Well Go USA // 2012 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // December 11th, 2012
There is a rumor: secret treasures hide in Wu Dang mountain.
"If you're too desperate to win, then you'll lose." -- Master Xie
A martial arts competition is taking place atop the Wu Dang mountain. The best Taoist martial artists from across the land have come to demonstrate their skills but two strangers have ulterior motives. Professor Yunlong Tang (Vincent Zhao, a.k.a. Wenzhuo Zhao, True Legend) is searching for a legendary sword forged from a meteorite. Tianxin (Yang Mi, a.k.a. Mini Yang, Painted Skin: The Resurrection) wants to fulfill her late father's quest for the same sword, which she believes was stolen from her village. The sword is one of seven ancient artifacts that will activate a mystical power called Tiandan. The rival thieves will have to decipher treasure maps, fight hordes of protectors and keep their mutual romantic attraction at bay to discover the secret of Wu Dang.
Wu Dang borrows the treasure hunting storyline and the plot mechanics of a secretive martial arts competition. Think of National Treasure crossed with Enter the Dragon. I'm not sure what the protagonists are searching for -- perhaps a sword, or a scroll, or maybe magic beads -- but they're adamant that there are seven of them and together they equal one big thing called Tiandan. To find these treasures, they have to punch and kick past a lot of people. Thus proving that the journey is more important than the destination.
Action director Corey Yuen (The Transporter) is the film's fight choreographer, contributing his brand of gravity-defying kung fu. The action is both energetic and graceful. A lot of the stunts are achieved through wirework but it fits quite well with the fantastical mood of the movie. The fights are mainly close-quarters combat so there's lots of smashing through wooden furniture as well as improvised acrobatics in cramped interiors.
This style of action is bloodless and director Patrick Leung (The Twins Effect 2) prefers the beauty shot to realistic violence. Slow motion is regularly used to better appreciate bodies in flight and superbly composed angles. Still, the fights are dazzling spectacles of stunt work despite being over edited. One of the pleasures of Hong Kong martial arts films is the authenticity of seeing the stars performing in their own fight scenes. Three of the four main cast members are very believable in their athletic prowess. Shui Heyi (Louis Fan, a.k.a. Siu-Wong Fan, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate) practices Sleeping Kung Fu, which requires him to perform many moves while floating in the air or from awkward sleeping positions. Ning (Josie Xu, a.k.a. Jiao Xu, CJ7), the professor's daughter, is the fourth of the main characters and her youthful persona allows her to get by as the novice martial artist. She is capable when it comes to performing the moves but it's unbelievable that she can advance so far in the competition.
The highlight fight sequence features Yunlong and Tianxin teamed up against the henchmen of a rival treasure hunter. This scene stood out from the others because individual shots ran just a bit longer and the camera framed just a bit wider. Those adjustments were enough to make the action more real and chaotic. Another memorable fight takes place on a bridge and then upon bamboo rafts when Yunlong escapes from a school of swordswomen. It is graceful wirework staged at a lovely location.
There are some stunning shots of outdoor locations that make up the Wu Dang mountain. The mountain top terrain is often shrouded in clouds, which enhance its fantastical atmosphere. The cliff-side courtyard of the competition obviously gets some assistance through CGI but it works well with the overall look of the film. The stone stairways, walled passages and other buildings look very convincing and are shown to beautiful effect. The nighttime exteriors are the only scenes that feel too "fake" for my tastes but that's a small objection considering the overall gorgeous look of the movie.
Well Go USA presents Wu Dang (Blu-ray) with an excellent 1080p/AVC high definition image transfer. The color palette is decidedly cool so skin tones tend to be slightly pale as well. That doesn't impede Tianxin's red costumes from popping out from the backgrounds or the white kung fu outfits from showing off their brilliant sheen. Fine detail on fabrics is sharp throughout.
The surround sound is good in its DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix. Dialogue is clear but it's slightly low compared to the music and effects. Conversely, the music and sound effects are too pumped up compared to the dialogue. During the fight scenes, the sound environment really comes alive. The surround channels are active through much of the movie but specific directional sound effects are used sparingly. The alternative audio mix is a two-channel Dolby Digital presentation that's respectable. Dialogue and effects are more equally mixed but the low-end is more subdued.
The 31-minute behind-the-scenes featurette is broken up in three- to four-minute segments that focus on an aspect of the production or interview a cast member. The four main actors talk about their roles and the rigors of the action scenes. Fight choreographer Corey Yuen offers some sound bites but it's mostly through hearing others' comments that we learn about his work style. In many of the clips, the wires are still visible or you can see more of the crew at work. It's interesting to see how much goes into making these action scenes but you can also see evidence that the actors and stunt people are going full tilt when they're performing. The risk of injury is real, as Louis Fan will attest since the broken bones in his foot took three months to heal.
To be fair, fans of this genre don't get too hung up on story details. Nevertheless, Wu Dang is pretty negligent when it comes to narrative duties. The treasure hunt plot never feels like a real mystery despite the protagonists talking about how to decode the clues on their maps. It's also not clear what they hope to achieve by recovering all seven artifacts aside from it activating Tiandan -- whatever that is. The martial arts competition is described in confusing ways. One person says it's a once-in-500-years event and another says they do it to promote Taoist martial arts to the people. Twice per millennium is very exclusive marketing. Yunlong is also introduced as the sponsor of the event but his motivation for doing so and his connection to Wu Dang isn't explored. The contest prize is never mentioned (if there was something to be won) and the movie seems to lose interest in the competition before it reaches a final match.
The story is lacking but it provides enough of a framework to set up several enjoyable fight scenes. Gracefully fantastic martial arts and frenzied action will satisfy most action fans if they're not expecting bone-crunching realism. The gorgeous cinematography is a big plus as well, making real the cloud-shrouded mountaintop locations that are usually only seen in paintings or animated movies. Despite its narrative shortcomings, the movie is an enjoyable martial arts adventure and it looks great on this Blu-ray release.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Well Go USA
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Mandarin)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Mandarin)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated