Behold the kung-fu film. For many years it labored in obscurity, produced in Asian countries and aired on UHF channels late at night. In the 1990s, however, the kung fu came into its own. Audiences and budgets increased. Hong Kong directors who had grown up on Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and Cub made new kinds of martial arts films, with fantastic style and elaborate storytelling. Once a little movie called Jurassic Park threw wide the doors of computer-enhanced filmmaking, the gloves were off for chop socky films as well: wires that once had to be hidden could be digitally erased. Whole environments could be conjured from the void of a blue screen. In short, kung fu films were free to become as imaginative and fantastic as their directors desired.
Despite the digital frenzy, however, we sometimes find ourselves taking refuge in movies made with practical and optical effects. There's something comforting about elaborate latex costumes in the place of digital creatures, or the use of stuntmen doing actual stunts instead of actors placed in "danger" via computer. The giant iguana of Godzilla 98 may have been the most realistic giant lizard to date, but Godzilla fans will always demand a man in a rubber suit. Keanu Reeves may be leaping virtual subway trains in The Matrix, but we want Jackie Chan leaping over actual alleyways. Practical effects and stuntwork offer a visceral experience that computer images have yet to duplicate.
All of this brings us to Blood of the Dragon. Where Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon employs 30-foot cranes and digitally erased wires, Blood uses reverse film effects and trampolines. This is chop-socky filmmaking in the grand old style.
Brian Blessed shows up everywhere!
"Ma Chin, the spell of your magic sword has been broken -- by me!" So says White Dragon, delivering the first line of dialogue in the film. White Dragon is played by Jimmy Wang Yu, perhaps the biggest martial arts star from the period immediately preceding Bruce Lee's international stardom. Wang is not widely recognized here in the US, despite having starred in many classic kung fu films, including The One-Armed Swordsman and Chinese Boxer. He is a star of much charisma and terrific physical skills, even if he does look like he fell out of the ugly tree.
The prologue reveals White Dragon, a fighter known for his metal spear, dueling with Ma Chin, who has some kind of magic sword. White Dragon wins, takes a dramatic moment to gloat, and then walks away, leaving the humiliated Ma Chin behind.
Years later, we see a Mr. and Mrs. Yang traveling through a forest. They are confronted by black-clad guards intent on finding a list of rebel insurgents. The Yangs break out swords and fight, but only Mr. Yang manages to survive the combat. He escapes with the list (and a sword in his back) while Mrs. Yang holds off the guards in an ultimately fatal gesture.
Just in case you've gotten the impression from news coverage of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that female martial arts characters are rare, the opposite is actually true. From the sixties on, martial arts films commonly featured kick-ass female warriors. Mrs. Yang is deadly with the sword and dies a heroic death, something you will rarely find in movies from the West.
See, this is why they named
hurricanes after women.
However, we should probably mention that the actress playing Mrs. Yang is probably Kao Pao-shu, who also directed the film. There could be some ego issues involved here.
Mr. Yang manages to get to the nearby town of Pei-ping and hands the list over to a little street beggar named Ni Chiu. With his last breath, Yang asks Ni Chiu to take the list to Prince Ma Tung, who is the leader of the rebels.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's men find the kid and try to bully the list out of him. They chase the boy into a nearby wood, where they are confronted by the titular White Dragon. How tough is White Dragon? He spits a grape seed at one of the guards, and knocks the poor guy's teeth out! A fight ensues, but the head guard, Kang Fu, is no match for White Dragon, even though Kang Fu's weapon looks like a he's caught one of those little balls from Phantasm on a chain. Kang Fu loses a finger while White Dragon enjoys another hearty laugh.
White Dragon decides to help Ni Chiu to deliver the list to Prince Ma Tung. They talk about honor and such on the way, and Ni Chiu tries to convince White Dragon to take him on as an apprentice knight.
Another rough night at Red Lobster.
