One of the most prominent Chinese filmmakers Peter Ho-Sun Chan takes us back to the turn of the twentieth century with this kung fu, kick ass, tale of gangs, redemption and future thinking detective work.
It’s 1917 and Liu Jun-xi (Donnie Yen) is a village craftsman whose quiet life is irrevocably shattered by the arrival of two notorious gangsters in the local general store. When Liu single-handedly saves the shop keepers life and kills the gangsters, he comes under investigation by detective Xu Bai-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Convinced that Liu’s marshal arts mastery belies a hidden history of training by one of the regions vicious clans, Xu doggedly pursues the shy hero – and draws the attention of China’s criminal underworld in the process.
If you are a fan of the more recent period based Far Eastern action movies like House of the Flying Daggers or Zatoichi you will find yourself thoroughly at home with this film. With enough of a Western feel throughout in terms of the films approach and fantasy, action and excitement; Dragon becomes palatable for someone who feels that subtitles are not a barrier to watching a perfectly good film. From the opening titles you are seduced with powerful music and motion graphics that resemble ink blots on the screen taking you on a journey, which you don’t expect to then lead to China in 1917.
Once you arrive at this picturesque and secluded Chinese village, full of greenery, you meet the central figure in the film – Liu Jun-xi and his family. The film outlines the average day for this family, morning prayer, breakfast as a family and work, a simplistic and normal existence. What I like about this, is that it draws you in as a viewer, you immediately relate to this scenario, its very similar to that of our time showing that despite technology and cultural changes, life back then is fundamentally the same as it is now.
Once the world is turned upside down, through the arrival of the gangsters, you find yourself attempting to piece the puzzle back together just like Xu Bai-Jiu, except his far more advanced style of thinking (something you’d expect to see in CSI China – if there ever was a programme like this) quickly puts the audience back in its place and show’s who the real genius in the room is. Cleverly, Chans direction paints the portrait of the detectives mind beautifully for us to watch as he thinks through his justification for why there is more to this act of self-defense than just luck.
As we follow this battle between the detective and his subject, we discover wider implications of this deed than just heroics – and this is where the fun really begins. Bring in the extensive fighting scenes and in-depth knowledge of how clever our bodies are and what trickery they can cause. As Liu’s dark past is revealed, he faces some much bigger battles, as history comes back to haunt him and he is forced to show his true colours. Without spoiling it, seeing this in action reveals epic moves both of this world and beyond, which keeps audiences gasping and entertained at its crisp precision and complications, believe me, by the end of this movie you will all want to be able to summon the power of Qi.
What you learn from films like this, is that guns, blood and guts can be one persons cup of tea when watching an action flick, but for others, the expertise that goes into developing clean cut fight sequences that don’t even display even one splattering of blood can often be much more compelling to watch, and to throw in a few homages for good measure there’s a fair share of roof top gliding as well – the mark of an excellent Eastern action film that knows how to please its audience.
An interwoven and carefully thought out plot propelled by believable characters and unbelievable stunts, Dragon is a must for any martial arts enthusiast. Truly breathtaking.