Sunday, May 5, 2013

'Dragon' / 'Wu Xia' (2011) directed by Peter Chan

Dragon has taken a torturous route to British cinemas.  It seems like it's been out everywhere else in the world already, finally winding up about two years after its initial  Chinese release in a limited run in London.  Along the way it's changed names; from the elegant Wu Xia to the more prosaic Swordsmen and finally to the almost entirely nondescript Dragon.  Now, when a film has been dragged around the world a few times it loses some lustre.  This is a pity, because Dragon is a stylish, exciting, beautiful and well-acted piece of cinema.

The film is about two men; paper maker Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) and Detective Xu Bai-Jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro).  In the opening scenes two bandits arrive in Jinxi's rural village, and proceed to start causing all kinds of trouble.  As Jinxi cowers under a table the men trash the shop he works in.  Finally he builds up the courage to attack them, clumsily running at them and being thrown around the shop.  It looks like he's done for.  But then the bandits inadvertently attack one another while trying to chop him up, until finally they're dead, killed in bizarre circumstances.  Jinxi is pronounced a hero!

Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) mild mannered paper maker and not necessarily a badass martial arts master
Here's when the detective arrives.  Bai Jiu is a man of the future, a coldly logical, intensely analytical sleuth.  He quickly comes to the conclusion that no one could bumble their way through this fight accidentally.  So the question becomes "Who is Jinxi?"  Is he just a very, very lucky unassuming and clumsy peasant?  Or is he a godlike martial arts master killer on the run?  Well, let's just say that Donnie Yen doesn't generally appear in slow pastoral dramas about mild mannered paper makers.

Now, as soon as the plot started to unfold I quickly realised that this is basically David Cronenberg's A History of Violence transplanted to early 20th Century China.  I felt pretty smart for realising this, but it seems such an obvious point of comparison that damn near every critic has pointed it out.  But though Dragon appropriates large chunks of Cronenberg, it's very much its own beast.  

Detective Xu-Bai-Jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro)
Though a period piece, Chan, using similar techniques to David Fincher, utilises a roving digital camera that frequently pierces the reality of the film.  In an impressive scene we see the Inspector practising acupuncture on himself as he explains why he will not allow his feelings to intrude upon his cases.  The base reality is a man sitting on a bed in a lotus position sticking needles in himself.  From this we take in a flashback explaining a past case, animated parchments showing acupuncture points and chi flowing through the body and also  then zip through his veins, watching his red blood cells bouncing around.  It's a visually exciting, dynamic way to show rather than tell.

This digital stylishness recurs repeatedly throughout the film, and provides many of its best moments.  The single best scene in the film shows the Inspector reconstructing the scene of Jinxi's fight with the bandits.  Using Sherlockian techniques he mentally recreates the fight, moving in and around the imagined fighters as he deduces the different ways the fight must have progressed, and the gaps in Jinxi's story.  

Uhm... well.. admittedly it does look as if he is pretty good at fighting for a paper maker.
One of the problems I often have with martial arts movies is the disconnect between the fight sequences and the drama.  Now, character development isn't the most notable element of martial arts films, but in lesser films in this genre the narrative comes to a screeching halt as two men engage in tightly choreographed showy displays.  The best martial arts films (and the best martial arts actors) make the fights themselves the moments where we learn the most about our heroes and villains.  Dragon does this in spades in this deduction scene: simultaneously telling us a hell of a lot about our lead characters; providing a fantastically choreographed fight scene and doing it all with great heaping dollops of style.

This takes place in the first 20 minutes and is so good that afterwards it's all slightly downhill from here.  The central 45 minutes of the film sags as the characters dance around the is he/isn't he conundrum; the answer to which is pretty damn obvious.  Fortunately the film saves a few twists for the last act of the film, where tone shifts from off-key procedural drama to over-the-top martial arts bonkersness. 

He could just be really lucky and clumsy when he's kicking this cool assassin right in the mush.
I can pinpoint to the second exactly when this switch occurs.  Throughout the first hour and twenty minutes or so the soundtrack has been traditional Chinese instruments, a pretty traditional wuxia sort of score that rumbles on unobtrusively in the background, setting the historial tone neatly.  But at one point things get kicked up a notch, and suddenly there's the squeal of an electric guitar solo as the soundtrack.  Is there a better musical signifier that  shit is about to go down? (No, there isn't.) I don't think I've ever laughed so much at a shift in a film's score - it marks the moment the director jams his foot on the accelerator and from that point it's pretty much all fists, feet and angry grimaces until the credits roll.

Dragon is a ery entertaining, if uneven and slightly inconsistent watch.  Occasionally the action sequences sometimes feel tonally at odds with the personal drama, but then again they are very fun action sequences so it's easy to forgive.  The constant referencing of acupuncture as a medical technique that can do just about anything rankles slightly, but then the nature of reality is elastic enough here that you can easily disregard it as just another fantasy element in a film packed full of them.  A very nice surprise.


Dragon is on release in London now.

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