Dragon (Wu xia)
Take one part CSI, two parts A History of Violence, throw in a healthy portion of acupuncture, and mix it all up in a martial-arts milieu set in post-imperial China, and you get today’s movie, Dragon (Wu Xia). The film from Hong Kong director Peter Chan, was slapped with the rather un-imaginative new title, “Dragon” for mainstream US audiences. (Although, the original title, Wu Xia translates as “Martial Arts” and considering that it’s a martial arts movie, it’s also about as unimaginative as releasing a spy movie titled “Spy“.)
Donnie Yen stars as Liu Jinxi, a family man and paper-maker in rural China, on one fateful day he happens to be in the village’s general store when a couple of travelers stop in and try to rob the place. When the elderly proprietor won’t turn over his money, the pair of thugs start roughing him up. Unable to simply sit by, Jinxi unleashes a fresh can of whoop-ass on the duo, killing them both bare-handed, while leaving no obvious fatal wounds.
Later at the inquest investigators confirm that the robbers were a pair of highly wanted criminals. The local official, eager to take credit for these criminals being “apprehended” in his jurisdiction moves to close the case and declare Jinxi a hero.
However, Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a detective called into the village as part of the investigation, is suspicious. Through in-depth investigation he determines that the robbers were not killed through happenstance. An expert in acupuncture and acupressure, Xu concludes that Jinxi killed his opponents via precise strikes tor critical pressure-points. This only further intrigues Xu, because there are only a handful of martial artists in the world with the skill to deliver such attacks, and it is extremely unlikely that a paper-maker from a rural backwater would be one of them.
As Xu’s investigation proceeds we learn a great deal about Jinxi’s true identity, and also a great deal about the physiological theory behind acupuncture. There are also some spectacular fight scenes, beautiful scenery, and one of the most absurdly awesome ways to dispatch a main villain that I’ve ever seen.
Dragon is a really entertaining ride. The acting is first rate, with particular credit being due to Kaneshiro’s performance as Xu. He takes a character that could easily have become a bore spewing mumbo-jumbo, and instead portrays an interesting character that effectively carries the film as it bridges from the beginning, to a martial-arts laden final act. The structure works well, with the detective story proving an entertaining way to pass the middle portion of the film, thus preventing an over-abundance of martial arts action which tends to lose some of its impact if the entire movie is nothing but fights.
The movie does have its flaws. The story is interspersed with flash-backs and a few scenes that (I think) happen in a character’s imagination. The editing around these scenes isn’t as good as it might be, leading to some confusion for the audience. Also, there are a dramatic few events that, unfortunately, stretch believability to the point that they border on silliness, which isn’t such a good thing.
At the end of the day, though, the good significantly outweighs the bad. The fight scenes are fantastic, the characters are compelling, and the detective story is intriguing. Overall, whether you call it Dragon, or Wu Xia, or Acupuncture: The Movie, this film is well worth seeing.