leave his past behind and find some peace for his soul. The film is beautifully shot, with sweeping crane shots and camera moves that enhance, but never obscure the action.
There are a few gimmicky bits, like a reflection shot in the eye of a cow, but the inventiveness there serves as a good counterpoint to how staid much of the rest of the story is. To say it is slick is almost an understatement, even though the film does suffer from an at types cliched rock score.
While the story is compelling and unexpected, the fight scenes are dramatic, lighting fast and often jaw-dropping. Choreographed by Yen himself, the way the first fight in particular is able to disguise the technique revealed later is extremely impressive. Another highlight is the use of Chinese medicine and science by Lu to piece together events, giving things an almost CSI like feel.
Although not a martial arts film per se, there is a lot on offer in Dragon for fans of the genre and fans of intriguing foreign films as well. While some of the more melodramatic scenes near the end may turn off some North American viewers, this new take on Wu Xia is definitely worth a look.