Director: Peter Chan
Major Players: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Wei Tang
Out of five? 3.5
There’s an age old cinematic tradition of Western movie makers adapting stories from the East and vice versa. Admittedly, Eastern directors have managed to make over some Western classics – think Kurosawa’s Ran and Throne Of Blood (his distinctive re-workings of King Lear and Macbeth respectively). We haven’t done so badly though, with The Magnificent Seven (Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) and The Departed (Korea’s Infernal Affairs).
But what happens when an Eastern director re-locates a Western story to rural China, but films it in a very Western way? The result is what can best be described as “fusion cinema” or, put another way, Chinese director Peter Chan’s Dragon.
Liu Jinzi (Donnie Yen) leads a peaceful, idyllic life in a South West Chinese village with his young wife and children. Out of the blue, he becomes a local hero when foils a robbery at the village store, killing the thugs responsible, who turn out to be much-wanted criminals. But detective Xu Bai-Ju (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is convinced their deaths indicate there’s more to Liu Jinzi than meets the eye and sets out to dig into his past.
If the story sounds familiar, then it is. Despite a few tweaks here and there and the Chinese setting, this is David Kronenberg’s 2005 revenge thriller, A History Of Violence, all over again. Nonetheless, Dragon more than stands up as a film in its own right and has plenty to offer audiences, regardless of whether or not they are martial arts fans.
Essentially a detective thriller, Dragon made its first appearance at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and subsequently did good box office in Asia. Yet it’s surprising that it’s only just made it to the UK when it is clearly made with the Western market in mind. If you closed your eyes and listened to the soundtrack, it wouldn’t conjure up a Chinese village – it’s more Sino-rock than anything. But most apparent of all is the way director Chan has transplanted CSI:Crime Scene Investigation into rural China.
Chan re-creates the series’ trademarks of showing the body’s interior reactions to injuries in graphic and vivid detail, as well as re-creating the crime through the eyes and imagination of the investigator – who also displays Grissom-like traits, placing his faith in forensics and the law, not people, in his pursuit of the truth. But we never escape the fact that we are, after all, in Asia, with the gang at the heart of the story being a demonic cult of serial killers and cannibals, under the leadership of a deeply malevolent Master and his knife-wealding consort.
Is it a martial arts film? There are certainly martial arts sequences and, as the story progresses, it becomes more violent: one prolonged fight between Liu Jinzi and the Master’s consort is breathtaking stuff, moving over roofs, through animal stalls and into a waterfall. But it’s more than just fight sequences, or some of its more gruesome flashbacks, and takes on bigger themes. Liu Jinzi’s honourable motives come close to destroying the village and, more importantly, his own family, while Xu Bai-Ju begins to question his belief in the rule of law, a loyalty that has already cost him his marriage.
The film winds up neatly, mirroring the opening sequence of family life, but showing how things have changed since then. But the difference for Liu Jinzi is that, unlike the detective who uncovered his secret, he still has his family and his life will continue with them.
Dragon is intriguing and holds your attention throughout, thanks to a combination of eye catching settings and strong performances, both from the lead actors and especially from Jimmy Wang Yu as the brutal leader of the criminal cult. It’s also an intelligent fusion of film styles from both sides of the globe, which makes it eminently watchable.
Dragon is on limited release from Friday, 3 May.