Dragon (Wu xia)

Director: Peter Chan
Writer: Oi Wah Lam
Year: 2011
Cast: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Wei Tang

★★★★☆

The Edinburgh International Film Festival’s creative director, Chris Fujiwara, has encouraged audiences to step out of their comfort zone and experience something different, which is precisely what I did with Dragon. Martial arts films are not normally high on my to-watch list, and I would be hard pressed to remember the last one I actually saw. However, I am certainly glad I gave this one a shot. Dragon is the hugely successful Chinese director Peter Chan’s first venture into the wu xia genre, but it is a real treat. With a narrative as intense as the set pieces, it is an intriguing thriller about two men seeking redemption from their past.

They are brought together when the seemingly ordinary paper worker, Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen), fights and kills two ruthless armed robbers, who make an assault on the shop he happens to be in. When it emerges that one of the bandits was a trained killer and one of the most dangerous men in China, an intuitive detective, Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), becomes suspicious of the idyllic village’s new hero.

Dragon Wu Xia Donnie Yen

The first fight scene is entertaining in itself, but is taken to an extra level when it is meticulously reconstructed in Xu’s mind. The action is replayed, with added focus at the crucial moments, and embellished with Xu’s analysis. Deducing that Liu must have used qi energy and advanced fighting techniques, Xu exposes the ruse that he simply got lucky. Chan uses a range of visual effects, particularly to add precise detail to the development of internal wounds, a technique which remains effective throughout the film.

Once Xu has confirmed there is more to Liu than meets the eye, the psychological conflict between the two men can begin. Xu’s character offers a unique perspective on the action, and Kaneshiro gives a measured performance, showing a studious exterior which harbors an intense passion. Tortured by the memory of setting a young criminal free early in his career, only for him to return home and poison his parents, Xu makes law the highest principle in life, placing it above all humanity. He is determined to bring Liu to justice, long before he discovers the extent of his violent past.

Liu is also a complex character, determined to live an ordinary life but evidently hiding something terrible. Dragon’s opening scene depicts him dining with his family in a tranquil home, and it is so genuine a moment that his sincere desire for reform cannot initially be doubted. However, as word of his whereabouts spreads, Liu’s resolve is sternly tested and he is forced to directly confront the demons of his past.

Chan is able to seamlessly blend genres, combining elements from drama, action and detective films, and this also serve to make a formal point within Dragon itself. We are presented with a world in transition — the old methods of existence are beginning to be superseded as new technologies ensure material prosperity in rural areas. There is a conflict between the scientific and the natural, the part and the whole, which is exemplified in the two central characters. Tradition, spirituality and man’s connection with nature are all challenged as the film develops, adding thematic depth to an exceptionally entertaining film.

Dragon’s consistently arresting narrative is backed up by strong performances, spectacular visuals, intense action sequences and beautiful cinematography, making it an exhilarating ride.

Rob Dickie

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