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April 16, 2013

Dragon

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Wu Xia
Peter Chan - 2011
Radius / TWC BD Region A

While Peter Chan and Donnie Yen acknowledge a debt to the classic Shaw Brothers martial arts movies, I think some credit should be given to Victor Hugo. The characters played by Yen and Takeshi Kaneshiro are lifted from the archetypes first established in Les Miserables. Yen is first seen as a quiet family man who runs a rural paper mill. Yen, as Jin-xi, just happens to be in a small shop when two thugs show up demanding money from the older couple who run the store. A fight ensues with lots of punches, an ear lopped off, and the two strangers dead. The modest Jin-xi is hailed as a hero, yet the visiting detective, Bai-jiu, has questions about the fight, who really had the upper hand, as well as questions about Jin-xi. Like Jean Valjean, Jin-xi reveals more about himself when his physical abilities are put to the test, while Bai-jiu is like Javert, setting aside any sense of humanism in the name of enforcing the law.

For some, the biggest mystery to Dragon is why someone thought the original title, Wu Xia needed to be changed, especially as it is used in both the film and the extras. I'm not even sure why the film was titled Wu Xia in the first place as such a title suggests a film more along the lines of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. (On a somewhat related note, Gordan Liu's original Chinese personal name in Jin-xi.) And with all the extras, it doesn't make sense that the DVD/Blu-ray version does not include what was edited out of the U.S. release, either as extras or of Peter Chan's original cut.

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Those quibbles aside, Dragon is intriguing to watch, primarily for the gamesmanship between Yen and Kaneshiro. For the fan of classic martial arts films, there are two set pieces featuring Shaw Brothers veterans. The first, with Kara Hui, looking great for what what the French would describe as being a "woman of a certain age", involves a rooftop chase, and a fight inside a very small barn with some very large water buffalos, that happens to be built over a waterfall. The second big fight scene is a face off between Yen and Jimmy Wang Yu. Brought back from retirement, and well into his Sixties as the time the film was made, Wang is still very formidable. Older and heavier, he still looks like he can kick your ass without little effort (definitely mine). Lots of punches and slashing of swords left me catching my breath when this fight was over.

Titles inform the viewer that the film takes place in 1917. If it weren't for the then contemporary hat and glasses worn by Kaneshiro, or the the uniforms of several policemen, it would be impossible to guess that Dragon takes place in the early part of the 20th Century. I would guess this establishment of time is used as a reminder of what Chinese life was like outside of the major urban centers, with a plot predicated on the kind of existence where people rarely left their home villages, and sons were expected to carry on the trade of their fathers. Traditional notions of filial piety are touched upon several times here.

After The Warlords and Perhaps Love, Peter Chan appears to have wanted to work on something not quite elaborate as those previous films. It is not surprising, based on his earlier work, that some of the nicest scenes are those of family life with Tang Wei as Jin-xi's wife, Ayu, and the two boys as their sons. Donnie Yen staged the action scenes, and in the supplements explains the challenges for both himself, the other actors and the crew. Almost fifty, I would not expect to see Yen in many more films showing off his martial arts skills, though he remains a charismatic screen presence, and with Ballistic Kiss, is also quite capable as a film director.

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Posted by peter at April 16, 2013 02:28 PM