Take Indiana Jones, toss in a dash of kung fu wizardry courtesy of Corey Yuen, mix it all up, and what do you get? 'Wu Dang' is the result, a high-flying mystical kung fu adventure that is one of the most surprisingly enjoyable films I've seen all year.
Expatriate Professor Tang Yunlong (Vincent Zhao) returns to his homeland of China in the 1920's. He's taking his daughter, Tang Ling (Josie Xu) to a martial arts festival at a Taoist monastery in the Wu Dang Mountains. He has an ulterior motive, however. Hidden throughout the monastery are a series of invaluable treasures, and Yunlong plans to take them all. He's not alone, as the precocious Tian Xin (Yang Mi), a contestant in the event, seeks the treasures as part of her family's heritage. As the tournament unfolds, many hidden agendas come to the fore, and everyone has to fight for their lives.
It's easy to see the Indiana Jones influences on 'Wu Dang'. The opening sequence features Professor Yunlong appraising an artifact, only to discover it’s a fake. When the seller realizes he's been found out, things turn ugly and Yunlong has to fight his way out. The image of the bespectacled professor who's surprisingly good at taking care of himself in a fight is not so subtly reminiscent of Harrison Ford's most famous role. Luckily 'Wu Dang' also manages to strike the right balance of drama, adventure, humor, and character moments to make such comparisons flattering instead of detrimental.
Vincent Zhao isn't Harrison Ford, but he plays Yunlong with a sly sense of humor that stops the character from being too leaden. You also believe the love he has for Tang Ling. Josie Xu feels a little out of her league at times, but given the situation her character finds herself in, the performance doesn't feel out of place. Yang Mi is an absolute delight, a strong but also surprisingly gentle woman who can keep up with Yunlong both verbally and in a fight.
And oh, what fights there are. Longtime Jet-Li action choreographer Corey Yuen arranged all the sequences in 'Wu Dang', and they're some of the strongest martial arts action sequences I've seen in years. The fighting styles are quick, but fluid, maintaining a rhythm that keeps the actors and the audience on their toes. At times, the fighting is achingly beautiful, but mostly it's intensely visceral. Yuen reminds us sometimes jaded audiences how much fun martial arts choreography can be.
The film isn't perfect, of course. As seems typical for Chinese films these days, the CGI is generally atrocious, although it luckily is used sparingly. There are a few effects towards the end that are so laughably bad that you have to wonder what the filmmakers were thinking, but on the whole the movie fares better in that department than a lot of recent Chinese pictures. There's also some incredibly silly dialogue, but I wonder how much of that is being lost in translation. I noticed several spelling errors and missing words from the subtitles, so perhaps the translation itself isn't the best, either.
Ultimately, 'Wu Dang' is a lighthearted and fun adventure flick. It won't set the world of cinema on fire, but it so frequently gives you a sense of effervescent excitement that you don't care. Even with its missteps, 'Wu Dang' will hit you just right if you let it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Wu Dang' comes on a single 25 GB Blu-ray disc with a slipcover that matches the cover art and an insert advertising other Well Go USA releases. There are several Well Go USA trailers at the start of the disc that aren't accessible any other way. The trailers are not forced and can be skipped one at a time.
Well Go USA presents 'Wu Dang' in a 2.35:1 AVC-encoded 1080p transfer. This is, without a doubt, one of the best transfers I've seen all year, even compared to other films shot with Red cameras. From the first shot 'Wu Dang' impresses with its sharpness and clarity. Detail is high in both full light and shadow. Yunlong frequently consults a painted treasure map, and you can see every brush line on the parchment. Contrast is spot on, whites are vivid without blooming, and blacks are strong and deep without crushing. Colors pop off the screen. The reds of Yang Mi's costumes are arresting, while Vincent Zhao's tan leather jacket is so textured you can practically feel it. Fleshtones look accurate, sometimes even betraying the makeup on the actors' faces.
A few of the CGI shots do mar the otherwise brilliant transfer, turning the image soft. Luckily, these shots are few and far between, but it is disappointing when they do show up. Aside from that, I detected no artifacts, macroblocking, ringing, or other transfer issues. 'Wu Dang' is pure eye candy on Blu-ray.
'Wu Dang' continues to impress with its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The mix is incredibly full, with a palpable sense of atmosphere even in dialogue scenes. Effects are subtly but effectively littered throughout the soundstage, creating some of the most impressive and fluid imaging I've heard on disc in a long time. The dynamic range is great, able to handle everything the movie throws at it. Directionality is fantastic, especially during fight scenes. You can feel every hit as it lands, and no matter how fast the actors move, the mix makes sure to keep the action moving along with them. The rears get a real workout throughout, practically never staying silent for the entire runtime of the film. Balance is never an issue, with dialogue easily sharing space with the music and effects, the three elements intertwining to create a mix that is an absolute joy to listen to. Also included is a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix that doesn't come close to approximating how great the DTS mix is.
'Wu Dang' came as a complete surprise: a rollicking adventure film in the spirit of 'Indiana Jones', although not always produced with the same amount of skill. Still, Vincent Zhao and Yang Mi are a delightful pair who help sell a movie that otherwise might have come off as silly. They're aided by Corey Yuen's brilliant martial arts choreography, which is so good that any single fight could be a show-stopper in another film. The video and audio are among the best I've seen all year, with vivid image that is only briefly marred by poor CGI, and an astonishing audio mix that should be a gold standard for other sound mixers to aspire to. Unfortunately, the special features are a complete waste of time. However, the movie is good enough that it's worth checking out the Blu-ray. Highly recommended.