Dragon: The One-Armed Swordsman With a Heart

Martial-arts icon Donnie Yen stars in this thrilling story of a family man with killer moves

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When a mild-mannered peasant unsheathes the powers he has long kept hidden, the results can be spectacular. The same can be said for Peter Chan Ho-sun’s Dragon, a martial-arts morality play as lithe as it is forceful. Shown under its original title, Wu Xia, when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, Dragon provides a lesson in how to make an internationally appealing action film with depth, feeling and explosive finesse.

In a village in Yunnan province in 1917, Liu Jinxi (Donnie Yen) is a modest man with a loving wife, Ayu (Tang Wei, the female lead in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution), and two young sons. His peaceful world is ripped apart when two bandits burst into town and rob a local store. As the aged owner and his wife cower in a corner, Jinxi takes reluctant action and ultimately kills the two tough guys, one of whom dies from an expert maneuver known only to a few members of the “72 Demons” clan from a neighboring province. These deaths arouse the interest of the investigating detective, Xu Baijiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro). An advanced student of the body’s internal workings, Baijiu becomes convinced that Jinxi is the notorious murderer Tang Dong, son of the 72 Demons’ Master (Jimmy Wang Yu). But if he is Tang Dong, why is he toiling as a paper-maker in this obscure hamlet? And with what fury might the killer react when he suspects the detective knows the truth?

(READ: Richard Corliss on Peter Chan’s martial-arts film Warlords)
Dragon bears similarities to A History of Violence, the film that David Cronenberg made from the John Harris graphic novel. To this template, Chan adds the CSI element of the diligent forensic investigator — except that here the man who strives to serve justice is also, if unwittingly, an agent of destruction and death. When the Demons learn the whereabouts of its renegade prince, they descend on the town with Armageddon in mind. First Jinxi must do battle with the clan’s reigning female fighter (Hong Kong action-film veteran Kara Hui), and then defend his wife and sons against the Master — his own father.

The movie flirts with implausibility in a few of the later scenes, as when Jinxi allows the detective to put him in a coma to convince the Demons he is dead, and then slices off his right arm to demonstrate he has severed his ties with the murderous clan. But there is always a method to the apparent madness. Jinxi’s self-mutilation, for example, signals Wu Xia’s kinship to Jimmy Wang Yu in The One-Armed Swordsman, the 1967 film, directed by Chang Cheh, that transformed Hong Kong cinema from the decorum of female-dominated musicals and weepies to the splendid frenzy of macho men living and dying by a martial-arts code. Wang Yu, now 69, with nearly a half-century of movie fighting carved into his grave face, brings an authoritative menace to the climactic confrontation, as he and Yen stage a death match for custody of the younger boy — Jinxi’s son and the Master’s grandson.

(READ: Bryan Walsh on Peter Chan’s musical drama Perhaps Love)

In the 1990s, when Hong Kong was still known for its crime and action films, director Peter Chan made a series of popular comedies (including the cross-dressing romance He’s a Woman, She’s a Man) and dramas (the poignant Comrades: Almost a Love Story). At the end of the millennium he founded Applause Pictures, which produced the Chinese-Thai horror hits The Eye and Three. Recently he has concentrated on martial-arts works, including The Warlords, starring Kaneshiro, Jet Li and Andy Lau and co-written by Dragon’s screenwriter, Aubrey Lam. In Dragon Chan weds the intimate sensitivity of his early films to a confident vigor worthy of the grandest martial-arts epics, and paints it all with a sumptuous visual elegance new to his work.

Donnie Yen, who reached international stardom in the past decade with his roles in Hero, Seven Swords and Ip Man, has also designed the fight scenes for many action films in Hong Kong (Michelle Yeoh’s Wing Chun) and in the West (Blade II). He choreographs Dragon‘s three big set pieces in a bold, hurtling, traditional style that disdains outlandish weaponry and concentrates on the fatal impact of fists and feet. The sensational fight between Yen and Hui begins in a courtyard, sends them bounding across the rooftops of village huts and ends in a pen of teeming, restless oxen. But director Chan is just as attentive to the more subtle emotional bond of Jinxi the quiet family man and his strong, loyal wife. The early scenes establishing Jinxi’s devotion to his wife and children pay off at the end, showing that, in a battle with his old Master/father, this son has something more precious to lose than his arm, or his life.

(READ: Stephen Short’s interview with Donnie Yen on the making of Hero)

All moviegoers, even those indifferent to the impact of a kick in the face, should be impressed by the film’s gorgeous cinematography and color palette, its acute, sometimes thunderous soundscape, and its judicious use of balletic slow motion. Dragon is both sensuous and thoughtful, a treat for the spirit as well as for any moviegoer longing for an intelligent film involving brave heroes and dreadful villains. The clever twist here is that, in the character of Liu Jinxi / Tang Dong, the good guy and bad guy are one and the same.