Today I watched Peter Chan’s Dragon (2011)
Dragon begins in the idyllic life of Liu Jinxi, a papermaker in China in 1917. He has a beautiful wife, two lovely children, and he lives in a wonderful village community. One day a pair of outlaws roll into town and attempt to rob the general store and it just so happens Liu was working on the paper windows of said store. Liu can’t just hide and allow the brigands to murder the proprietors though and in the ensuing scuffle both bandits die. Jinxi is just a mild mannered man though and claims that it was all just fantastical luck, but detective Xu Baijiu who has come to investigate, suspects otherwise. Xu believes that Liu is actually a powerful martial artist, and as his investigation continues the clues seem to say that Liu is not just any martial artist but a member of an ancient and powerful clan of murderers.
This film can be easily split into two parts, the first part being centered around the investigation and suspicion of Liu. This first act has a neat narrative trick where it shows us the events as though Liu were just a bumbling paper maker and then slowly deconstructs the fight scene through Xu’s inquiries. While it is a cool idea presented with plenty of visual flair, it falls apart because any fan of martial arts movies will know immediately what the twist is. This is because Liu Jinxi is played by Donnie Yen, the most popular modern martial arts star in the world, and while his ability to play the part of disguised Jinxi is commendable to be sure, this is a time when casting and reputation ruins a narrative idea. Well, it is only somewhat ruined as this part of the film is still quite fun to follow, partially due to humour derived from Yen’s performance, but mostly from Xu Baijiu. Xu is an incredibly pulpy character, a Sherlock Holmes style master deducer who uses acupuncture to suppress his empathy. Xu is played by Takeshi Kaneshiro who matches the silliness of his character with a serious performance that makes the most of Kaneshiro’s solid acting ability.
In the second half of the film, the veil of mystery is lifted and the film becomes more of a conventional martial arts movie and removed from the layers of narrative intricacy, this film’s better aspects really shine. What works for this movie and what drives it forward is a strong devotion to it’s characters and solid performances all around. While the Rashomon-esque investigation is stylistically interesting, it falls apart, and the characters are what keeps it moving through this. The film really has comparatively little action, smartly building the motivations that go into the fights and thus building some real drama. Which just goes to show how much strong characters can overcome in a film.
Character driven action, for me, is the best action, and even though this film bungles some experimental narrative delivery, the characters are really well done. It is also quite well shot with some impressive shots of old Chinese rural life. When the action does start it is likewise very well presented and has a lot of energy behind the choreography thanks to the aforementioned character work. It manages to be quite fun while also offering up some dark subject matter about the nature of justice and law, violence and redemption. I would definitely recommend it if you are catching up on Donnie Yen’s career now that he has been brought into the Star Wars. 4/5