When Peter Chan announced he was making a new film called Swordsmen [Wu Xia] starring Donnie Yen, fans were beyond ecstatic. But before long it became clear that Chan wasn't making just another big budget martial arts flick, he was aiming for something a little different. The result is a beautifully produced, entertaining piece of detective work with some proper action thrown in for good measure.
Chan likes doing things a little different. Warlords wasn't just any ordinary war flick and Perhaps Love not just any other musical. With Swordsmen though, he went out of his way to trick genre fans into watching his latest film. The wuxia stamp is a collection for everything related to martial arts and considering this broader definition Chan's film has every right to call itself that. But the amount of action sequences that are usually assumed are mostly absent here, instead Chan sets up a neat little detective story. Not that the film is completely void of any martial arts scenes, but it's definitely not the main selling point of the film.
Chan follows in the footsteps of Tsui Hark's Detective Dee and focuses on the detective work rather than the action. After a short introduction where Donnie Yen kicks some very subtle ass (as to not to give away his cover), Takeshi Kaneshiro is sent on his path to investigate. In true Sherlock Holmes fashion he reconstructs the fight and quickly suspects Yen's character of hiding a darker truth. That there is more to Yen than meets the eye is clear from the beginning, actually uncovering his true identity proves to be a much more difficult task.
Most of the first part of the film is dedicated to the intellectual stand-off between Yen and Kaneshiro. Chan travels to the motions with style, not really delivering anything too original or mind-bending, but exploring the actions of both protagonists with proper depth and dedication. The second part of the film is a bit more action-oriented, though still not on the level of most other wuxia entries.
If there is one constant in Chan's recent output it's the consistency in visual beauty that can be found in his films. Swordsmen is definitely no exception, with wonderful framing, gentle camerawork and beautiful use of color from start to finish. Chan is aided by some stunning set pieces, most notably the flooded fields where Yen and his adversaries battle in the beginning of the film. Chan's style doesn't necessarily differ a lot from other directors working with similar means and within similar genres, but he still has a certain stylish edge that others seem to lack. Also notable are the many short animation sequences which add some extra flair to the film.
The soundtrack isn't the overload of classic Chinese music you'd expect from a film like this, there's actually a darker and more modern edge to the score. But even then, the music never really becomes part of the film and doesn't actually go beyond its simple purpose of delivering some background noise. It's not that the score is bad, it just kind of fades away with everything else that is happening onscreen. It's far from bad, never irritating or intrusive, but it just doesn't help the film forward either.
The acting on the other hand is very solid. Yen isn't a terribly gifted drama actor but here he sticks his neck out to prove he can do more than just swift punches and impressive jumps. He can definitely stand his ground against Kaneshiro, who's turning in one of his better performances in recent years himself. Both actors play with just the slightest hint of self-awareness, but never intruding with the serious business going on elsewhere in the film.
Swordsmen turned out to be a detective story with noirish impulses and a slight, light-hearted vibe to counter the gravity of the themes at hand. Throw in a couple of stylish martial arts scenes and you'll get an idea of the fine line this film tries to balance on. It's a miracle Chan succeeds in making it all work together without losing sight of the film's overarching atmosphere, but he pulls it off with grace an delivers a film that's stands very well on its own without being truly unique or challenging.
Once again, be prepared when going into this film as an avid wuxia lover, the actual martial arts (even though quality stuff choreographed by Yen himself) is restricted to only a few scenes throughout the film. The first half of the film is quite slow with many scenes retracing the steps of Yen and Kaneshiro pondering endlessly on Yen's possible background. The pacing picks up in the second half of the film, but even then it's still quite timid compared to genre standards. Get past the idea that you're going to see an action film though, and what follows is just as good as what any wuxia film can deliver.
It makes me wonder if between Detective Dee and Swordsmen (and of course the resurrection of Sherlock Holmes) enough momentum is created for other films to follow in their footsteps. It could very well be that we'll be seeing a few other high-profile detective stories in the near future. Chan's attempt is definitely a good start, sporting high production values, a classy and stylish atmosphere and a strong mix of varied genre elements. It might drag just a little in the middle, but apart from that it's well worth checking out and easily the best of the three films mentioned above.