China is saved by an poorly educated, acrobatic idiot…
Dragon Lord has a pretty Jackie Chan style plot. Young son of a young business man, Dragon (Chan), is friends with Chin (stalwart collaborator Mars) the son of another business man. As they while away the hours trying to impress local girl Lai (Sidney Yim) and get into brawls with each other over her, Chin’s (he’s also referred to as Cowboy on some sites) father is dealing in stolen Chinese imperial treasures and is funneling them through the gang run by the Boss (Hwang In-Shik) and his deputy (Wai-Man Chan). With the Ming-centric nature of the gang, stealing from the ruling Manchu administration doesn’t seem so bad. But the deputy (named as Tiger on some sites) thinks that this is going too far and tries to leave. Boss decides to frame Tiger and Tiger goes on the run. Who should he be running toward but Dragon and Chin who are out on a pheasant hunt? Soon, Dragon along with Chin is inadvertently in Boss’ sights.
Looking at Jackie Chan’s run at Golden Harvest in the 80’s, there are two points at which it could be said that he had “arrived”. The first is when GH released 1980’s The Young Master. After scratching a living with Lo Wei (credited with discovering Bruce Lee) with middling success, he was loaned out to Seasonal Pictures where, after making Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, Chan broke his contract with Lo Wei triggering an ugly episode involving blackmail, triads and threats. Following intervention from fellow actor Jimmy Wang Yu, Chan was allowed to stay at GH and made The Young Master with Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho. Young Master set box office records and made Chan the undisputed new star in Hong Kong. The second point we can say he had arrived on the scene was his second film for GH, Dragon Lord. This film set two new records for Chan; most takes done for one shot and most money he had spent on a production at that point. I’ll talk about the most takes in the shot later but the budget for this was a reputed 20 million HKD (Hong Kong Dollar). Chan was literally shooting hundreds of feet of film per day on this project with no guarantee that it would succeed. People had impressive debuts in Hong Kong all the time during this period, that didn’t mean it was going to plain sailing for them after that.
To start with, their chosen location, South Korea was too cool and the production packed its bags after a month of pre-production and relocated to Taiwan during the height of summer. During this time, Chan was furiously working on the comedic formula that would become his staple for the next few decades; a lovable rogue, slapstick humour, two or three massive set pieces and a climactic showdown with a villain where Jackie doesn’t resort to dirty tricks. Young Master does have some of these tropes but Dragon Lord is where it’s most displayed. From the opening shot, Chan is looking to give cinema goers something better than the standard three act structure. He opens with a match between his village and three others for a golden egg atop a bamboo tower with boiled dumplings covering it. Men try and pull, drag, kick, drop, drag or knock down their opponents Jackie gets thrown around in the name of good clean fun but it’s such a frantic scene that you sometimes forget that all of this was planned. By the end, people are covered in spit, dirt and presumably, dumplings but it’s all in good fun. Apart from the face gouging, crotch biting and body slams that went on earlier. This is the opening scene of the film and we haven’t even started the fluffy stuff yet let alone the villains and their dastardly deeds!
The film’s main problem, at least from people who have seen it after its initial release, is that it takes so long to have Dragon come in contact with the bad guys. For about half the runtime, he is dealing with fighting with Chin and trying to avoid having his father find out he’s slacking off. We never feel he’s in any danger and as such the shuttlecock fight at the halfway point of the film seems like it was shoehorned in because they needed filler. At the same time, Tiger is slowly realising that the Boss is intent on selling off Chinese treasures and also how much danger he is in. When it does come crashing down for him, he has to run for his life and in doing so, runs into Dragon and Chin. However, when we see him again, he’s injured badly but there’s no connecting scene to describe how he was injured and why is he bandaged up.
Of course, there is an explanation and I had to listen to the included commentary track to find out what it was. As this film was being worked on by Jackie, he decided to ship multiple edits to different territories. In one place, they got the wrap up ending scene being on first, proceeding the golden egg fight. In another, there was a folk singing opening. As these scenes were put in, certain scenes were trimmed for length as this had to roughly run at 90 minutes for the Hong Kong market.As a result, scenes involving Tiger and a few other characters were shortened. It would be interesting to see the reported three hour run time version that Chan handed in to Golden Harvest once he had done a first pass. As it is, the final version I watched has the shuttlecock football match in the middle and seeing the final goal in that taken by Jackie and realising that it took 2900 takes for him to be satisfied, makes you glad you weren’t one of the cast or crew for all that. I like to think that the version that Chan released into the Hong Kong market is the most functional, narratively speaking. Two separate strands, Dragon working things out with his father and Chin and the treasure thieves trying to get away with the theft are working their toward each other. One will not survive the events of the film so Chan spends as much time as he can keeping them apart.
