Written by Oi Wah Lam
Directed by Peter Chan
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In a strange way, Dragon is a perfect companion film for the Shaw Brothers classic The Fists of the White Lotus that Fantasia presented this year. (Expect Edgar Chaput to review that film as part of his Shaw Brothers Saturday series soon.) Both films are about the never-ending cycle of violence and revenge, the corruption of Imperial China, and the strange effectiveness of martial arts acupuncture. Both films also feature a climax built around a fight with strangely difficult to kill old men and martial arts masters who are not afraid to appear to be clowns.
How difficult is it to pretend to be terrible at martial arts when you are actually really good at it? How difficult is it to play the buffoon when you are actually a World Class expert? This is the real life problem that Stephen Chow, the class clown of Hong Kong cinema faces. Most of his films gleefully ignore this problem, portraying his characters as cheerful screw-ups who only surmount their challenges in the final reel.
It is only in the film From Beijing With Love, his James Bond parody, that Stephen Chow lets the mask slip. At the conclusion of the film, his hatchet throwing character suddenly reveals that he has always been a master, that his apparent incompetence has been a ruse designed to give him the upper hand over his opponents. It is almost as if Stephen Chow is using the film to remind people never to underestimate him just because he makes people laugh.
What From Beijing With Love presented as comedy, Dragon presents as drama. Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) is a humble papermaker who blunders into the path of two robbers and accidentally kills them. Or suggests master detective and acupuncturist Lu Baiju (Takeshi Kaneshiro) Liu is really a master martial artist playing the buffoon. But why would a tiger pretend to be a house cat?
Dragon is divided into three fascinating acts. The first presents the fight first in real time as Liu Jinxi wants us to see it and then replayed in slow motion broken down move by move by Lu Baiju to show us what really happened.
The second act is a battle of wills between Liu and Lu that reveals each man’s past. Liu comes from a violent and abusive past and believes, perhaps naively, that it is possible to renounce violence and become a new person. Lu reveals that he must use acupuncture on himself daily, plunging two needles near his heart. The first needle to keep poison from reaching his heart and killing him, poison fed to him by a teenage offender that he returned to his family in a moment of compassionate leniency rather than taking him to jail. The second needle literally hardens Lu’s heart so that he can become a pure instrument of the law, no longer tempered by human compassion.
To put it another way, Lu is using acupuncture to turn himself into the Wu Xia version of Judge Dredd while Liu is trying to use the bucolic rhythms of his quiet village to reinvent himself as husband and father rather than the Tartar serial killing machine that he was.
The completely insane (and that may be underselling it) third act is the result of the events that the two men have set in motion as the pasts of Lu and Liu lead to an orgy of violence that both men feared but could not prevent.
One of the strengths of the film is that both men are right and both men are wrong. Lu’s vision of the law stripped of compassion is a law that is also vulnerable to corruption as judges use the letter of the law to line their pockets rather than represent justice. Liu’s belief that he can literally remake himself as a better man ignores the addictive nature of violence. (When Liu begins to fight the robbers, he can’t stop himself from killing them – instead of subduing them – any more than a drunk can have one shot from a bottle and stop there.)
Dragon is the rare martial arts film that understands not just the conflicted rhythms of combat, but the conflicted rhythms of the human heart.
– Michael Ryan