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Liu Jin-xi (Donnie Yen) is a village craftsman whose quiet life is irrevocably shattered by the arrival of two notorious gangsters in the local general store. When Liu single-handedly saves the shopkeeper’s life, he comes under investigation by detective Xu Bai-jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Convinced that Liu’s martial arts mastery belies a hidden history of training by one of the region’s vicious clans, Xu doggedly pursues the shy hero – and draws the attention of China’s criminal underworld in the process. (From the Weinstein Company’s official synopsis)

Dragon (Wu Xia)
Director Peter Chan has been making Chinese-flavoured action flicks and dramas since he produced John Woo’s Heroes Shed No Tears for Golden Harvest in 1986. More recently, he found success with post- Ringu Asian horror films, specifically the Pang Brothers’ Eye series (including the horrible Hollywood remake of the original film), and massive period epics Bodyguards and Assassins and The Warlords, the former of which he also directed. As a director, Chan tends to stick to lower-key melodrama, an aesthetic he brings to his action work, like The Warlords, and his latest film, Dragon. Dragon is an awfully generic title, but it’s actually less generic than the film’s original Mandarin title – Wu Xia, which roughly translates to ‘martial (arts) hero.’ In some territories, Dragon was also titled Swordsmen. These unassuming titles end up disguising a deceptively simple take on a period-set martial arts drama, where a familiar story-type has been adapted for an unfamiliar setting. Dragon’s most obvious influence is David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (based on John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel), parts of which are used in tandem with police procedural tropes as the basis for a retelling of The One Armed Swordsman’s origin story.

Chan and writer Aubrey Lam adeptly balances the period wuxia and crime drama sides of his film without creating a gimmicky mash-up, but does lean a little too hard on modern visual conventions, drawing some unfortunate comparisons. Taken on their own, scenes of characters toiling in their traditional period garb against traditional period backdrops are more or less interchangeable with other post-millennial area features, while the police procedural sections are made in reference to recent Americanized genre output. Detective Xu is a semi-comedic character that doesn’t parallel the likes of Hollywood counterparts too much, but the sequences depicting the technicalities of his inspection processes are stripped directly from stuff like CSI and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies. What’s important, though, is that he and Lam don’t overcomplicate their storytelling by needlessly placing parts of the plot out of order or shrouding the narrative in excessive mystery. It’s easy to follow the plot alongside the characters without a total lack of surprises. Subplots are minimized for maximum efficiency and the tonal shift at the film’s center is well-earned – all things I’ve learned to not expect from regional filmmaking over the last few decades.

Dragon (Wu Xia)
Dragon’s cast is headed by Donnie Yen, who also acts as action choreographer, second unit director, and who apparently developed the film alongside Chan. His choreography is impressive on a technical level, of course, but it stands apart, because each of the three set pieces serves the story with different themes and emotional tones. The first fight is played through twice. The first time through it is presented as a chaotic piece of slapstick where Liu, disguised as a meek farmer, appears to win by accident, but the second time it is replayed through Detective Xu’s CSI-vision, where the intricacies of Liu’s hidden talents appear sinister. The rooftop run/multi-character fight at the center of the film (which includes Kara Hui of My Young Auntie and Dirty Ho fame) follows a more traditional and exciting tonal route, while the final ‘boss fight’ (against Jimmy Wang, the original One Armed Swordsman) is dripping in palpable melancholy and dread. Chan does a good job carefully choosing his slow motion shots and doesn’t miss any action with unnecessarily shaky handheld camera movements. Only his use of optical zooms leave something to be desired, a fact more than made up for by his choice to shoot part of an important battle from the point of view of a water buffalo. I’m happy to report that the fight scenes are particularly brutal without being cartoonishly gory.

