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In the late Qing Dynasty (1917), on the cusp of China's transition from monarchy to a republic, Liu (Donnie Yen) is a papermaker, leading a simple life with his wife Ayu (Tang Wei) and their two sons. Into their remote village comes Detective Xu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who is investigating the deaths of two bandits during a robbery. Xu quickly realizes that the incident in question was no ordinary botched robbery - and his dogged inquiry threatens to dredge up the dark secrets of Liu's buried past, threatening not only Liu and his family, but the entire village.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It's been described by the film's distributor as 'Columbo meets CSI' but this doesn't do justice to the epic tone and the brilliant images that fuel one of the most interesting of recent Chinese period films with martial arts traditions. Wu Xia (aka Swordsman), offers magic realism, fabulous scenery and a dramatic sensibility that is more pronounced than in many martial arts films.

And yes, some fine martial arts.

The interest in the story is driven by character; Liu (the iconic Yen) is the centre of the story, living in a peaceful village, making paper by hand, the craft that feeds the village. It's 1917 and he has been there 10 years, having met Ayu (Wei), the woman who made him want to stay, a young mother whose husband had left. It seemed the perfect hideaway for a man who wished to disappear and change his identity.

This flawed character springs straight out of the classics, and can be found in the Western genre as well as in crime genres and martial arts mythology; a man with a secret and violent past tries to remake himself - usually with the help of a good woman.

When two thugs attack the village store, Liu is forced to spring to the storekeeper's defence, and in the ensuing fight, he kills both. In this fight Liu seems like an ordinary villager, until Detective Xu (the memorable Kaneshiro of House of Flying Daggers and Red Cliff fame) turns up to investigate. How can a simple paper maker be so effective against two heavies?

As he probes, the fight is magically restaged - with him as the observer included - and we see that it was not the ordinary fight of a paper maker, but an accomplished martial artist. Xu's suspicions about Liu are raised, and Liu's secret identity as former killer and gang member Tang Long becomes the focus.

Director Peter Ho-sun Chan has an impressive CV, including The Love Letter for Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks, made shortly after Comrades: Almost A Love Story, which won nine Hong Kong Film Awards. His next film, Perhaps Love, won even more awards: 29 - and was one of the top grossing films in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In 2007, he made The Warlords, a huge, multi award winning hit.

With Wu Xia, Chan has succeeded in fusing together elements that appeal to international audiences with some of the best martial arts sensibilities. He doesn't overdo the action, but what there is fulfils audience expectations of well choreographed, dynamic and legible combat. By legible I mean the camera records the fights in mid shot and wide shot, so we can see the physical context, giving us a few close ups of specific fight choreography. (Yen is also responsible for the action choreography.)

These fights are not a blurry flurry of close ups edited to music and sound, but action sequences that we can understand - like witnesses.

The cast includes legendary martial arts stars Kara Hui and Jimmy Wang Yu as The Master, the ruthless head of the 72 Demons clan. When The Master learns that Tang has chosen to change his identity and is living in hiding, he vows to kill him and the entire village unless the traitor Tang - now known as Liu - returns to the clan.

Immaculately designed by Yee Chung Man, the film looks fabulous, while the two composers, Kwong-Wing Chan and Peter Kam, expand on the film's already expansive visual canvas with a majestic score.

The classic themes of loyalty and redemption drive the film's dramatic dynamics, and the screenplay allows the characters time for introspection as well as action.

Published December 2, 2011

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(China, 2011)

CAST: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tang Wei, Jimmy Wang Yu, Kara Hui

PRODUCER: Peter Chan

DIRECTOR: Peter Ho-sun Chan

SCRIPT: Aubrey Lam

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jake Pollock, Yiu-Fai Lai

EDITOR: Derek Hui

MUSIC: Kwong-Wing Chan, Peter Kam


RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes






DVD RELEASE: December 2, 2011

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