Review: Dragon (2011)

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Cast: Donnie Yen, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Kara Hui
Director: Peter Chan
Country: Hong Kong | China
Genre: Action | Drama
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: Dragon opened in limited release on November 30th

Perfect as it was in its initial iteration, the news of Unforgiven’s remake as a samurai film starring Ken Watanabe comes as a curiously exciting prospect; perhaps it’s the cultural transplantation of Eastwood’s bravura treatise on the mythology of violence that makes less distressing the idea of a re-treading of these themes: Japan’s is a culture—socially and cinematically—quite unlike that of America, allowing its own implementation of the elegiacally revisionist narrative to assume, hopefully, a quite different shape. It’s not unfair to view Peter Chan’s Dragon as a Chinese equivalent to this tale: told primarily from the perspective of a detective who uncovers the sanguinely storied past of a quiet villager while investigating a fatal fight, it’s a film given to rueful ruminations on the psychological scars of a life lived violently.

Donnie Yen conducts a masterful symphony of martial arts mastery in Dragon, his violence staged with such balletic poise and grace as to make distinctly beautiful this bloody brutality.

dragon4Acting as action coordinator as well as the now-exposed family man with a past, Donnie Yen conducts a masterful symphony of martial arts mastery in Dragon, his violence staged with such balletic poise and grace as to make distinctly beautiful this bloody brutality. Action permeates the opening act, so meticulously managed as to warrant an extended scene where the detective—played with alluring solemnity by Takeshi Kaneshiro—actually dissects the fighters’ every move, reliving their blows so as to reconstruct the order of their occurrence and determine the culpability of the combatants. It might be taken as a self-celebratory sequence, touting the characters’ almost-superhuman movements as a grand achievement of Yen’s choreography, yet it seems ever more in service of cinematic staging, the slow-motion, multi-angle re-enactment of an ear’s sharp slicing—just one of many wowing shots—working to boost the visual ingenuity of Chan’s aesthetic.

Expert as its presentation is, that part of the film where fights take precedence is ever less interesting than what follows, the spectacular sequences of combat largely done away with in the second half of the film in favour of extended dramatic tension. Indeed, such is the tonal turnaround that the pre-existing quirks of Kaneshiro become positively comic in retrospect, his detection made seem almost Clouseau-esque in the stark drama of the later narrative directions. Chan seems even better suited here, using the ripe shadows of DP pairing Yiu-Fai Lai and Jake Pollock’s cinematography to turn martial pantomime to morality play with decidedly brooding success. Dragon is at its best when receded from the glaring spotlight of choreographic exhibition and resident instead within the murky shadows of moral complexity, questioning the tenets of its own existence as Kaneshiro gradually uncovers the violent life that may have been.

…its underlying ideas, fine as they are, are nought but padding, empty gestures at deeper meaning with little in the way of genuine belief behind them…

dragon3Dragon’s best, most visually and thematically intriguing scene sees Kaneshiro crossing through a field where legions of workers are harvesting. Mistakable almost for Malick’s in The Thin Red Line, the camera hones in on colonies of dishevelled insects, disrupted and disturbed by the passage of humanity through their home. It’s an odd little sequence—isolated in its occurrence—that effectively complements the inherent themes of man’s brutality and destruction at the core of the movie. That a later scene, then, employs the actual slaughter of a bull for dramatic purposes serves to underline the most significant issue of the film: its underlying ideas, fine as they are, are nought but padding, empty gestures at deeper meaning with little in the way of genuine belief behind them; the moral dubiousness upon which it hinges is less material for humanistic insight than tool for narrative development.

Stilted even by its tonal asymmetry and lax approach to its own alleged meanings, Dragon finds its success in the expert performances of its dual leads and the work they do to support its abounding air of ominous mystery. Conversing in the dead of night, traipsing through the rural forestry, neither sure of the other’s true motivations, Yen and Kaneshiro enact a fixating tale of paranoia and mistrust. Its incisions into the morality of murder and the culture of violence of which it itself assumes a part are but skin-deep, yet its ambition should not go without praise, nor Chan’s impressive ability not to slide between contrasting registers of raucous combat and brooding drama, but to meld them to one.

[notification type=”star”]72/100 ~ GOOD. Dragon finds its success in the expert performances of its dual leads and the work they do to support its abounding air of ominous mystery.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.