A detective stirs up a dragon’s past

When a humble papermaker Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) hides from a potentially violent confrontation and then explodes into deadly fury, you know something’s not quite right. Particularly if this is just the start of a movie and this particular movie goes by many names.

When shown in Cannes last year in 2011, it was called, “Wu Xia” (武俠 wǔxiá). Wu means armed or military. Xia means honorable, chivalorous or hero. If you’re familiar with the movie genre that means a lot of martial arts, gravity-defying acrobatic scenes and the hero is typically not from the aristocratic class.

Yet there’s more to Peter Chan’s movie than tenuously connected scenes of bone-crunching and punching. The movie’s title in Japan is “捜査官X” which means Investigator X. The X in this case is Xu Baijiu played by Taiwanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro. Xu Baijiu (徐百九) is our point of view character, the narrator. In contemporary America, he’d be a detective in “Law & Order” or an inspector in some TV program from Great Britain. Xu is a Chinese surname. Baijiu is simply a number: 109.

In a movie about identity, our narrator is someone we can identify with, but who is only a number. In America, the movie is called simply “Dragon” and how this relates to Liu Jinxi is the crux of the plot. You might not get it if you don’t read or understand Chinese. Just remember when the Chinese say “dragon” they aren’t talking about Smaug or the St. George and the dragon sort of fearful relationship although fear has a lot to do with this movie. Xu Baijiu suspects that Liu Jinxi is really the Tang Long, the second-in-command of the fearsome 72 Demons gang.

The movie “Dragon” has been compared to the 2005 movie “A History of Violence.”  On the surface, the stories are very similar. “A History of Violence” is about a small town restaurant owner, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), who kills two thugs with unnerving precision when they enter his restaurant and threaten to kill a waitress. His instant celebrity attracts media attention, and this leads associates from his old life as a gangster for the Irish Mob to the small town.  They demand he return to settle old scores, including one with his brother Richie (William Hurt).

In “Dragon,” we’re in the 1917 Yunnan, China and Liu Jinxi also becomes a local hero for his actions but he comes under the scrutiny of a detective. Using some of the CGI visual fun forensics of the battle as deconstructed by Xu, the viewer sees both in the external world and in the internal one of bodily damage. Some of the analysis involves acupuncture theory involving meridians (e.g. shanzhong) and director Chan takes us into the inner space of the body and the nerves and veins as we see blood corpuscles moving into what we learn is a brain hemorrhage or heart attack.  Liu’s old gang does come back, but the dynamics of family are different.

In “History,” there are two children and a wife, but the children are teenagers and conflict between the wife, horrified to learn that her husband was a killer, becomes the main emotional focus. The son is also given the choice of resolving confrontation with the school bullies using violence. However, Liu Jinxi’s children are still helpless and not yet teens. They do not get involved in the fighting and Liu Jinxi’s wife, Ayu (Tang Wei), is more submissive in her quiet acceptance of who her Liu Jinxi is. Ayu’s meekness is the ying to the yan of the 13th wife (Kara Hui) of the leader of the 72 Demons who leads the first attack on Liu Jinxi. Xu’s wife also displays a passive aggressive reaction to tragic family events of the past. Perhaps the dynamics between Xu and his wife were close to that of the Stalls in the past.

Names are of some importance here, because Xu asks himself if Tang Long isn’t always going to be Tang Long (唐龙) and this is the logic behind the English name of the movie. While Tang is the same character that refers to the Tang dynasty,  Long means dragon. The surname seems to identify Tang Long as a member of the Tangut, a member of a multi-ethnic group that was founded by a famous prince whose people helped quell a rebellion for the Tang court at the end of the Tang Dynasty and controlled over Xia Zhou and eventually expanded their influence to other regions. This was long before the time period of the movie, but the movie seems to imply ethnic unrest as the source of some of the gang loyalties that are beyond the control of the central Chinese government which was itself corrupt. Tang Long is the dragon referred to in the English title but this is an identify that doesn’t bring the usual joy associated with Asian dragons. With the name Liu Jinxi (劉金喜), Liu signifies the surname of the village and the given name means Happy Gold or perhaps Golden Happiness. The second character of the wife’s name Ayu (阿玉) means jade.

Aubrey Lam’s script sets up a series of comparisons between fathers and sons. The movie begins with us watching the simple pleasures of Liu Jinxi’s family life: peaceful sleeping beside his wife, taking out the tooth of his young son and eating a meal together. Later in the movie, we see a father pleading for the life of his children, we learn Xu betraying his father-in-law, Liu Jinxi rejects his father to become another man and as a father Liu Jinxi fights for the life of his son(s).

While “History” is rooted in reality, “Dragon” takes a detour into Chinese medical magic when Xu convinces Liu/Tang to temporarily die, making “Dragon” less gritty than “History” in its screen violence. As the Chinese title implies, there’s also the underlying concepts of  martial arts morality. Morality is divided up into two categories. By deed, one must display humility, sincerity, high moral standards, be courteous and trustworthy. One’s emotional core, but have courage, patience and the will to endure and persevere.

Like Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” “Dragon” is also a movie about the Wu Xia movie genre, including the archetype of the one-armed martial arts hero. “Django” was a spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Corbucci and starring Franco Nero. Nero who makes a cameo appearance in “Django Unchained” and Jimmy Wang, who starred in the 1967 “The One-Armed Swordsman” appears as the 72 Demons leader and the father of Tang Long. There are surely other tributes to the genre as well that experts will note and enjoy.

Like Tarantino in his “Django Unchained” which uses Ennio Morricone music, Chan seems to also give a nod to Sergio Leone’s westerns in his use of music. Chan doesn’t incorporate Morricone’s music, but the sound design and the score makes the martial arts choreography seem like dynamic dancing and moves the emotional and psychological story forward.. At the 31st Hong Kong Film Awards, “Dragon” won awards for Best Cinematography and Best Original Score.

While “Django Unchained” is about a man looking for justice in a corrupt society and takes the Western to the South for what Tarantino has called a Southern, Chan has taken the spaghetti Western musicality and imposed it on top of the Confucian philosophy of filio-piety. Our POV character is the detective not Liu Jinxi. Xu proposes some basic questions about morality and society. At first he tells us, “Human emotions can be altered and controlled” and that “you can’t trust humanity” because while humans lie, only “physiology and the law don’t lie.”

Xu also asks a more basic Law & Order question: “Is the law really more important than humanity?” Eventually, he concludes, “In the end man can neither alter nor control his emotions.” The emotional truth is who Liu really is.  Is he the man named “Golden Happiness” or the man called a “Dragon”?

“Dragon” is currently available on Amazon Instant.

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