Produced by Tsui Hark, veteran of the Hong Kong cinema scene, and directed by relative newcomer Marco Mak, Xanda is a rather predictable drama revolving around the martial art of the same name. As the brief introduction points out, Xanda is derived from various schools of martial arts, and emerged in China in the early 1970s. Now, 30 years later, it has evolved into a sport that draws millions of fans to its various tournaments, presumably an equivalent to UFC, or other mixed-martial-arts tournaments well known in the West. Scoring takes place on a points-based system, for example, landing a successful punch or kick to an opponent’s chest would score one point, as would knocking them down for 8 seconds. Apart from certain rules, such as no elbow strikes, and no hitting an opponent in their neck, or back of their head, just about everything is legal in a round of Xanda.
The plot centres on Qiang, a practitioner of traditional Chinese kung fu, who journeys to Shenzhen with his internet-savvy buddy, Shrimp (awkward translation or sadistic parents? You decide…), in the hope of raising some money to buy a car. Once there, after a few unsuccessful attempts to gather some cash, he spots an advert for the Xanda tournament – somewhat of a phenomenon in this particular city, but thinks his form of kung fu won’t be suitable. Later that day, he and his friend meet up with two girls, and who happens to turn up in the same bar, but none other than the current Xanda champion himself, Wei. After spotting Wei forcefully grabbing hold of (future love interest) Ning, Qiang, compelled by his cultural and moral values, goes over and puts a stop to it. Naturally a fight develops between Wei and his posse, and Qiang and Shrimp, which results in Qiang leaving with his ego tarnished, and his buddy leaving with his leg broken. Now Qiang needs to raise money for hospital bills as well as living expenses, but fortunately for him, the girl he saved, Ning, offers to pay.
Meanwhile, Qiang’s other friend, Long, is already training for the Xanda competition. When Qiang visits him, he decides the in order to earn money, he too needs to learn Xanda. With his newfound experience thanks to Long and Long’s father, the coach of the academy, Qiang is eager to compete in an actual tournament, and begs to be entered into it. Despite his training, he loses his first fight, easily taken apart by a superior, and more experienced Xanda fighter. Sure enough, after the initial disappointment, Qiang starts training again, watching other fights and building his confidence as the next Xanda tournament nears. In the first round he sees his friend Long brutally beaten by Wei, and so apologises to the coach, begging him to train him again. He accepts, and after some very unorthodox training techniques, Qiang is ready for the tournament. We see very brief clips of him advancing through the rounds, until the final comes and who does he end up fighting? No prizes for guessing – it’s the “Towering Inferno” himself, Wei.
So essentially the oh-so formulaic plot can be summed up as follows – likeable guy from a small village goes to the big city to raise some money, gets into an altercation with the current champ, starts training so he can fight him, learns from his early mistakes and defeats, and inevitably finally meets him in tournament (with an obligatory and predictable love story along the way). Sounds familiar? It should.
Even the fight scenes exhibit no originality whatsoever. Slow-motion shot of sweat flying off someone’s face as he gets punched? Of course. Character getting knocked out and falling back first onto the mat? That’s here too. Blurred first-person shot to show a character losing consciousness? Indeed. In fact if you were to make a check-list of genre-clichés, chances are they’d all be found somewhere in this film. More than once. They also occasionally suffer from clumsy editing: the filmmakers making the usual mistake of thinking that quicker cutting means more dynamic fights. Thankfully this doesn’t particularly apply for the spectacular, and emotional final fight, which is considerably better than the previous ones.
But despite all its flaws, and not offering anything new, Xanda is a surprisingly enjoyable film. Lots of this can be put down to the characters, and good acting, especially from Sang Wei-Lin as Qiang, in only his first feature film. His acting is natural, he appears confidant and believable in his role at all times, and he shares great chemistry with his co-stars. Qiang, as a character, is also very likeable, from his inclination to wear his sunglasses backwards, to his realistic material wants.
There could have been more build-up towards the final encounter between Qiang and Wei, but then it’s also interesting that there’s not actually that much hatred between the two as is so often the case in films, but rather Qiang’s goal is to prove to himself that he has enough confidence to win.
Overall, Xanda doesn’t reinvent the genre by any means, but then it doesn’t try to. What it does, it does well, even the aforementioned clichés are presented as well as ever before. The drama is touching, be it the relationship between Qiang and Ning, or Long and his father, and fits in perfectly with the plot as a whole. One might say that this is a much better film than it has any right to be.
Unfortunately, for such a recent film, the anamorphic transfer’s quite poor. It’s soft throughout, artifacting is often a problem, and there’s a fair bit of print damage. On the plus side, there’s no questionable edge enhancement, and saturation and colour tones are pleasing, although ideally blacks could be stronger. The transfer actually improves significantly in the latter half of the film, with much less grain and noise present, and also appearing sharper.
On the other hand, the audio is very pleasing. The surround track is excellent, utilising all speakers, although it only really gets a chance to show off its punch (no pun intended) during the fight scenes. The music also comes across very well, as does the dialogue, which is as clear as can be. The stereo track, understandably, isn’t as good, but then it also has a notable problem in that the audio is ever so slightly out of sync with the visual transfer. This can be a little off-putting if you focus on the characters’ mouths whilst they speak, but in other instances it’s hardly noticeable.
The removable English subtitles are clear, but the translation is occasionally very wooden.
On the first disc there is a Gallery, containing still photos from the film, and also from the making of the film, showing Tsui Hark on the set, even playing a character’s guitar at one point. There are 41 photos in total.
Rather inexplicably, on the second disc, Eureka have decided to include the 100 minute documentary, The Real Bruce Lee. Whilst it may not have any relevance to the feature, I’m certainly not complaining, as it’s just a pleasure to have it available on DVD in the UK.
The documentary, made in 1973, is actually a half-hour documentary followed by a full-length kung fu film. Lee enthusiasts will find the archive footage from Lee’s days as “the Little Dragon” very interesting, but those who are put off by the poor picture quality will want to jump to around 23 minutes into the documentary, when it begins to chronicle Lee’s history. It briefly mentions his moves to San Francisco, Washington, Seattle, and Los Angeles, and then his filmography, before moving onto his tragic death, at 32 years of age, on July 20th 1973 in Hong Kong’s Queen Elizabeth hospital. The full-length feature, “The Ultimate Lee”, starring Dragon Lee. If you’ve ever seen one of the hundreds of faux-Bruce Lee films before, then you’ll know what to expect here.
Really, the fascinating part of this documentary is the archive footage shown during the actual documentary part of it, feel free to stop watching as soon as Dragon Lee’s introduced…
If you enjoy drama and martial arts then chances are you’ll like Xanda. If you’re a fan of Bruce Lee then you should be pleased with the documentary. And if you fall into both of those categories, then this really is a DVD worth picking up.