Made Overseas: Dragon (2011)

The English title for the Donnie Yen movie Dragon may have one of the most generic.  Considering that there are zero dragons appearing in this movie, what can the title be referring to?  Is it because this movie is Chinese, and so are dragons?  But there was a movie called Dragon, and it was a Bruce Lee story.  So wait… was this a reference to Donnie Yen playing Bruce Lee’s master in the Ip Man series?

The original title of the movie, though, was somehow even more generic: Wu Xia.  You know… the entire branch of a Chinese adventure fiction about martial arts in ancient China.  That’s like naming your movie Western, Horror, or Adapted from a YA Novel.

The movie does contain elements similar to past wu xia films starring guys with names like Gordon Chan and Jet Li.  It’s set in a remote Chinese village where people sleep on the floor and hang paper to dry on the lines.  The time period is a little more modern than that of your typical Wu Xia film.  It’s set in 1917. So when a detective played by Takeshi Kaneshiro (The Warlords, House of  Flying Daggers) shows up, he’s in a crisp white suit, a fedora, and cool glasses.  The presence of a detective has several observers pegging Dragon as bearing noir influences.  Justin Chang at Variety described it as “a satisfyingly sinewy fusion of martial-arts actioner and brain-tickling noir”.

While I suppose I could see that, the combination of a rural setting with a weapons master trying to escape his past by settling down and starting a family far from judgmental eyes has me thinking more in lines with a Western.  Specifically Unforgiven.

Donnie Yen plays Liu, a pleasant family man who just arrived in town five years ago.  He met and married a beautiful woman and just decided to stay.  No one know anything about his past. No one asks.

One day, he rather unluckily happens to be at a store doing some handyman work when it’s held up by two bandits demanding that the elderly shopkeeper pay them money.  Things get bad as the old man and his wife get badly roughed up.  Liu cowers behind a wall at first, but he builds up the courage to attack.  He looks awkward and clumsy, and gets thrown around the room with ease.  He gets lucky, though, when one of the bandits impales himself.  The fighting moves outside into the river, where Liu and the bandit trade haymakers until, eventually, the bandit succumbs to his injuries.

Liu is hailed as a local hero.  Things aren’t adding up for the detective, though.  His segments, including the intro lifted straight from House MD with jumpy shots of a brain, blood cells, and arteries, are the most incongruously modern segments in the movie.  You know those parts in detective shows where they do a 3-D model of the victim’s body, and they zoom into the trajectory of the bullet?  The same thing happens in Dragon, only the bullets are pressure points and the imagery is now depicted as classic Chinese ink and paper artwork.

Also borrowed from CSI: unflattering close-ups of bloated corpses.  This may be the Wu Xia movie with the most gothic horror elements.  If your squeamish about watching a movie with closeups of a dead guy’s bloody mouth, maybe skip this one.  Also feeling “modern crime show” chic are the slow-mo flashbacks where the detective retreats into his mind palace and inserts himself as an unseen participant in the crime scenes.  Kaneshiro recreates a far more action-packed scene, where meek, humble Liu is suddenly transformed into… well… Donnie Yen.

The detective is a conflicted man.  He has strong inclinations toward empathy, which he surprises through acupuncture.  He’s haunted by a previous case, where against his better judgment he stood up for a young man, who would later cold-bloodedly poison his own parents.  As a result, he doesn’t trust Liu’s story, even if everyone thinks him a hero.

The biggest incongruity: the detective susses out the identity of the dead bandit.  He was a prison escapee who had overpowered three guards. How is it possible that a lowly paper mill worker could overpower a much stronger man?

As secrets come to light, Liu’s family is drawn into the path of danger.  New challengers arrive and turn a once idyllic town into a hotbed of carnage where not even the livestock are safe.  Liu is forced to choose between hiding behind his mild-mannered facade and protecting the people that he loves.

I’m not much an expert on fighting styles.  However, compared to predecessors like Jackie Chan and Jet Li, Donnie Yen’s punches look absolutely brutal.  I guess this comes from Yen bringing mixed martial arts choreography into Chinese cinema.  When he throws a punch, they look like they  connect.  When Yen puts his hand on someone’s face, you can see the flesh pinch as he squeezes tight.  The world of Dragon is a brutal one where opponents take advantage of existing wounds and bruises.

And yet the fantastical element is still there.  People still fly through the air and land expert kicks that can close window shutters.  At one point the detective “accidentally” throws Liu off a bridge, and he manages to float to safety on a tree branch.  The detective wonders how he did that.

Well, a wizard chi did it.

Peter Chan, who also directed the visually similar 2007 movie The Warlords, opts for a shadow-heavy desaturated look.  A rather popular trend in the mid-2000’s it seems, perhaps made popular by war movies like Saving Private Ryan and Enemy At The Gates.   Most of the time, this is an attempt to make everything look grittier and more natural.  I am personally not a fan of the look at all, especially in a Wu Xia movie.  It may sound shallow, but the brightly colored silks are part of the attraction, you know?  The Hong Kong Film Awards don’t agree with me, though, as Dragon won for Best Cinematography.

At least with The Warlords, there was a visual contrast between the cold, brutal world of the soldiers and the bright, ornate facade of the devious politicians.  No one respects the soul-crushing sacrifice soldiers must endure, he seems to say.  Here, I can’t help but feel that the driving instinct was to make the movie feel more like Batman Begins.  A brighter color scheme could have done a good job illustrating Liu’s split nature. I think this movie could’ve worked better if the outdoor scenes were colored in the natural bright hues of sunlight to highlight the cheerfulness of domestic light, while the indoor scenes — where the fights take place —- remain dingy and dark to show the unpleasant past Liu is running away from.  As it is, there are times it seems Liu and his family already live in a spooky haunted forest.

Dragon is currently available on Starz.

NEXT: Let’s Dhoom again… for a third time.  A review of Dhoom 3!