THE MARTIAL HERO UNDER THE MICROSCOPE IN PETER CHAN’S WUXIA (2011)
NOTES: SPOILER VERY MUCH AHEAD.
Wuxia is a genre in Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of a martial artist in ancient China. Literally, it means ‘martial hero’ or ‘swordsmen’ who defends the innocent, fights injustice and bring retribution for past misdeeds (wikipedia). Popular movies that conforms with the genre includes Jet Li’s Fearless, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Donnie Yen’s Ip Man.
In Peter Chan’s 2011 hit martial arts film Wuxia, the martial hero is subjected to a deeper and more ‘scientific’ analysis that offers a more layered interpretation.
Set in 1917 in a faraway village in China, Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) is an unassuming paper factory worker who became a reluctant hero. With sheer ‘luck’ he was able to fend off two high profile criminals who was robbing the shop he was working in, eventually killing both. But as detective Xu Baiju (Takeshi Kaneshiro) builds up the case, he begins to suspect that Liu is no ordinary paper maker but a skilled martial artist and might in fact be an infamous criminal on the run. Detective Xu Baiju refuses to compromise and felt determined that he has the moral responsibility to arrest Liu Jinxi despite all appearances that the former criminal is reformed and is living a quiet and responsible life with wife and kids.
The microscope is Xu Baiju in this case. In the span of the film he scrutinized the martial hero. If Liu Jinxi was a criminal before, is it possible that he has changed? All Chinese sciences he knows tells him that human instincts never change. He connects imbalances in the body to imbalances in the mind so that a man with fault in his ren-ying meridian which controls hunger can be a huge factor with his drinking problem and eventually a pathology for criminal acts.
He theorizes that: “Men are just bags of stinking fluids with no redeeming qualities. A good man? Good or bad, it’s determined by our physiology.” (Have I mention that Xu Baiju is a noir detective?)
In a conversation, the martial hero offers another theory to our human nature detective: “The fabric of existence is composed of myriad karmic threads. Nothing exists in and of itself, everything is connected.”
It might sound mystical or even esoteric but the martial hero here is also offering a sound scientific explanation. Nothing becomes of itself by independent means. Basically he means that nobody is irredeemably evil and nobody will ever truly be blameless. The detective remained unconvinced, refusing to believe that he was wrong all these years.THE TRANSCENDENCE OF THE MARTIAL HERO
Unwittingly, or in Wuxia language – the hand of destiny or karma, Xu Baiju’s investigation alerted an infamous criminal gang who’s chieftain was our martial hero’s father searching for his long lost son.
The once peaceful village was raided and burned to smoke out the martial hero and just like any wuxia films, determined to feature every martial arts techinique conceivable to be perpetrated over rooftops and narrow settings.
It is yet uncertain why our detective helped our martial hero in this point of the film. Whether he believed that our martial hero has changed or that he had to arrest him afterwards, we can never tell at this point. But it is clear that our martial hero has been passive as if quietly resigned to his fate. That is until his gangster father threatened his family.
His last act of defiance to his father could be the evidence that our detective needed. Our martial hero, to prove to his father that he will never go back to the gang severed his left arm. In Eastern Philosophy, cutting a body part is symbolic of deep spiritual renouncement. In classical buddhist texts, solicitous students do this to prove to their masters that they detach themselves of desires. In the film’s context, our martial hero was a renouncing his father’s lineage.
This is the part where physiology met philosophy. Our detective may have been convinced that our martial hero’s criminal pathology was biologically inherited from his father but that renouncement may have been enough for him to reconsider this. It might be possible that Liu Jinxi may have transcended his natural instinct.
In the end Wuxia offers a unique perspective on human nature and a reevaluation of our justice system’s philosophy, one that is more informed by our current scientific understanding (despite being set in the 1917, Xu Baiju’s inquiry is reminiscent of the scientific method).
For related literature, you can try reading Steven Pinker’s A Blank Slate, or Sam Harris’ Free Will. Possibly also related is the ancient Indian Text on ethics- The Bhagavad Gita.