tv & movies

Knives flying, bullets raining, fists smashing — the action in ‘Wu Assassins’ is sheer delight

Not since Jet Li has there been a martial arts hero as watchable as Iko Uwais

His origin story has already been told so many times that it seems to acquire a fresh coat of paint with every retelling — perhaps this is the final confirmation that 36-year-old Indonesian martial arts virtuoso Iko Uwais is now an international superstar, a bona fide blue-chip Hollywood commodity.

Over a decade ago, a few years before the release of his first film Merantau (2009), director Gareth Evans was shooting a documentary on silat (the collective name for a bunch of interconnected Indonesian martial arts styles; involves a distinctive, curved knife) in Jakarta, as it so happened, at Uwais’s regular training hall (his grandfather was a legendary silat master and a very popular teacher too). Evans knew that he was on to something and the rest, as they say, is history — Merantau was followed by movies like The Raid, The Raid: Redemption and The Night Comes for Us, films that brought both silat and Uwais to the attention of movie buffs around the world.

Supernatural powers

Earlier this month, Netflix dropped the first season of Uwais’ new TV series, Wu Assassins. Curiously enough, the origin story of Uwais’s character Kai seems to borrow from his real life. Kai is a chef at a restaurant in Chinatown, San Francisco (Uwais was a truck driver for a telecom company in Jakarta when Evans discovered him), who is, in fact, the Chosen One, the ‘Wu Assassin’ who channelises the supernatural power of a thousand monks. His mandate is to rid the world of five elemental warlords who are about to unleash their fury on San Francisco. Unaware of Kai’s real identity, the deadly Triad (Chinese crime syndicate) tries to kill him after a brawl at his restaurant — and all hell breaks loose, naturally.

Wu Assassins is gleefully aware of its genre history even as it piles trope upon trope (the holy monk, the corrupting nature of power, the sins of the father), topping everything off with some Doctor Strange-like PG-13 Marvel special effects, especially in the parts where Kai travels to ‘the Path’, a heaven-and-earth interregnum where he realises just what he has been ‘chosen’ to do.

In one scene, after Kai receives a bit of a pep talk, he tells the pontificating Mr. Young (Tzi Ma) to “keep the Confucius” to himself. Mr. Young retorts, “Confucius? That’s Tony Robbins, my human thought potential teacher.” In other words, the capitalist loop is complete — Asian men are now buying repurposed bits of their own culture, delivered by a smarmy, holier-than-thou, PR-savvy white man.

The show’s trump card, however, remains Uwais’s utter mastery over action choreography — flying knives are caught, bullets are dodged, and fists smash through stuff at lightning speed. Fans of The Raid will recognise its influence in the pilot’s opening fight sequence, shot in grim yellow in the middle of a claustrophobic corridor-stairwell. Even after the script starts sagging towards the second half of the season, Uwais makes sure the thrills keep coming thick and fast. Not since Jet Li has there been a martial arts hero so immensely watchable.

All of which begs the question: why did Marvel and Netflix invest in a product like Iron Fist (2017) whose ineptness is now even clearer than it was a couple of years ago? Is it really worth it to hire yet another white actor (in this case, Finn Jones), write a story with predominantly Asian elements, train said actor for months (often by Asian men) only to deliver a thoroughly mediocre affair? Let’s hope that at the next pitch meeting, Marvel and Netflix first sign on someone like Uwais —and then figure out the rest.

The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.

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