Star Wars

The Acolyte is Secretly a Wuxia Story

Leslye Headland uses the wuxia genre to unmask themes that were always vital to Lucas' vision of Star Wars and the Jedi.

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The Acolyte

Inside a remote watering hole in Imperial China, a mysterious stranger catches an arrow with his bare hand. Immediately, the tavern erupts into a thrilling, almost supernatural fight. Blades are drawn. Combatants leap into the air as if by magic.

This iconic scene from King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967), and many other moments like it, have become a staple of the “wuxia pian" genre, a tradition of Chinese storytelling dating back a millenia. Wuxia stories, which became a signature of Hong Kong and Taiwanese action movies in the late 1960s, tell mystical tales of heroic chivalry and social inequality through a blend of grounded fantasy with (typically Buddhist) mysticism. And while the genre has fallen in popularity in recent cinema, it’s found new life in The Acolyte, the latest Star Wars series to hit Disney+.

Like many a wuxia film, showrunner Leslye Headland’s Star Wars series begins in a remote tavern. And just like in Dragon Inn, mysteries begin to creep in, weapons are drawn, and revenge is had. With The Acolyte’s first season, Headland has cleverly deployed core elements of wuxia to not only to remix the predictable patterns of the Star Wars franchise, but to use the genre’s tendency towards institutional criticism to unmask the contradictions of the Jedi with the same deadly verve as one of Hu’s chivalric knights.

The Jedi in The Acolyte are not the upstanding organization they’ve been depicted as in most Star Wars projects.

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Just like how George Lucas famously took inspiration from Akira Kurosawa movies like The Hidden Fortress or Yojimbo for his Star Wars movies, Headland proudly pulls from a long heritage of wuxia storytelling to open up new storytelling opportunities for the franchise. (She even cited King Hu and The Shaw Brothers by name when pitching The Acolyte.)

In many ways, wuxia is a natural fit for Star Wars. The genre typically focuses on wronged families seeking revenge or the fraught relationships between master and apprentice. Wuxia stories follow kung-fu warriors or sapient monks who, like Jedi or Sith, may keep their most precious knowledge for themselves. The genre also frequently centers on female warriors in key roles — something Chinese filmmakers figured out long before Hollywood. Headland freely borrows major story beats from a variety of wuxia classics — the truth behind the teeth-masked villain’s double identity comes from Hu’s Come Drink With Me, while a cave side romance springs from Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And, of course, many of Headland’s powerful fighters are women, like the Carrie-Anne Moss and Dafne Keen’s Jedi, and lead actor Amandla Stenberg’s would-be Jedi and Sith twins.

Mae’s balletic, gravity-defying fight style is very reminiscent of wuxia.

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In its broadest beats, The Acolyte has a plot that could double for any Tsui Hark or Shaw Brothers movie. A clan of forbidden magic warriors is seemingly attacked and two surviving sisters join rival groups. One sister (Mae) joins an “evil” faction out of vengeance, while the other sister (Osha) joins a rival faction that claims to support peace and properity — only to be kicked out due to her anger. This sets forth a chain of events that ripple through The Acolyte as a classic wuxia revenge plot. Mae, now under the influence of a mysterious Sith master, must kill each Jedi involved in the destruction of her village. Meanwhile, Osha, now full of grief, must help the Jedi stop her.

The Acolyte’s synthesis of wuxia elements is best embodied by the show’s balletic fight style, dubbed “force-fu.” This combat style marries the rapid-pace moves of the Star Warsprequels with pure martial arts, and involves a new arsenal of weapons — like the kunai that the masked assassin Mae (Amandla Stenberg) launches at the Jedi master Indara (Carrie-Ann Moss) in that thrilling opening scene. Like in classic wuxia, Mae defies gravity and effortlessly catapults herself off the ground, running up walls in a kind of mystical light weightlessness called qinggong (which King Hu achieved with hidden trampolines and which Hark popularized with wire-work). We see “force-fu” in its full glory in the brutal battle sequence of Episode 5, “Night,” which, like many a wuxia fight, pitches a group of heroes against one unassailable villain.

Are Jedi padawans doomed to train to become part of a bloated bureaucracy?

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If much of The Acolyte plays like a fun sample track of wuxia tropes and energetically remixed close-quarters combat, it’s with the tragedy on Brendock — which plays out in a flashback showing how Osha and Mae lost their family in a fire and set out on parallel paths — that Headland starts to pierce deeper. The showrunner uses the classic wuxia theme of bloody restitution and institutional accountability to unveil the flaws of the Jedi. Hark targeted corrupt American trade in Once Upon a Time in China. Lee attacked patriarchal gender roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Headland unmasks the hypocrisy of the Jedi in The Acolyte.

It’s clear this cabal of Jedi interlopers is responsible in some way for what happened on Brendock, but Headland is not satisfied to write them off as “a few bad apples.” The rot runs deeper. Headland deftly mirrors, or rhymes, crucial events from the prequels, showing how the Jedi’s downfall began long prior to when Anakin took holy orders. Just like in The Phantom Menace, the Jedi are shown to take children from their parents only to abandon struggling Force users — like Osha or Anakin — as they grapple with their own darkness. There are even more signs of institutional corruption in the most recent episode, “Teach / Corrupt,” which shows the green-skinned Jedi master Vernestra engaging in the kind of furtive cover-up that would become typical of the bloated bureaucracy we see in the prequels.

In the classic wuxia pian, the Jedi wouldn’t be the valiant heroes of the story, but the corrupt villains. Headland channels Lucas’ depiction of a Jedi Order mired in self-righteous complicity more than any Star Wars storyteller since Rian Johnson with The Last Jedi, where Luke remarked, “The legacy of the Jedi is failure. Hypocrisy, hubris.”

Like Hu’s underrated wuxia classic Raining in The Mountain, which tells the tale of a temple of over-politicized monks who have lost their way, Headland is showing us that the Jedi are just as vainglorious and arrogant, blind to the damage they’ve caused.

With wuxia, Headland has found a new hidden manual of rich Star Wars storytelling — one that enlivens an aging franchise, and allows it to wrangle with the complexity and contradiction of the Jedi.

New episodes of The Acolyte premiere on Disney+ on Tuesdays.

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