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Fantasia 2012 – Dragon (Wu Xia) Review (Matt Hodgson)

Fantasia Film Festival 2012

Dragon (2011)

Starring Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tang Wei, Jimmy Wang Yu

Directed by Peter Chan

My second and final screening on the first night of Fantasia 2012 was Dragon, an action packed period piece starring Donnie Yen, an accomplished martial artist on the cusp of legendary status. Yen has been thrilling audiences for decades, but it is just recently with the huge success of the Ip Man series that he has truly become a household name. Dragon was being discussed by some as the film which could round out Donnie Yen’s career by showing him to not only be an accomplished martial artist, but actor as well.

Dragon takes place in the early 1900’s and tells the story of Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen), a simple man who works as a papermaker in a rural town. His life is simple but rewarding as he lives with his wife and their two sons. However, despite Liu Jinxi’s appearance, some of his actions and abilities don’t fit the mold of a small town man. It’s impossible to not raise a questioning eyebrow when Liu effortlessly and painlessly pulls out his son’s baby tooth which was causing the young boy pain. Who is Liu really? This question is almost answered after a deadly encounter between two violent robbers and Liu – deadly for the robbers that is. The town hails Liu as a hero and are ready to get back to their normal lives, but a detective from the big-city, Lu Baiju (Takeshi Kaneshiro), doesn’t buy the story that Liu accidentally killed the robbers. Is Liu hiding something or is Lu letting his mind runaway on him?

Dragon starts off with a bang, the combat between Yen and the men who play the robbers is of the highest quality and nothing short of thrilling. Impressive acrobatics, the expert use of CGI, and the fight choreography were very impressive. Dragon could have very easily played out as a straight martial arts movie with a lot of success. However, the filmmakers decided to go above and beyond the mold of the genre. Instead the audience is treated to a CSI/martial arts mash-up as Lu (Kaneshiro) tries to discover just how Liu (Yen) could have killed these men while making it look like an accident. Both Yen and Kaneshiro are great in their roles, unfortunately some of the story is hampered by some odd script decisions later in the film.

Much like For Love’s Sake, Dragon seems to be a tale of two different films. The first half of the film is when the CSI/martial arts mash-up is at its best, but the second half seems like a different film. Dragon has absolutely gorgeous photography, from the combat scenes to establishing shots of Liu’s village. The filmmakers are certainly consistent throughout the film when it comes to the visuals, as they are nothing short of enthralling. However, in the second half the behaviour of major and minor characters distracted from the heart of the film. I won’t get into details as I don’t want to ruin the movie, but one particular action by Yen had myself, and by the sounds of things many other audience members, downright confused.

Despite the fact that I didn’t love Dragon’s entire script, I think fans of martial arts and intelligent storytelling need to check Dragon out. It may not deliver for the entire run-time, but the storytelling in the first half and the action scenes throughout the entire film are worth the price of admission. Now we wait for Ip Man 3, which we were told is on its way!

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