Chasing The Dragon (Cert 15)

1 Disc DVD/Blu-ray (Distributor: Well Go USA) Running Time: 129 minutes approx.

Drugs are bad; everyone knows that, but not just for the users and their families whose lives are messed up by them but for the peddlers too. Prolific and polarising Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Jing and co-director Jason Kwan remake the 1991 gangster flick To Be Number One based loosely on real events to illustrate this, but with a rather nationalistic bent.

In 1963, a group of immigrants from Mainland China sneak into British occupied Hong Kong, earning a living by making up the numbers in gang fights between the two biggest drug gangs in the province. One of these immigrants, Ng Sai-ho (Donnie Yen) catches the eye of police detective Lee Rock (Andy Lau) through his fighting skills and helps him get out of prison when arrested by the British led police.

Rock and Sai-ho make a deal where Sai-ho muscles in on the local drug gangs and takes over their territories, sharing the money with Rock. But as Sai-ho’s control and fortunes grow so does the tension between the other gang bosses, while Rock is facing corruption within the police force as he rises up the ranks. But when Sai-ho has his leg broken saving Rock from being killed, a divide between the two of them also arises.

The first thing that stands out about Chasing The Dragon is how despite everyone being corrupt and crooked in some way, their characters are suffused with an overriding noble morality. This is partially due to the film being financed by Chinese money and in keeping the censors happy, the narrative deliberately avoids glamorising these real life ne’er-do-wells by not making them inherently evil either, hence the title change from King Of The Drug Dealers.

So, it befalls to us Brits to assume the role of central antagonist, providing opposition to both Crippled Ho (Sai-ho’s more famous post-injury nickname) and Lee Rock in the form of burly and brutish Superintendant Hunter (Bryan Larkin). A foul mouth man mountain, he treats all Chinese, even the police officers under him regardless of rank, like dirt and isn’t immune to bursts of unprovoked violence to back up his fearsome barking.

In the interim, Wong Jing is forced to create a hierarchy of scum among the criminal gangs to allow Ho and Rock to act as de facto protagonists before becoming pure heroes against the domineering British bullies. Similarly, Ho takes a determined moral stance against drugs when his younger brother becomes an addict, to make him appear as a stand up guy looking out for his family, yet this doesn’t stop Ho selling drugs to others, as their addiction is their problem.

This sounds like a cop out for Jing, but he has an advantage that many mainlanders won’t have seen the original film or the trilogy about Rock Lee starring none other than Andy Lau, given Jing room to exercise some creative licence. And exercise it he does but in spite of this, Chasing The Dragon is a compelling and gritty crime thriller that, beyond its ham-fisted, chest beating patriotism, delivers a firm moral tale about the dangers of drugs from all sides, and the folly of criminal activity.  

Spanning a decade, the tale covers plenty of ground from the humble beginnings of Ho and his close friends as immigrants arriving in Hong Kong to his business covering other Asian territories, while Rock works his way up to a top position in the police force, avoiding the internal corruption his boss and Hunter are involved in while working his own. Betrayals, fatalities, power struggles, alliances and set-ups provide the drama and obstacles for both, punctuated by grisly but not so graphic violence.

At just over two hours run time, this means there a lot of time skips which are not conveyed smoothly or in regular increments, with a change in hair styles and fashions being the main indicator. Whilst Rock hardly changes at all, Ho undergoes notable aesthetic changes – growing a beard, donning of glasses and questionable attire of the era. Some anachronisms arise from this, mostly the modern looking women’s clothing and erroneous pop culture references, but generally the period settings are suitably replicated.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is Donnie Yen’s performance as Cripple Ho. We’ve seen his restraint and gravitas as famed Wing Chung master Ip Man, but here he plays a morally dubious character with an incendiary temperament. Putting aside the cheeky attempts to make Yen look much younger than his 54 years in the early scenes, this is his deepest performance yet, though the lack of his trademark martial arts fighting that will stand out, limited to a few brisk scraps, but one fantastic alley chase/brawl sequence.

Quite why the DVD cover underplays Andy Lau’s role by calling it a “special appearance” is a mystery considering Rock Lee is the second most important character! Lau hasn’t aged a bit over his 30-year career and nothing changes here, still the smooth, in control but quietly edgy brains to Yen’s brawn. Lau and Yen’s star power may have sold cinema tickets but more importantly, they create a believable and endearing chemistry that not even the cheesy denouement and post-credits coda can undermine.

The supporting cast consists of a number of familiar faces and newcomers holding their own alongside the two marquee leads, while the British characters feel clumsily sketched as the villains.  It should be noted this is pretty much a male driven film, leaving the woman to fulfil typical secondary roles – wives, lovers, prostitutes, etc – the lone exception being femme fatale Rose (Raquel Xu), who sadly is given little fleshing out as a character.

With the veracity of the details behind the story subject to excessive dramatic licence, Chasing The Dragon won’t suffice as legit source of introduction to two of Hong Kong’s most notorious figures, but as a straight up crime thriller it rectifies this as a superbly made and intense piece of genre cinema.

 

Extras:

Cantonese 5.1 Dolby Digital

English 5.1 Dolby Digital

English Subtitles

Chinese Subtitles

Trailer

 

Rating – ****

Man In Black

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