What's strongest in this film isn't the martial arts action sequence, or the much talked about Sichuan accent that versatile actor Takeshi Kaneshiro adopts in his role as a detective seeking to unearth the truth behind a peasant paper maker Liu Jun Xi played by Donnie Yen. Rather it's the art house sensibilities that director Peter Ho-Sun Chan fuses in the film that makes it a cut above the average martial arts movie, pretty much focused on characters, motivations, and plenty of drama about family and karma hidden behind an investigative narrative providing a more scientific approach to fantasy.
The opening shot establishes Peter Chan's intent to want to be different, with little nuances put into roles, and a painstakingly beautiful set design and art direction to introduce us to Liu and his family, with wife Ayu (Tang Wei) and two children, living quiet, almost anonymous lives until two robbers enter their village to rob a provision store, and Liu finding it hard not to lend a hand to a fellow villager in need. It's the classic top pugilist whose retirement plans of tranquility getting cut short no thanks to circumstances that spell trouble where trouble got attracted to them like bees to flowers, and for that innate chivalrous spirit to be unleashed, with expected consequences. Yes some quarters equate this to History of Violence, and to a certain extent, it undeniably does possess parallels.
Elevated to a folk hero in the village where praises get sung in his name, the detective Xu Bai Jiu (Kaneshiro) enters the scene for an autopsy and to examine the crime scene, only for his suspicion to be piqued that Liu may be more than meets the eye, perhaps even one of three most notorious wanted men he had been pursuing. Here's where the story shows off its flash of brilliance, with flawed characters providing added depth to characterization and story, keeping your interest level up as we discover how Xu's a little schizophrenic in his investigative approach, constantly communicating with his alter ego and we get to see some CG animated body internals sort of like the way Guy Ritchie treated his Sherlock Holmes, with dalliances to the question of is Liu or isn't Liu the powerful pugilist as Xu's investigations have made him out to be.
Takeshi Kaneshiro continues in similar vein with his Zhuge Liang character in having to form an uneasy camaraderie with his skilled counterpart, where in Red Cliff was with Tony Leung's Zhou Yu, here it's with Donnie Yen's Liu as investigations gets underway to try and coax something out of the latter. Yen has ample time producing some rarely seen acting chops thanks to a role that requires duality, and also showing he's no pushover when it comes to fighting in front of the camera, and taking on the directing responsibility to choreograph the action as well. And to balance the testosterone level of the movie, Tang Wei takes on the role of a demure wife who also bore some dark secrets from her past, but unfortunately this aspect remained largely vague and not as well explored, as is Kaneshiro's detective when he goes back to seek assistance from his estranged wife (Li Xiao Ran) in a one scene wonder/wander.
In a tale of two jarring halves suddenly remembering that it needed some cornerstone token villains, in come the legendary kung fu stars such as Wang Yu (the one armed swordsman being paid an obvious homage in this film), and Kara Hui who has seen a renewed lease in her career after an award winning turn on Ho Yuhang's film At the End of Daybreak. Both return to their martial arts roots which were hallmarks of their heydays, and it's really a pity how as villains they don't get much of a respect they deserve having to come back to the silver screen (especially for Wang Yu), portraying mean looking, ass kicking caricatures to give our heroes a run for their money.
Both were severely underutilized, but there is little doubt about their screen charisma when they finally appear to further the plot. Kara Hui was there solely for some of the set action pieces like a rooftop chase (not again), and between the two, it's of course Wang Yu who got the better deal portraying a Bane like brute, and I thought his heft with age provided plenty of gravitas and weight as the gangster chief who's not to be trifled with, providing the film a much needed climax and proceeding at breakneck speed toward the finale fight which pitted science against fantasy, in some ways how modern day mechanics trounced martial arts, though you get the idea employed here, the execution left much to be desired, since all it could elicit wasn't a sense of brilliance, but unintended comedy involving the much dreaded Deus Ex Machina, yet in some ways keeping in line with the notion of karmic retribution, albeit very literally.
Perhaps it was the weight of expectations that a movie titled Wu Xia would provide something more from an action front, and some may have gone to the extent to call this a redefinition of the martial arts genre through scientific methods and explanation. I thought that would really be stretching it, with big battles few and far between, the spotlight clearly centered on its story and characterization instead.