Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Donnie Yen's Dragon (aka Wu Xia): Watch It

Donnie Yen's latest martial arts film was recently released in the US under the relatively uninformative title DRAGON, a title that brings to my mind thoughts of Bruce Lee and his many classic kung fu films.  It is also a title that does a disservice to the film.  As awe inspiring as Bruce Lee was as a performer, using any of Lee's major works as a reference point is completely off base as the vast majority of Lee's films were of a different film genre than DRAGON.

DRAGON follows in the wuxia tradition in which martial artists live in the world of jiang hu and are inexorably trapped within an epically tragic tale, often a romantic tale.  Think CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and you are on the right track.  But DRAGON, directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan, brings in elements of American Film Noir to the traditional tragic fantasy elements of a typical wuxia film.    DRAGON begins as a murder mystery of a kind, a murder mystery that reveals that Liu Jin-xi (Donnie Yen) is more than the humble paper maker he appears to be.  It is a mystery that ends in proper wuxia tragedy.  It is a heartfelt film with fine emotional beats, even if the martial arts themselves don't quite live up to the remarkable high standards Yen has set of late.  This isn't to say the film isn't beautiful, it is, rather that this isn't a rapid paced actioner.  This is a film of investigations, fear of the loss of a mundane life, and tragedy.  It has some echoes of the Shaw Brothers classic ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN, but is entirely its own creation.

Given the narrative tensions of the film, I wouldn't have marketed the film under the title DRAGON.  I would have based the title on the original title Wu Xia, a term that literally means "martial hero."  Given the connotations of honor in the phrase, I would have called the film AN HONORABLE MAN.  The title would then echo the tensions in the movie and provided context for potential viewers.  Is Liu Jin-xi an honorable man?  Has he always been an honorable man?  Will he leave the tale an honorable man?  These are the questions the audience faces as they watch the film.  They are questions worth asking and the investigations of Takeshi Kaneshiro's character answer only one of these questions.  The answer to the others are revealed through the subtleties of Donnie Yen's performance.

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