Film Review: Dragon

Detective investigating rural Chinese village uncovers evidence of a demonic cult in this superior martial-arts outing.

Both a throwback to and a commentary on the swordplay genre that used to dominate Asian cinema, Dragon is so clever and well-made that it might win over a broader-than-usual audience here. With strong performances, vivid action and eye-popping settings, Dragon impresses most through a screenplay structured as intricately as a timepiece.

The film opens in a deceptively calm village in rural China. When ruffians attack a shopkeeper, Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen), a papermaker and father, reluctantly joins the battle. In an awkward and comic sequence, Jinxi defeats the crooks, winning the admiration of village elders and province officials.

But when detective Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) investigates the case, he uncovers an entirely different explanation for the battle. Director Peter Chan Ho-Sun replays the scene through Baijiu's eyes, revealing the remarkable talents hidden behind Jinxi's humble demeanor. In a series of taut interrogations, Baijiu finds clues that may link Jinxi to the 72 Demons, a demonic cult of serial killers and cannibals.

Baijiu has his own secrets (and life-threatening illness) to hide. How he pursues the case could determine not only the fate of Jinxi's family, but of the entire village. A scene in which Baijiu asks his ex-wife to help finance his work shows with chilling precision just what is at stake. Jinxi, meanwhile, must examine his place in a world of deception and betrayal.
Dragon escalates in violence as Baijiu learns more about the 72 Demons. In the process, screenwriter Aubrey Lam calls into question the entire "wu xia" (or heroic fighter) genre. Jinxi's honorable motives bring ruin to his village, just as Baijiu's quest for the truth endangers everyone around him. The steps both men take give freedom to unimaginable evil in the form of a malevolent Master (Jimmy Wang Yu) and his consort (Kara Hui).

Remarkably, Lam and Chan tell this complex story in a clear, exciting style that remains true to the genre they are dissecting. The fights in Dragon, staged by star Donnie Yen, are superb examples of action choreography. The film's climax shows just why Jimmy Wang Yu became a wu xia icon in films like One-Armed Swordsman. Equally impressive is Kara Hui, a kung-fu star in the late 1970s. Her fight with Yen, ranging over village rooftops into cattle stalls, is breathtaking.

At times it feels as if Dragon is too smart for its own good. Some plot twists are needlessly cruel, others too melodramatic. The cinematography by Jake Pollock and Lai Yiu Fai employs camera moves that at times seem more complicated than the story requires.

But overall this is rich, full-bodied filmmaking that operates successfully on several levels—as escapist action, moral debate, even as a critique of filmmaking. Director Chan made his mark in the 1980s with romantic comedies that challenged norms, and in recent years has overseen horror franchises like The Eye. He has an astute grasp of the film market and a willingness to test his viewers, as well as a mastery of film technique.
Dragon was released as Wu Xia in 2011, screening out of competition at Cannes and performing solidly in Asian markets.