In terms of crossover hits in China’s martial arts tradition, it’s been a while since a film has stood out overseas. Of course, everyone remembers the heady days of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers four years later, to name just a few, but little since has peaked the interest of international audiences in such a way. However, that time could be re-emerging thanks to the release of Dragon, a classically told yet modern drama that reminds us all of just how overlooked this genre can be.
Set in rural China in 1917, Dragon tells the story of Jinxi (Donnie Yen), a hard working family man who is forced into action when thieves try to rob the paper mill where he works. After discovering that the criminals were highly wanted men, an investigation into the incident draws the attention of Xu Bai-Jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a detective who is unconvinced that Jinxi is the man he claims to be. As he digs deeper, Xu discovers the terrible past that Jinxi is hiding from, and threatens to disrupt the idyllic life that he has built for himself.
Sound familiar? It’s not a spoiler to say that Dragon borrows more than a few elements from David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005), but there are enough differences to allow this absorbing and fluid drama to unfold in its own way. Selling to a worldwide audience often requires western influences to play a part, and while this is certainly true of Dragon, the film relies just as heavily on traditional Chinese lore and family values to tell its story. Whilst this may alienate some, it is the film’s striking blend of old and new that really defines its style. Despite the detailed period setting, the use of graphics and animation to flesh out Xu’s investigation taps into the popular style of detective dramas that is currently sweeping the world, and makes for a refreshing addition to the canon of martial arts cinema.
As is often the case, the combat sequences are what make these films, and Dragon more than delivers. The legend that is Donnie Yen, star of films such as Ip Man (2008) and Iron Monkey (1993), once again proves that he stands among the greatest martial arts stars of all time, choreographing and performing scenes which can stand up as some of the most exciting in memory. With agile and ferocious clashes, and a rooftop chase more thrilling than any Crouching Tiger has to offer, the unique element Dragon has is that its star is just as comfortable in his character as he is fighting off the invaders to his village.
Equally, the entire cast is well suited to their roles, with Tang Wei making more of her role as Jinxi’s wife than is asked of her. The film’s characterisation is built quickly but without feeling rushed (always a difficult task) and this is accomplished effectively in just a small but important scene between her and Kaneshiro’s Xu, whose story takes up the bulk of the narrative. This strategy works well to keep the narrative moving and ground it in a refreshing detective story, leading to a climax that is easily the best sequence of the film. Despite an overly convoluted plot point near this end, the truly monstrous presence of Jimmy Wang Yu makes for an epic final encounter.
Dragon is not without its faults, but with a stylishly striking mix of old and new aesthetics, it delivers an experience of true worth. The combination of Jinxi’s redemption and Xu’s investigative drive propels the film forward through blistering fight scenes and touching emotional substance. It may not reach audiences in the way that its international martial arts predecessors did, but that is no reason to say that it shouldn’t.