It's been a little while since I reviewed a kung-fu film, so I thought I'd take a look at 2011's Peter Chan directed “Dragon”, starring Donnie Yen; a kind of CSI meets martial arts movie. It was released on UK DVD in August last year.
What's it all about?
Set in 1917, Donnie Yen stars as Liu Jinxi, a papermaker who has made a home for himself in a Yunnan village where he has been living for the past ten years. He lives with his wife Ayu (Lust Caution's Tang Wei) and their two sons, and is content with family life.
When a couple of wanted criminals enter the village, and demand money from his workshop, Liu somehow bungles his way through their robbery, and manages to stop them, killing them in the process, and becomes a hero amongst the people of his village.
Enter Xu Baiju (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a police inspector who sees the law as even more important than humanity. What will his investigation into Liu Jinxi's past reveal?
Peter Chan (The Warlords) directs this tale about a man determined to leave behind his dark past, and live a normal life. The film explores the morality both of the protagonist, and the detective who investigates him. One is trying to leave behind his amoral past, which continues to haunt him, and the other starts to doubt his faith in the infallibility of the law. The film asks whether a man can really start afresh, without first atoning for his crimes in the past. The interplay between these two characters is what drives the first half of this movie along, and both actors excel in their roles.
It's great that the film explores this kind of morality, and I think more martial arts films should delve further into it's characters' minds, but I couldn't help but wish for a little more depth to them. Maybe I missed out because rather than watch the original Chinese version, I watched the International cut, which I understand had twenty minutes or so edited out it. Maybe the Chinese version sheds more light on the these men's moral compass, and perhaps it's one I'll check out in the future.
Quite why the Weinstein Company decided to rename the film “Dragon”, is a bit of a mystery to me; I suppose something less Chinese was deemed more attractive to a western audience, and “Dragon” seemed to have more impact. I don't know; I'd like to think modern audiences are sophisticated enough to get past a foreign title, but then what do I know?
With a title like “Wu Xia”, it's not unreasonable to expect some kind of martial arts action, and of course we are treated to some tightly choreographed sequences, although with Jinxi supposedly “accidentally” thwarting the plans of the robbers, the first “proper” fight doesn't come along until a fair way into the film. Of course this being a Donnie Yen film, it's pretty obvious that Jinxi is going to have some pretty good fighting skills, so it comes as no surprise when he does finally let loose, and shows what he can do.
Jinxi's father, and leader of the clan Jinxi left behind, has an important role in the story, and is played by none other than Jimmy Wang-Yu, most famous for his role as the Shaw Brothers classic "The One-Armed Swordsman” (1967), and there's a bit of a tribute to that very film later on in this one.
The movie also features Kara Hui Ying-Hung, on good fighting form, also well known for her role in “My Young Auntie” (1981), among others, another Shaw Brothers' classic.
It's great seeing these veterans of Hong Kong cinema still kicking ass! Hopefully they'll continue to do so in many movies to come! Jimmy Wang-Yu is now 71 years old, however, so one wonders whether or not he might slow down from now on...
All this comes together into a very well made and watch-able film.
Sound and Vision
Peter Chan's stylish direction complements the fine cinematography; we are treated to some beautifully shot scenes, from the area surrounding Jinxi's village, to the village itself, which includes the fantastic chase scene over the village roof-tops, and then the subsequent fight in a cow shed.
The CG elements serve to show Xu Baiju's forensic investigation, and look quite cool, but sometimes seem a little out of place. Nevertheless, they are a great way to illustrate the detective's thinking, and provide a nice modern feel to the movie.
Sound quality is fine, and the music complements the film well.
You get a short interview with Donnie Yen; while it is quite short, it does shed some light on the making of the film, and overall is pretty interesting.
Donnie Yen's acting seems to have improved quite a bit for this role; perhaps because early on in the film, he doesn't just rely on his martial ability to entertain his audience. It's probably some of his strongest acting since he starred in “Ip Man” (2008). That being said, his choreography is also very strong here, and after the first “unskilled” fight scene, we are treated to some wonderfully choreographed moments.
The CSI style of Xu Baijiu's enquiries lends the film a modern feel, with CG recreations of the inner workings of the human body, while still retaining something of the classic Shaw Brothers style traditional martial arts movies.
Even though this movie had had quite a lot edited out of it, I didn't feel as though it had been edited down, in that it did play quite smoothly, and I never really felt anything had been cut. Indeed, I didn't even know it had been until after viewing the film.
I did however feel that the two lead characters could have been explored even further, but for a kung-fu flick, there's a lot more to chew on than your usual action film, and therefore definitely deserves a place on your screen.
Overall, the film is well paced, even with the cuts, and there's enough action to keep martial arts fans happy. It's great too, that this particular kung-fu film has depth to it's characters, and a decent plot to boot.
Check it out!