CHINA BEAT: EXCLUSIVE - Peter Chan On The Fate Of WU XIA
Not one to often rub shoulders with A-list celebrities, earlier this evening I found myself at an event celebrating the re-opening of arguably Hong Kong's finest art house cinema, the Broadway Cinematheque, when through the crowd emerged the unmistakable locks of acclaimed director Peter Chan Ho Sun. Famous for such works as COMRADES: ALMOST A LOVE STORY, THE WARLORDS and, most recently, WU XIA, Chan is one of the more interesting and visually stylish Chinese filmmakers working today, and so I pounced on the opportunity to shake his hand and ask him a couple of questions. Now while it does need to be pointed out that our conversation was an informal one, lasting just a couple of minutes, while at a party, I immediately identified myself as a film journalist and gave Chan my name card, so I think it is entirely fair to assume that anything he had to say during our brief chat can be considered worth sharing, if perhaps taken with a grain of salt.
Top of the agenda was the plight of WU XIA, a film that was snapped up by The Weinstein Company at Cannes last year, where it had its world premiere, only to be immediately rebranded with the rather confusing moniker DRAGON and then...well, nothing. It has been getting on for a year since the North American distribution rights were acquired and while companies like China Lion and Well Go USA have been doing sterling work bringing the latest in Chinese Cinema to audiences across the continent, there hasn't been so much as a peep from TWC about its plans for WU XIA. Well, fortunately, Chan seemed to have some new information on what was going on, and there is both good and bad news in store.
Chan said that the film will definitely be getting a US theatrical release in the not too distant future, but that it would not be in the same version that Harvey and Bob bought back in May 2011. This piece of information comes as no real surprise, not least because of the brothers' notorious penchant for re-editing many of the films that they purchase before releasing them under their banner, but Chan himself declared the cut shown at Cannes to be a rough draft and was certainly not the same version that he released in China and Hong Kong (or indeed anywhere) last summer. What Chan told me this evening is that the Weinsteins had been crafting a "leaner, pacier" cut of the film for the US market, no doubt in response to criticisms that, for a film billed as a Donnie Yen actioner, it was surprisingly light on the old ultra-violence.
There is no denying that WU XIA, in the version that played in Hong Kong and that is now available on Bluray and DVD from Media Asia, can scarcely be called an action film. Chan's film is more of a detective story, a procedural even, in which Takeshi Kaneshiro's chronically ill constable investigates the death of two escaped - and highly dangerous - convicts, at the hands of Yen's seemingly innocent villager. In its 115 minutes there are perhaps three of four fight sequences in total, not nearly enough to waylay the Weinsteins' concerns that martial arts aficianodos don't like, understand or have any time for story, drama or characterisation. As it's not a viable option to insert more action into Chan's film, the only alternative it would appear, is to trim away as much of that excess talking and stuff, to make a film simple enough for American audiences to embrace.
This is obviously far from an ideal situation, but that is what the director told me. The film was being simplified to include "just the one story", with any superfluous narrative being stripped away. Exactly what that consisted of, Chan either wasn't entirely sure or wasn't willing to divulge, but the impression I got was that he was not involved in the process very much at all. Were I to speculate on what TWC might have excised from the film, without getting into spoiler territory for those who haven't seen it, I would hazard a guess that much of Kaneshiro's Constable Xu's backstory and philosophical musings have hit the cutting room floor. Xu also has to deal with the corruption and bureaucracy of the local magistrates in a few scenes that do little to forward the central narrative of the film.
The other juicy tidbit that Chan was willing to share, however, will come as a relief to many. Apparently the distributors have decided against renaming the film DRAGON, as was originally the case. Personally, I think this is great news, as that title had absolutely nothing to do with the film whatsoever, and smacked of laziness and ignorance on the part of those who proposed it. While I understand that not everybody is going to know instantly what WU XIA means, or even how to pronounce it, the majority of the film's potential audience in North America is already aware of its existence and what it is called, and changing the name now, especially to something as horrifically generic and non-descript as DRAGON, may only result in fewer people seeing it, purely because it sounds like a crap movie.
That is not to say that the film will be keeping its original handle. Chan didn't know what the film will ultimately be called for its US debut, and while he was pretty positive that DRAGON was out, he did not seem at all convinced that WU XIA would be reinstated. One only needs to look at the Weinsteins' recent track record (SHA PO LUNG becoming KILL ZONE, THE BANQUET changed to LEGEND OF THE BLACK SCORPION) to know that there remains every possibility an even more ridiculous and inappropriate title will be slapped across this abridged, truncated, and dare I say, butchered release, before it finally drags its maimed carcass onto North American screens. But what we do know, if the word of the film's director is anything to go by, is that it should be happening pretty soon.
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