ASIAN FILM - Article
09:32 - 1st May 2013, by David West

Return Of The Dragon

Peter Chan and Donnie Yen's new film puts a twist on the kung fu movie genre, while paying homage to its glorious past. David West looks at the cast and choreography of Dragon.

Liu Jin-xi is a papermaker in a small rural town, happily married and raising two young boys. The tranquillity of his life in the village is violently torn to pieces on the day two career criminals attempt to rob the local store. Jin-xi winds up in the middle of the robbery, and, when the dust has settled, both the thieves are dead. While the villagers hail Jin-xi as a reluctant hero, detective Xu Bai-jiu is convinced something is amiss. How did a humble papermaker defeat two armed killers?

Dragon is the new film from Peter Chan, one of Hong Kong's most successful filmmakers, whose last four movies have generated RMB600 million in China box office alone. In 2007, Chan revisited Chang Cheh's 1973 film The Blood Brothers as the inspiration for The Warlords. With Dragon, the director once again taps into the spirit of Chang Cheh, paying homage to Chang's classic The One-Armed Swordsman from 1967. That film starred Wang Yu, aka Jimmy Wang Yu, as a warrior who loses one arm in battle, but learns to fight using his other hand. The movie was a big hit and spawned sequels, remakes and imitators galore including Tsui Hark's The Blade in 1995.

Two stars of the golden age of kung fu cinema grace the screen to tangle with Donnie in Dragon. Wang Yu himself appears as The Master, the leader of a criminal organisation called The 72 Demons. They are the last survivors of the Tangut tribe, driven to the edge of extinction by the Mongols, but now thriving in the underworld as assassins.

Wang Yu made his screen debut in 1966, starring in Chang Cheh's Tiger Boy. Dragon marks Wang Yu's first movie in over a decade, and time has only added to his considerable screen presence as he delivers a performance of bellowing belligerence and cold-eyed menace.

The second former Shaw Brothers star in the Dragon cast is the brilliant Kara Hui, playing one of The 72 Demons. The actress was one of the leading female kung fu stars of the late 70s and early 80s. She was a regular face in the films of Lau Kar-Leung, appearing in the classics Mad Monkey Kung Fu, Return To The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin and Legendary Weapons Of Kung Fu, although her finest role of the period was in My Young Auntie for which she won Best Actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Dragon sees her return to her kung fu roots: she may be in her early 50s, but she is still at the top of her game after four decades in the movie business.

Ayu, Liu Jin-xi's wife, is played by Tang Wei. One of the brightest young stars in Chinese cinema, Tang Wei's comparatively short career has already generated enough notoriety to give Wang Yu a run for his money. The actress rocketed to stardom with her extraordinary performance in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, but the film's explicit sexual content led to Tang Wei being banned from working in China for two years. It appears the Chinese State Administration Of Radio, Film And Television is no longer holding a grudge against the actress, as Dragon was released in mainland China, where it topped the local box office. While Peter Chan's movie has roots in the past, with Tang Wei on the bill, it shines a spotlight on a talent sure to brighten up Chinese cinema long into the future.

The final piece of the artistic puzzle that makes up Dragon is Takeshi Kaneshiro, who plays the detective Xu Bai-jiu. The multi-lingual star has worked with Peter Chan twice before, in the musical Perhaps Love, and alongside Jet Li and Andy Lau in The Warlords. Xu Bai-jiu is a man who does the wrong thing for the right reason, doggedly digging into Liu Jin-xi's past in his quest for the truth, with terrible and unforeseen consequences. In the films of Chang Cheh and Wang Yu, good and evil were easily delineated. Good men performed noble deeds and bad men did wrong. That's not always the case in Chan's story. The moral dilemma that Xu faces in his investigation makes Dragon a very modern martial arts film, offering a tip of the hat to the stars and films of the past, while taking the genre into the 21st century.

Dragon opened in select cinemas at the beginning of April from Metrodome.
This is an extract from a longer feature which originally appeared in NEO 109.

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