[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a bi-weekly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
When bringing up Jackie Chan in a discussion, most people will probably tell you about their first experience seeing him perform a death-defying stunt. If there is anything about Chan’s career that has successfully blown past the language barrier, it’s his prowess for action and putting himself at risk for the best take possible. You don’t need to understand Cantonese to know that a guy falling from a clocktower is both ludicrous and painful. Chan’s career wasn’t always about those stunts, however.
As we covered last time, The Young Master was kind of the turning point for Chan’s career at large. While he had only just made a name for himself a few years prior with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, neither of those films features anything that could you call a stunt. The Young Master doesn’t even, really, but its semi-sequel does.
Dragon Lord is probably the first true Jackie Chan film in his filmography. Released in 1982 after a failed attempt at breaking into Hollywood, Chan put his all into upping the ante when it came to Hong Kong action choreography. Dragon Lord actually isn’t much of a traditional Kung Fu film, lacking narrative tropes like revenge or scorned allies and even brawls, but it sets the foundation for what Chan would build upon throughout the rest of the 80s and 90s when it comes to action design.
The film opens with a pyramid scaling sports scene that took Chan three and a half months to shoot. Weirdly enough, Ong-Bak seems to have taken a ton of inspiration from this film as it begins in a similar fashion. There are nearly 4,000 extras in the background and it can often be hard to tell what is going on, but the intent behind this cold open is clear: Dragon Lord is going to be on another level.
From there, the plot is mostly a series of loosely connected bits that are more Cantonese comedy than Kung Fu scraps. Since it is a period piece (one of the last that Chan would do before the 00s), there is obviously talk of and reverence for martial arts, but this film is truly where the comparisons to Buster Keaton can be made. After the opening, it’s maybe another 30 minutes until we get what could be considered a Kung Fu fight.
It does make the film drag at times, especially since any semblance of a narrative is thrown out in favor of having pure entertainment. As I’ve learned through the special features and behind-the-scenes documentaries for these films, a lot of Hong Kongers at the time wanted to be entertained above all else. While certain films had more depth to them, that wasn’t the main reason you would be going to a film in 1980s Hong Kong. You don’t pay for a Jackie Chan film and expect him to give you a long-winded speech about the human condition and where China fits into that.
Even so, there are snippets of a narrative involving Deputy Hoi (Michael Chan) trying to recover stolen Chinese artifacts from a gang of smugglers run by an unnamed leader -which, oddly enough, is a plot point in Project A Part 2-. This unnamed man is played by Hwang In-Sik, who you may remember from The Young Master as the final villain. Seeing as how this film started life as a sequel to that previous film, it’s not surprising that a lot of the cast is put into similar roles here.
There are some other loose connections to the prior movie with Chan portraying a kid named Dragon Lung and his father being played once again by Tien Feng. Lung is also referred to numerous times as “Young Master,” but that’s really where the similarities end. Continuity wasn’t the main reason for this film and it becomes clear as the movie progresses since most of the comedy bits don’t even seem to flow together.
In some way, Dragon Lord is like a teenage sex comedy. It’s not crass and doesn’t feature any partial nudity, but the majority of scenes are centered on Lung and his friends trying to pick up girls. It’s funny in a PG-rated sort of way as Chan’s lovable face and goofy presence make even the flimsiest of jokes work. Frequent collaborator and HK stuntman Mars plays his friend and the two have an excellent rapport.
Around the point where you might start to get a bit tired of Chan’s antics, a ridiculous jianzi game breaks out that is just seven straight minutes of intense action. Jianzi is a traditional Chinese sport that is a mixture of soccer, hacky sack, and rugby and it requires an intense amount of core strength to pull off. The scene also holds an unofficial world record for the most takes for a single scene, reportedly requiring 2,900 takes to complete. The subtitles can make things a bit hard to follow, but the 88 Films release also has an option for a more simplified translation that keeps the focus on the action.
It kind of comes out of nowhere, but it leads into the moment that finally links Lung’s romantic conquest with the main villain’s plans. After failing to send a kite to the main love interest, Lung goes chasing after it and stumbles into the lair of the smugglers. He quickly scales the roof and tries to avoid making noise, but that obviously doesn’t go according to plan. What follows is a series of Chan backflipping over spears and narrowly avoiding big falls all while the villains believe he is out to reveal their secret.
This is the moment that made me realize how instrumental this film was to the development of Chan’s style and voice. Dragon Lord is maybe not the best film when it comes to coherency or character development, but it features sequences unlike anything else seen in Hong Kong at the time. The initial reaction to this movie must have been amazement because it wasn’t often that someone would dodge a spear and fall 15 feet in the same shot.
That same lunacy follows into the ending brawl, which is another 12-minute battle between Chan and In-Sik. Improving on the one seen in The Young Master, both actors are put through the wringer when it comes to stunts. Mars gets side-lined pretty quickly, but Chan manages to fall off the second story of a barn onto a beam, then backflip onto Mars on the ground below. In-Sik falls down a granary chute and is toppled with bags of wheat. It’s quite the spectacle.
The outtakes show some spectacularly failed attempts, as well. In another tradition of Chan’s work, this would be the first film in which Chan included bloopers during the end credits. Not enough credit is given to stuntmen in any industry, but Chan’s stunt team (which would become official the following year for Project A) are heroes. These guys risk death just for five seconds of footage and it winds up creating takes that stick in your mind forever.
The only other notable thing to say with Dragon Lord is that Chan originally intended for the pyramid scene to feature at the end of the movie. A remastered version of this exists on Blu-ray, but the pacing is worse off for it. Without the opening setting the tone for what to expect, the first hour of Dragon Lord feels aimless. When you start with something explosive like that, viewers become invested and are likely to stick around.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.