You may not know what ‘Wu Xia’ means but you are almost certainly familiar with it. Originally a genre of Chinese literature, these tales of martial arts heroes went global after Bruce Lee put on a yellow jumpsuit and wowed Western film audiences with his fists of fury.
The name translates literally as martial (wu, 武) hero (xia, 俠) and can be traced back to 300 BC, say academics. However, it was during the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD) that many of the key characteristics of Wu Xia developed – in stories of heroes fighting with superhuman prowess.
In fact, one of the most famous examples of Wu Xia is The Water Margin, a novel that’s regarded as one of the four classics of Chinese literature and was published almost 600 years ago. It features 108 warriors who – thanks to their code of honour – turned outlaws rather than serve a corrupt government.
Wu Xia plays to some fairly universal themes. Its idea of chivalry is not so different to that of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, for instance. And its depiction of the strong helping the weak is also a theme that international audiences are familiar with – from classic tales like Robin Hood, to Westerns like The Magnificent Seven, through to Christopher Reeve playing Superman.
In fact, this very cultural overlap is exactly what director Peter Chan is hoping to tap into with his movie of the same name, Wu Xia.
And Chan can take heart that when he gave the movie its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last month, the audience gave it a standing ovation.
That will also be welcome news for The Weinstein Company, the US film studio that has spent Rmb100 million grabbing its international rights. It is even being talked about for a possible Oscar nomination.
Why? Chan’s take on the Wu Xia genre has got the critics convinced that – for the first time since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – a martial arts movie has mixed explosive fight scenes with an intelligent , engaging plot. Variety magazine calls it “a satisfyingly sinewy fusion of martial arts actioner and brain-tickling noir,” classing it as “clever… with a playful spirit that’s never at odds with its underlying seriousness”.
Hollywood Reporter praised the film as “exhilarating” and claims it “represents Chan’s ambition to bridge the gap between Chinese and international tastes by giving a modern spin to the genre, while paying homage to the golden age of Hong Kong martial arts films.”
The movie is set in 1917 in a small village in Yunnan. A paper maker (played by kung fu star, Donnie Yen) kills two robbers who threaten his store. A detective is convinced that he is not the bungling shopkeeper he claims, nor that the thieves’ deaths were ‘accidents’. Relying on his Colombo-like instincts, detective Xu tries to prove that Yen’s character is in fact an infamous Wu Xia fighter who has long been in hiding.
Critics see parallels between Chan’s stylised violence and that of Tarantino, which could perhaps give Wu Xia (which may be released by Weinstein as ‘Dragon’ in the US) a cultish following. Apart from expert fight choreography (a particularly good scene is fought out amid a stampede of buffaloes), there is also clever CGI (when a punch knocks a molar from a bloodied mouth, the camera follows its path through the air until it smashes open a jar of cooking oil).
The film looks likely to be a box office success in China, where the producers plan to spend Rmb60 million on marketing it. Plus it will be released on July 4, allowing a clear 17 day window before it begins to compete with Hollywood blockbusters Transformers 3 and the final Harry Potter film.
According to its producer, Tan Hong of Stellar Megamedia, it should have no problem raking in Rmb300 million in revenues, reports the Beijing News. (The Chinese box office record is held by James Cameron’s Avatar which grossed Rmb1.4 billion).
Another reason Chinese viewers may be keen to see it: the casting of controversial actress Tang Wei in a leading role. In Wu Xia Tang Wei plays the rustic wife of the protagonist. But regular readers of WiC will recall that Tang has been something of a bête noire for China film censor, SARFT. In issue 2 we pointed out that she’d shocked SARFT for scenes featuring full frontal nudity in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. Aside from any prudish concerns, there was also a political dimension: her character fell in love with a Japanese collaborator and betrayed her Chinese comrades.
That didn’t exactly make Tang’s character a role model for Party officials who viewed her performance as both slutty and unpatriotic (in contrast, international film critics acclaimed her surefooted debut).
After Lust, Caution, the Hangzhou-born actress faced censorial retribution: a ban from Chinese screens stalled her career and lost her lucrative endorsements. She spent 2009 in the thespian wilderness, but got a partial rehabilitation last year when she was cast in the Hong Kong comedy Crossing Hennessy. However, it’s her role in the upcoming Wu Xia that is expected to mark her full comeback. As Yen’s wife, she plays a dutiful mother for the first time, a casting decision which might shake off some of her lustier associations.
Shedding that reputation is going to take some work. One of the most forwarded items on Sina Weibo in recent weeks has been a discussion of how scenes involving Tang were also cut from the currently-showing flick The Founding of a Party.
The propaganda epic (see WiC110) features 178 Chinese stars, and Tang had been cast to play Tao Yi, one of Mao Zedong’s early girlfriends.
That was until Mao’s grandson PLA Major General Mao Xinyu (see WiC33) complained that the scenes didn’t “comply with historical facts” and objected to the controversial actress being associated with his revered ancestor. Tang soon disappeared from the movie’s trailer.
According to the Liao Shen Evening News, her contribution to the film had all but disappeared by the time it hit cinemas – although the eagle-eyed could spot her for a tantalising moment in a crowd clapping a speech given by Mao (presumably much more acceptable to Major General Grandson).
Tang will hope that this was a final setback on her road back to the A-list. Wu Xia promises her much wider exposure, and likewise signals the revival of her celebrity endorsements – she’s already got TV contracts to plug cosmetics firm SK-II and shampoo Pantene.
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