Before Wu Xia (武俠), Peter Chan had only directed two-and-a-third films in a decade. Edmund Lee meets the veteran filmmaker to talk about his exhilarating new movie.
If you’re patient enough, a Peter Chan movie comes along. Wu Xia, his first directorial effort since the excellent The Warlords (2007), is the filmmaker’s passionate homage to the titular genre. It all started with a conversation that he had with Donnie Yen, swiftly after the two’s collaboration on the Chan-produced Bodyguards and Assassins (2009), where they discovered their mutual passion for the 1960s and 70s Shaw Brothers wu xia movies – especially the Chang Cheh-directed, Jimmy Wang Yu-starring One-Armed Swordsman (1967). To Chan’s long-time audience, Wu Xia may come as a surprising detour into stylistic excess for the typically character-driven director, who was first inspired to explore the physiological side of martial arts combat when he accidentally came across a Discovery Channel programme that graphically illustrated how bullets rip through human bodies and cause heart failures.
To start with, I must admit that I’m slightly taken aback by your film’s title. Isn’t it a bit presumptuous to call it Wu Xia, as if this is the wu xia film to end all wu xia films?
It’s not really a… I mean, it seems like it’s a very ambitious title, and it sounds bigger than it really is, actually. Instead of being very egotistic or bloated about what I can do, I think the real reason that I chose Wu Xia as the title is actually a very playful gesture. First of all, I think most of the people in the industry – especially the distribution people – don’t believe that I’m ever gonna make a wu xia movie. I’ve done that once with The Warlords, and [I gave] it a really hardcore action title – but it’s really a talkie, you know. [Laughs] It’s not exactly what people expected; it’s not a real action film. So when I said I wanted to make a wu xia film, everybody kept saying: “Get out of here! Stop kidding me!” So to call it Wu Xia, in a way, is a determination to say this is really going for broke. But at the same time, it is the first creative process that I’ve ever encountered where I did not come up with a story based on some issues that I face, where I had no questions or issues that I was trying to address.
You’ve said many times that this project began with its visual style. So how did you decide on the story?
We try to service everything around this visual – which is a very fresh experience for me and which means that I can get to be really playful in my choices. I don’t have the baggage of a message. I’m just making an entertaining martial arts movie, and whatever works, I can throw it in. It’s almost like [going] back to a very young age, where you could just do things with no inhibitions. We decided to bring back our idol Jimmy Wang Yu, and he agreed, and we decided to chop Donnie Yen’s [character’s] arm off as a homage to Wang and One-Armed Swordsman in the middle of the shoot. I mean, we only decided to do that halfway through shooting. And it’s like, anything works! And we decided to give Takeshi Kaneshiro a Sichuan accent to spice it up a little bit. So, it was like a carnival basically. [Laughs]
This film is also the most visually stylised work in your oeuvre so far.
Yeah. The experience was great, because with all the inhibitions gone, I felt like I drank a youth potion or something. I felt like I’m young again, because I’ve never really been young – even when I was young, I’d always been very theoretical about things, and I liked to overanalyse stuff. I liked Woody Allen when I was really young, and we always tried to talk like an intellectual – even when [we’re] not. This is the first time that I feel like I could be a young punk and just make whatever, you know? [Chuckles] Because I always envy people like Quentin Tarantino; it’s like they can do things anyway they want, and it works.
What was your earliest idea for this story like?
I started off the creative process by trying to make the simplest, simplest wu xia story. A man who’s very high in martial arts skill decided to leave his life behind and start a new life, and his past is coming back to haunt him. This is the oldest, most traditional martial arts story.
It’s exactly what happens in [Chang Cheh’s] One-Armed Swordsman.
It’s exactly what happens in One-Armed Swordsman, and it’s also exactly what happens in the new One-Armed Swordsman with David Chiang and Ti Lung, and it’s also exactly what happens in John Woo’s – the biggest disciple of Chang Cheh’s – The Killer. It’s the same story! I mean, people say my film is [a reference to David Cronenberg’s 2005 film] A History of Violence, but I think A History of Violence is the fifth or the sixth or the tenth reincarnation of the stuff that we’ve done for the last 40 years.
During the production of Wu Xia, there’s long been the rumour that it’s going to be a remake of One-Armed Swordsman. How much truth was in that?
It has never been One-Armed Swordsman. And like I said, even the decision to chop off Donnie Yen’s arm was provoked by the fact that everybody kept saying we’re making One-Armed Swordsman – so why the hell not, you know? [Laughs] From the get-go, we’re paying homage to One-Armed Swordsman; we’re not making or remaking it.
Will you consider directing a sequel to this film, like all those earlier One-Armed Swordsman movies?
As a director, I don’t know how to do a sequel to this film. Because every genre, after you’re done with it, you really don’t know what else you can do. I mean, it’s only by chance that I came up with the idea [about] the medical aspects of the wu xia genre. To think of something new will be so difficult – it’ll be like [winning] the lottery. So I don’t think I’d be able to do another one: I mean not just a sequel to this film, but [any other] wu xia film.
Well, this is actually rather consistent with the unusual filmmaking phase that you’ve been leading since you turned away from your decade of making romantic comedies in Hong Kong and made a Hollywood film, The Love Letter, in 1999. Since then, you’ve directed part of a horror film (Three, 2002), a musical (Perhaps Love, 2005), a war epic (The Warlords, 2007), and now a wu xia film. It’s almost like you’re taking the Stanley Kubrick route, so to speak.
I mean, that’s way [too much of] an overstatement! To me, it’s all out of necessity. It’s all out of trying to survive and stay afloat. Because we [the directors] are really insecure about our art, and there’s no science in making movies. You can make one of the greatest movies today, and then you can make a complete piece of crap tomorrow. Every time you try to make a movie that makes sense and justifies two or three years of your life – which is how long it takes. The intervals are not by choice; they’re just exactly how long it takes to make a good enough movie.
So is this kind of genre-hopping a way of keeping yourself interested?
Yes, definitely. Because one of the biggest beliefs I’ve always had – even when I was very young, it was not something that I just found out – is [that] insecurity is the cornerstone of anyone’s success.
Wu Xia opens on July 28.