Yes, the dubbing uses the term "knight" to describe White Dragon. Unlike most kung fu films you find on tape, this movie doesn't have the standard "but still" dubbing. Instead, it was redubbed by an American company. The results are just a touch surreal. Unlike most dubbed kung fu films, the dialogue actually makes a lot of sense and is fairly poetic, but some of the accents used are oddly foreign. If the people who did Iron Chef were to do a chop socky, it would probably come out like this. In addition, the terminology used in the story requires some assimilation. This movie takes place when the Mongols were in charge of China, and they are referred to as Mongols, but their main agent in Pei Ping is called either the Prime Minister or Premier. Ma Tung is somehow a prince, with no evidence of royalty.
And while we're on the American version of Blood of the Dragon (the original Chinese title was apparently Desperate Chase), we think that it was created by a company called Classic Family Entertainment. Their version includes an incredibly annoying overdub right after the last line of dialogue in the film, just as the camera begins a dramatic crane shot, which says "stay tuned after the feature for trailers to other movies available on home video." All other versions of this tape we've seen either cut or fade to avoid this line. We should also mention that the other trailers on CFE's tape are for a documentary about the air war over Britain during WWII and a tape of automobile crashes. Those, plus a main feature that includes gory deaths, numerous blood spurts, and a severed finger, make us wonder whose idea of Classic Family Entertainment this is. The Manson family, maybe?
White Dragon and Ni Chiu (bless you!) arrive at Ma Tung's palace, but before they can hand over the list, or even mention it, Ma Tung challenges White Dragon to a duel! Ma's father was Ma Chin, the warrior from the prologue. The two have a furious duel, and White Dragon is badly wounded when Ma Tung reveals the secret of his magic sword -- it has a dagger in the hilt. Okay, that doesn't really seem to qualify as magic but maybe the sword had a really good press agent. ("Treacherous weapons do not make a brave man," sneers WD.)
"When I grow up, I'm going to be a Kenny!
I'm already obnoxious, and I hang
out with a guy who has 'dragon'
in his name, so I'm halfway there!"
To staunch the flow of blood and continue the fight White Dragon urges Ni Chiu to jump on his back and act as a compress, thereby combining questionable medical practices and child endangerment in one neat package. But Ni Chiu does it, and White Dragon is barely able to escape with his life -- and the list.
This list is the exact equivalent of the computer disc or tape in any number of American potboilers (see Hitler's Daughter). It's vitally important. Both sides need it, and even the side that originated it can't recreate it. And of course, no one ever thinks of copying it, or creating a fake one as a decoy.
Forced to take refuge in The Inn of the Flaming Dragon (Flaming Dragon? What does that cure?), White Dragon tries to explain to Ni Chiu why he believes Ma Tung is an honorable man, despite the whole murder attempt and stabbing in the back. Meanwhile, the Prime Minster's men have surrounded the inn. White Dragon can pretty much defend himself against them despite the mortal wound, so long as he get enough wine. (Wine makes you fight real good!) But the Prime Minster has sent for the fearful General Tai, master of the throwing spur and the sword that doubles as a whip. (Yes, you really have to see it to believe it.)
I't all fun and games until
somebody loses a spleen.
Needless to say, it all ends in a bloodbath. Ma Tung and White Dragon finally come to an understanding, and Dragon promises to hold the Minister's men at bay while Tung escapes with the list. Our hero battles dozens of men (well, probably the same twelve stuntmen throwing themselves at him time and again), dispatching each with a well-placed spear to the underarm. Yep, it's the old impale-fake play, honed to perfection by this company of martial artists who hurl themselves perfectly onto the spear, catching the shaft in the armpit every time and screaming horribly as the point appears to have run right through them.When we say that they don't make kung fu movies like this anymore, we really mean it. It's for good reason, too: anyone who tried would probably be laughed out of screening rooms on both sides of the Pacific. The story isn't self-aware, the characters are too dramatic, and the action doesn't involve someone hovering in mid-air while the camera pans around them.
* The "but still" dubbing is called that because of it's over use of that phrase to bring the mouth movements in synch with the English dialogue. That, and you could tell one woman was dubbing all the female voices, and usually a couple of male ones too. But still, it could have been worse. Back!