Dragon Lord (Lung siu yeh)

Hong Kong (1982) Dir. Jackie Chan

At the time of writing this review (April 7th) it is Jackie Chan’s birthday so I figured I’d watch one of his films to mark the occasion. With only a few options open to me among my DVD collection of his films I haven’t yet seen, I plumped for Dragon Lord, the last of Chan’s old school kung fu flicks.

There isn’t much of a plot to this one – Dragon (Chan) is a rambunctious young martial artist who’d rather goof off with his best friend Bull (Mars) and chase girls than study, much to the annoyance of his father (Tien Feng). Having fallen for a local girl Lai (Sidney Yim), Dragon tries to express his love or her via a kite which blows off course and lands on the roof of the hideout of a group of gangsters.

Whilst trying to retrieve his kite, Dragon overhears the group discussing the stealing of rare Chinese artefacts from the local temple to smuggle out of the country and sell off for large sums of money. Dragon prevents the gang from killing former member Tiger (Hui-Min Chen) who refuses to be party to the thefts, so they kidnap Bull’s wealthy father (Paul Chang Chung) instead.

Dragon Lord was originally destined to be a sequel to Chan’s previous film Young Master, entitled Young Master In Love, the success of which gave Golden Harvest the confidence to hand over the reins of control entirely to Chan in the hope he could work his magic a second time. Alas, it wasn’t to be with the film failing to repeat its predecessor’s success at the home box office although it was a hit in Japan.

Looking at the film objectively, it is not hard to see why it didn’t set the world on fire. The story may owe a debt to numerous martial arts flicks before it but is exposed as more of a flimsy premise for Jackie to show off and mess about than actual tell a story. The pivotal moment of Dragon discovering the gang’s hideout occurs almost an hour into this 92-minute film (102 minutes in the original Hong Kong version) leaving the final half hour to make it an actual focal point.

Unfortunately, the script doesn’t seem too concerned with establishing the pecking order of the gang or which ones are the most notorious fighters to fear, whilst their actual nefarious practices remain painfully vague under scrutiny. The choppy editing confuses us further as to the timescale of many of the developments, notably the hasty abduction of Bull’s father in the final act.

Chan wore many hats making this film – actor, director, writer, stunt coordinator, and stunt performer – and with such a multitude of responsibilities, something has to give, which in this instance happens to be the actual story. It’s a stop-start affair in that one minute Dragon is trying to woo Lai, the next the criminal gang are arguing amongst themselves.

In between these slivers of a plot is a series of comedic skits and acrobatic showcases that became Chan’s trademark, but in their nascent form here they simply resemble one person’s ambition to be seen as a multi-hyphenate of film without having any apparent knowledge of what he is doing.

Some of the comedy scenes work, like Dragon being forced to recite a poem to his father and using a number of inventive methods of cheating, whilst others are merely puerile filler that serve no real purpose to the story. Initially, both Dragon and Bull fall for Lai and compete for her affections using sneaky tricks to outwit the other which appears to set the tone for the rest of the film until it is dropped after one incident.

Lai has no agency whatsoever as a main character let alone as a love interest, although her feistiness in deflecting advances from undesirables and holding out on Dragon is the only semblance of her personality shared with the audience. That Lai disappears before the final act shows how ultimately unimportant she was to the plot.

The other thing that might surprise people is the paucity of fight scenes in a Jackie Chan film. The first sniff of action comes about 20 minutes in and doesn’t even feature Chan at all – he doesn’t get to show off his skills until much later on in a brief skirmish with two powerful gang members and even then Bull is shown to be the superior fighter. It is only when the Big Boss, legendary Hapkido grandmaster Hwang In-Shik shows up that the Jackie we all know and love finally appears.

As ever, it is a mix of acrobatics and fast paced kung fu action with Chan at his most gymnastic in his offence as well as performing some Keaton-esque flips and falls, some of which look very dangerous (and feature in the end credits blooper reel), all within the confines of a barn. Prior to this, much of Dragon’s antics involved similar adroit physical mastery, usually for comedic effect, including a well-timed routine where Dragon has to avoid being stabbed by spears through a roof.  

Perhaps the centrepiece, and indeed the film’s most notorious sequence, is the Golden Shuttlecock game – like keepy-uppy football but with a feathered object for the ball – which holds the record for the most retakes for one scene at 2,900! It is not surprising given the entire conceit of the game is keeping the shuttlecock in motion until a goal is scored, which involves a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and immense skill!

Dragon Lord’s meagre success clearly lit a fire under Chan – he ditched the traditional kung fu flick format and sought to bring the genre into the 80’s, and with his next film Project A, began a run of global hits and never looked back. This mildly entertaining, scrappy film marks the transition from end of one era for Chan and the beginning of the next.