Dragon (Wu Xia)

Video


According to imdb.com specs, Dragon was shot using both 35mm and digital HD cameras. I’m not precisely sure what parts of the movie are which, but there are two credited cinematographers, Lai Yiu-fai and Jake Pollock (who shared the Hong Kong Film Award for best cinematography), so perhaps the camera types were divided between them (I’m also aware that some slow motion photography still requires film cameras). The bulk of this 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer is crisp and clean enough to imply a more steady use of digital HD, but there are occasional shots that display common film-based artefacts. To my eye the differences that count do not pertain to grain, because there’s very little here at all (it shows up most noticeably during brief establishing shots of natural environments); rather, there are variations between the black levels and cleanliness of some edges. The film’s overall contrast level is keyed relatively high, creating thick swaths of flat black that appears a bit more grey or blue at times. The halo-effected edges pertain generally to wider shots, though, again, the majority of these images are rich with complex patterns. This transfer’s major problem is that, after Lui’s true identity is revealed, the film becomes tonally darker and the image follows suit. Some of these dark, candle-lit sequences are so dark that it’s basically impossible to see what’s going on. So much of the film is so finely textured that it seems a shame to miss out. The colour palette is mostly made up of dull browns and yellows, but is given some vibrant boosts from rich natural hues, like the impossibly green trees and impossibly blue rivers. Lui’s flashbacks offer a warmer and higher contrast version of reality for the sake of variety.

Dragon (Wu Xia)

Audio


Unlike Well Go and Shout Factory, who have been sending me the most Asian action movies on Blu-ray lately, Anchor Bay hasn’t bothered including an unnecessary English dub with their release of Dragon. So I’ll just get right down to business with the original Mandarin track, presented here in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. This track is mostly defined by the dynamic ranges between the film’s drama and action. Dialogue scenes are sometimes very quiet outside of the centered spoken words, but plenty feature effectively rounded ambient noises, like thunderstorms and grazing livestock. The fight scenes are the most aggressive-sounding moments, especially where the stylized swishing and impacting of heavy weapons is concerned, but the sound designers seem to have more fun when representing Detective Xu’s intricate, CSI-like detective work. Here, scientific noise becomes hyper-stylized and even the camera’s movement is given impressive directional enhancement. The Hong Kong Film Award-winning score, provided by Chan Kwong-wing and Peter Kam, is a mix of sweeping Hollywood strings, traditional Chinese melodies, heavy metal guitars, and, most surprisingly, an occasionally spaghetti western influence. The musical tracks are widely represented throughout the channels, including heavy LFE throb and punchy rear channel enhancements.

Dragon (Wu Xia)

Extras


The extras begin with a collection of behind-the-scenes featurettes/EPKs entitled The Making of Dragon (22:30, HD). This includes:
  • Risks and Rewards, concerning the dangers of stunt work.
  • Framing the Action, concerning the process of filming in super-slow-motion.
  • Choosing Jimmy Wang Yu, on casting the classic era martial arts star.
  • A Different Role for Takeshi Kaneshiro, on casting Kaneshiro for a comedic role in an unfamiliar dialect.
  • The Ins and Outs of Acupuncture (speaks for itself)
  • Family Dynamics with Tang Wei discussing her experience on the film.
  • Tang Wei in the Countryside, on casting Tang.
  • Wai Ying Hung on Working with Donnie Yen (which also speaks for itself)

The extras also feature three shorter interviews with Yen (in English, 5:40, HD), a music video for ‘Lost In Jianghu’ (sounds a lot like late ‘90s Nu Metal), and trailers for other Weinstein Company releases.

Dragon (Wu Xia)

Overall


I started watching Dragon with little interest or expectations and was pleasantly surprised by how good it is. It isn’t going to blow anyone’s mind, especially anyone that has seen A History of Violence or any of Donnie Yen’s better wuxia flicks, but it’s sharp, efficient, well-acted, and features three of the best hand-to-hand fight sequences I’ve seen in a good while. Anchor Bay and The Weinstein Company’s Blu-ray release looks gorgeous, plus or minus a few shots, sounds sharp, and features a brief, but informative little collection of behind-the-scenes featurettes.

* Note: The images on the page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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