Wong Jing’s latest big screener is now on DVD for everyone to watch on their screens. Should his latest crime-action-drama film be bought and watched out of the cinema screen? No. For a film that depicts harsh violence with cleavers, horrible historical contextualizing, incoherent editing and a plot bashed into it’s climax, it is best to watch an early Jing movie such as God of Gamblers, 1989, if the intention is to watch an eastern action movie. Or for something more updated – The Man from Nowhere, 2010.
Director Wong Jing made a personal flight to Canada to request legendary Chinese actor, Donnie Yen to star as the illegal immigrant – Ng Sek-ho, who though was busy working on the film xXx: Return of Xander Cage, accepted the role for the chance to work with Andy Lau.
Chasing the Dragon is a just-about-competent film in the action, crime, and drama genre. The plot is not hard of digesting, if anything, we have seen this plot in listless crime movies of double agent and undercover cop narratives, look at The Departed, Miami Vice, 2 Guns, Donnie Brasco, Heat, et cetera. Chasing the Dragon is a film to be watched for its dramatized violence and at times, offbeat humour. Sadly though, the film lacks impact for its incoherent tone, poor editing, rushed screen writing and wincingly bad historical contextualizing. The overall film feels like a side-D collage of renditions of Kill-Bill scenes, Donnie Brasco superfluity and Michael Caine impersonators.
The film focuses on the life of an illegal immigrant, Ng Sek-ho (played by Donnie Yen), who arrives in a developing Hong Kong under the rule of the British Colony, 1963. Ng Sek-ho with his companions who he refers to as his brothers, as he drift into the criminal drama of Kowloon. Here they encounter corrupt British officials, Chinese drug lords and co-star Lee Rock (played by Andy Lau) who plays both high drug dealer and law official in the movie.
The first scene opens Ng Sek-ho and his pals on a boat musing on hardships, we learn that he hasn’t eaten in four days as he puffs on the final grams of tobacco burning in his cigarette, followed by a stoic reminiscence on his father’s words “Life or Death, Riches or Poverty. It is all destined.” The film opens strongly but falls very quickly out of simple mistakes.
Wong Jing then brings us to the lives of the two main characters. Ng Sek-ho gather’s his pals and young brother around for Congee, a common Chinese staple food of the everyday, one brother shares that he make $2 at the construction site and $30 for fighting. We see the depth of Ng Sek-ho from his interactions with his younger brother, passing him his tuition fee secretly and giving adopted girl Alva (played by Raquel Xu) a bowl of Congee before himself. Donnie Yen demonstrates his acting abilities to show personality in subtle interactions – and remember, he is in this film for his fighting abilities.
Wong Jing then brings us to Lee Rock’s life of riches and high-society. Lee Rock is entering a special event for Ngan’s birthday, the dinning room is a mingling collection of British officials and Chinese government drinking and gambling in expensive suits. There is dispute between a group of Chinese folk gambling and a British officer, Ernest Hunter (played by Bryan Larkin) bringing a violent clash, cementing the relationship between the English and the Chinese, Lee Rock disarms the situation but is slapped harshly by Ngan. The cinematography for the scene is succinct, the camera follows the action well, and the colours of the gold and orange lighting give a feel of prestige and luxury.
So far the Wong Jing has done everything right. The film establishes its narrative, the stars Donnie Yen and Andy Lau perform their characters sharply and opens the opportunity for drama. But after a strong opening with a serious tone (despite the south-London cockney accent by Hunter) the film begins to fail, rapidly.
The gang-fighting scene in the Kowloon takes place in a tight theatrical mis-en-scene, which detracts the whole scope of the film as cheap and slapstick, this is reinforced by the presentation of fighting, which follows the slapstick approach of Tarintino in Kill-Bill but in a theatrical enactment sense, loosing the sophisticated tone in the film which had the potential of a film like Heat, 1995.
For an action film depicting a great deal of violence there should be level of consistency but the film cuts corners on this; from the gang-fight scene in Kowloon the violence almost seems PG rated, with Donnie Yen almost method acting his fighting scenes from Ip Man, not much blood nor butchering despite the numbers wielding cleavers, this then jumps to dramatized cleavers slashing eyes further into the film.
The assembly of the film seems lazily rushed by editor Li Ka-wing, which misses out on key character expressions and this is done listlessly throughout the film.
The cell scene we see Ng Sek-ho and Sergeant-major Lee Rock bonding out of their mutual origins – Dahao city, the focus of this is lost by the sporadic editing and unnecessary change of camera angles, which may have worked for an experimental Goddard film, but Chasing the Dragon is far from that. The mistake is made again at the wedding scene between Sergeant Lee Rock and Mr Chow’s daughter; the camera shows a wide head-shot of a brief contentious dialogue between Lee Rock and Ngan, then cuts to the hand of Lee Rock and his new partner. The editing is brusque and rushed and the opportunity to depict more of Lee Rock’s character is missed, as we do not get to see how he walks in an intense but subtle situation. Another mistake is the widescreen disparate shot of Ng Sek-ho at the harbour when he loses his family members. The camera shot is from afar with loud cries but no focus on the main character’s expression until the end of the scene. The scene is cheaply drenched in Chewbacca bellows and moving orchestrated strings, which just becomes noise.
Drama is escalated by the re-occurrence of tensions between Ng Sek-ho and Ernest Hunter (British officer). A brawl in the cell leads to Ng Sek-ho recovering in hospital, which becomes a predictable motif for the main star that makes him seem like he is evolving super strength in the film. We almost have to ask if Ng Sek-ho will be cast in the upcoming Avengers movie.
Wong Jing revs up the violence from mid-way the film in the wall of Kowloon city, plenty of visual potentials, but miserably, it is lost from the use of CGI, bloody CGI, a plane flying over the close-quarters living area ruins the cinematographic consistency of the film.
Ng Sek-ho climbs the ladder of criminal activity of more cash, violence, drinking, partying and loss, but the film becomes only a rendition of Donnie Brasco in a Hong Kong setting; where every rising scene of Ng Sek-ho in a rough setting is plastered with the track The Ghetto by Don Hathway to acquire attention-economy.
The biggest failure of this film is not the lack of cultural contextualization, but logic. There is a scene at the tennis court where Ngan talks to a high ranking British officer but he is speaking in Chinese (Cantonese/Mandarin) and the officer is replying back in English. It is not possible. Unless Wong Jing is trying to pioneer a new genre of fiction, there no linguistic nor cultural nor general, logic.
For a film with an adequate crime narrative, interesting historical setting, strong starring casts but failable editing, lazy soundtrack selection, blatant mistakes and winceful CGI, I rate the film two stars out of five. It will be the kind of DVD that will be most likely be used to prop tables.
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Biography, Action | China, 2017 | 15 | Subtitles | Well Go USA | DVD | Dir.Jing Wong | Donnie Yen, Andy Lau, Philip Keung