Other than the brawl over Lai (who is a typical shy village girl who shows hints of a more serious tone underneath the performance) that Chin and Dragon get into, Dragon fights both of the Boss’ juniors while defending Tiger in a sequence near the end of the second act. This is pure Jackie Chan, with him throwing himself over candle shelves, up pillars, up and over walls and across floors. He’s only protecting Tiger because Lai stands up for Tiger when the two thugs knock him to the ground. From there, Dragon is trying to stay ahead of them long enough to find a weakness. Which he does in standard Jackie Chan fashion. Not that that’s a bad thing. The final fight sequence of Chin and Dragon versus Boss with the lives of Tiger and Chin’s father in the balance becomes a desperate fight as the two friends battle a lightning fast opponent whose kicks are devastating and who has had more fighting experience than the both of them. Hwang In-Shik is an amazing martial artist and I’m pleased that his open air showdown in Young Master with Jackie has been topped by a real fist and feet brawl in such an enclosed space as a grain barn. When Dragon is left to face Boss alone, he uses every trick in the book to best his opponent. As the fight drags on, you can actually see the strain on the two characters faces as they struggle to beat the other.
Performances in the film vary. Jackie and Mars have always been amazing together but here, for one performance at least, the two main leads are played as equals in terms of skills and temperament. Dragon is a natural leader but sometimes, Chin comes across as the more upright character. The best comedy comes from the scenes where Dragon is trying to remember his lessons but his father is on his case not letting up so his teacher and Dragon’s friends have to improvise and provide clues. The two boys father’s, played by Tien Feng and Paul Chang Chung, seem like nice fathers with Feng coming across as authoritarian with his son Dragon and Chung coming across….well, there’s no real way of saying this except: why the hell didn’t anybody notice he was dealing in stolen treasures with Boss and his gang? Not a single word is said about how he has been destroying the culture of China by the end of the film. It’s as if they’ve swept the whole thing under a shag carpet and moved on. It was one of the few things that actually annoyed me at the end of the film. Hwang In-Shik has little dialogue but he’s seen menacing his former friends and his enemies with a quiet, steely piercing stare and a lethal bearing. Wai-Man Chan seems to be the character that people would want Jackie’s character to be; quick, righteous and decisive. But that’s not who Jackie wanted to play in this movie so its a shame there isn’t more of Wai-Man Chan’s performance on screen. I am led to understand that Chan had to cut a lot of his scenes for timing so it wasn’t to be, I guess.
All in all, Dragon Lord takes too long to get going but once it does, the action hums along steadily. Jackie and Mars form a great duo and the end battle makes up for the somewhat jarring Golden Egg fight and the shuttlecock football match sequences. This one might be for Jackie’s strongest fans but it could find its way into casual fans shelves all the same.
Dragon Lord is available on DVD from (now defunct) Cine-Asia in the UK.
Home media details
Distributor: Cine-Asia (UK)
Edition: DVD (2011)
Cine-Asia’s reissue of the original Hong Kong Legends disc might seem like a cheapskate move but the extras and the transfer are more than acceptable. The film looks clean and for the most part is free of dirt, tears and artifacts. This is a presentation of the film in its correct aspect ratio and it’s nice to see Hong Kong films using the older Cinemascope ratio of 2:35 to 1 as opposed to the more open 1:85 to 1 that filmmakers were using in the 1980’s. Honestly, without a HD remaster, I don’t see how the film could look better. Audio is clean but as you would expect can only do so much with a Cantonese and English 5.1 track given the materials HKL were using. The dub is bad but not unlistenable and the original Cantonese is sharp and clear.
Extras wise, we get interviews with co-stars like Mars and Hwang In-Shik (with some of his lessons footage included) and with Golden Harvest producer Louis Sit. Plus the always effusive and non-recalcitrant Bey Logan is on hand with another feature length commentary where he tells you everything you need to know about Dragon Lord. Mr Logan is my still my go to whenever I’m looking at buying more Hong Kong films as him being on the disc somewhere is usually a good thing.