<i>A History of Violence</i>: China, 1917 ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A History of Violence: China, 1917

Wu Xia
My rating:

TMBF is now taking suggestions for good online sources for reviews of Chinese and other Asian films in English. As you may have noticed, I rely a lot on LoveHKFilm, but their updates can be spotty; they sometimes don't post up a review of a major Hong Kong release till long after its initial release. Thing is, I don't know any other good Hong Kong movie review site (in English, please), so if you do, please share. I know a few that aren't very good, whose reviews are nowhere as witty and sharp as Kozo's (LoveHKFilm's webmaster) and his crew. Their stuff is always fun to read, which to me is reason enough to check out a film they recommend. Although I don't always concur with their opinions - Kozo liked Detective Dee a lot more than I did, for one.

But this one - this one is good.

Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) is a humble paper maker in the remote village of Liu, living with his wife Ayu (Tang Wei) and two sons. His idyllic life is interrupted when two bandits attempt to rob the village's general store while he's in it, and he fights them off and kills them through sheer dumb luck - or so it seems. Detective Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) believes there's more to Liu than meets the eye, and believes him to be a master martial artist of immensely deadly skill - although he has trouble proving it. But soon, members of the evil 72 Demons clan - including a vicious female warrior (Kara Hui) as well as the clan's own Master (Jimmy Wang Yu) - descend upon the helpless village in search of a lost scion.

It takes a certain hubris to name your film after its genre; as if you intend your movie to be a definitive statement on the entire genre. We've already seen one such Hong Kong movie early this year, and I didn't much like it. This one is clearly much better, but its title is a puzzler; it's not at all a classic wuxia film, it's a fresh and somewhat postmodern take on it. Now, it's not impossible for a film to be both a fresh look at a genre and a definitive entry; in wuxia alone, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon comes to mind, and there's also Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. But director Peter Ho-Sun Chan's Wu Xia is more like the Unforgiven of wuxia movies.

First, the CSI element. Yes, Xu's investigation into Liu involves a CSI-ish recreation of how he really killed the two bandits, based on forensic evidence gathered from the crime scene. It's quite cool, and involves a creatively realized scene in which Xu imagines the fight taking place while he observes nonchalantly. And his version of forensic science is the traditional Chinese medicine version, involving kooky ideas of chi and pressure points and acupuncture. (Yes, I'm calling them kooky. Apologies to TCM believers, but Western science is my God.) I certainly haven't seen anything like it in a wuxia film, and it's both unconventional and enjoyable.

But what's even more unconventional is how the film depicts the wuxia world. There are precisely zero heroic knight-errants here; every skilled martial arts practitioner in this story is a vicious criminal bordering on psychotic serial killer - or in the case of Liu, a former one. Yes, the premise is exactly that of A History of Violence, and Liu's former compatriots are portrayed as the same kind of inhuman monsters as the Irish mob in David Cronenberg's 2005 film. And since every other character in this story is either a simple peasant or a civil servant with no kungfu skills to speak of, this is a rather damning portrayal of the "jiang hu" that's so frequently romanticised in the genre. (It's also what raises the comparison with Unforgiven.)

All this is cool and interesting, but what makes it genuinely good is some solid storytelling craft and filmmaking flair. I'm reminded once again how utterly gorgeous Chinese period movies can be; the village of Liu is a flawlessly recreated location, and beautifully filmed in an opening scene that shows us the idyllic lifestyle of Liu and his fellow villagers. Chan's camera can be flashy, but always knows what it's doing; he shifts between quiet drama, understated suspense, and high-flying action thrills with remarkable self-assurance. There's a bravura scene set at dusk in a deserted forest trail, in which the tension is as heart-stoppingly thick as any horror movie, and makes you believe for a brief second that Liu could actually be a criminally insane murderer.

Which brings us to the acting, because Donnie Yen's performance in that scene is half of what makes it so terrific. This is probably the best entry in his resume to date, just for all the different sides to Liu that he plays; loving husband and father, simple village doofus, cold-blooded killer, reluctant badass, and Zen-calm philosopher. All this from Donnie Yen, folks, who of course delivers on the kungfu-fighting front as well. In fact, Chan and his screenwriters Aubrey Lam and Joyce Chan take care to develop all the characters; Xu values the letter of the law above basic human empathy, and even Ayu has a scene that explores what she's going through ('cos if you have Tang Wei in your cast, it'd be a shame not to use her talents). Even the villains get welcome shades of dimension, and the cast are all up to the task of portraying them.

Curiously, this is my second 4-star film in a row with a somewhat disappointing ending. Wu Xia's is something of a deus ex machina, which I'm willing to forgive more than an abrupt ending that leaves loose ends hanging. But like Hanna, the greatness of what came before still makes this one great. I hasten to add that it's not really a full-on kungfu action movie; the action scenes are satisfying but few and far between, and it spends most of its running time switching between character drama and suspense thriller. But it is very good at all of these things. Thank you LoveHKFilm, your recommendation (this time!) is spot on! Let's hope there'll be more good ones from Hong Kong, and let's hope you guys let me know in time to catch them.

NEXT REVIEW: Captain America: The First Avenger (sorry, looks like I couldn't make it for Senario the Movie: Ops Pocot)
Expectations: sounds like it's quite different from Thor


ZimSen Yeow said...

Glad you liked it.

But yeah, the Deus Ex Machima was a real turnoff for me to.

If Captain America is like Thor, I'm not sure should go watch now

Nizam said...

I went to watch the movie after you rated is as a 4. It was a fair rating. Wu Xia is indeed a good movie.

profwacko said...

Im glad i watched this movie..

because the father was such a bad person, Odin or Thor zapp him. lol

Adrian said...

currently, one of the best chinese movie is "You are the apple of my eyes". A taiwanese film.