Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Kung Fu Night! Fist of the Red Dragon

Which one is the Red Dragon?

Fist of the Red Dragon, starring Sheila Chan, Hoi-Shan Kwan, and Man Tat Ng. Directed by Woo-ping Yuen. 93 minutes.

Every once in a while in the Davidson household, it's Kung Fu Night. They happen spontaneously. I'll walk in with the DVD, and Frederick, who's usually reading, will look up over his half-moon spectacles and demand, "What is that?"

"What do you think it is?" I'll ask.

"It better not be kung fu," Snuffles will say from the kitchen where he's usually raiding the refrigerator. "I hate that stuff."

"This from a guy who owns the complete DVD collections of Trigun and Cardcaptor Sakura," I'll retort.

Eventually, I'm able to bribe Snuffles with Chinese takeout so he'll come and join us. After everyone's gathered around and I've positioned Lucky the Talking Goldfish's bowl just right so he can see the screen, we're ready to begin.

Being new to the seedy world that is kung fu films, I'm mostly ignorant of the genre but mesmerized by the impressive action sequences. Now that I've experienced kung fu, American action flicks look like they're in slow motion. I only regret that I didn't discover this type of movie before everybody else did--with the enjoyable The Matrix, which is good kung fu but amateurish cyberpunk, and the unbearably pretentious Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, during which I kept saying, "Shut up and fight!"

On top of all that, the complicated release history of these things combined with the extra editing, apparently designed to cut out everything American audiences presumably don't want to see, makes me nervous about commenting on them.

I have sustained my recently acquired interest in kung fu for the same reason I've sustained my recently acquired interest in comic books. It's something seedy, cheesy, and halfway naughty that's only recently gained the attention of serious critics and "artistic" creators. That means flashier big-budget production, as in the over-the-top but tightly written Hero, but it also means we have to put up with what are supposed to be action movies but are actually commentaries on nineteenth-century gender roles, as in the aforementioned Crouching Tiger.

Some kung fu movies like The One or The Enforcer are so groaningly awful that even adrenaline-pumping action can't save them. The One at least knows what it's doing (specifically, ripping off Timecop), but The Enforcer tries to be good drama and fails miserably with a ludicrous script. Even the inestimable Jet Li can't save it.

But sometimes I manage to come out of the rental place with a DVD in hand that turns out to be very watchable, very silly, very enjoyable, very butt-kicking kung fu. And that's Fist of the Red Dragon. I'm not sure which character in here is supposed to be the Red Dragon, but who cares?

The plot goes like this: It's the nineteenth century (1820s, maybe? I assume before the Opium War) and the British are opening up China by importing opium. A kung fu master (I'm honestly not sure which actor) is upset with this. He and his band of roughs do some obligatory kicking and open up a "no-smoking class" to get kids off drugs. Meanwhile, a young, impetuous kung fu master (Donnie Yen) is well-meaningly but misguidedly opposing his efforts. Action sequences, largely gratuitous, have eye-popping and highly imaginative choreography by Woo-ping Yuen, who is also responsible for the choreography of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I've just about made it a goal to see every movie of his that I can get my hands on.

The "don't smoke opium" message of the movie is pretty good. Unfortunately, there's also a "get drunk" message, so the viewer may get mixed messages. The whole "get drunk" thing may only be an excuse for Donnie Yen to fight Drunken Boxing-style, but still, with a line like "Your head is fuzzy but your mind is clear," what am I supposed to think? Yeah, you think your mind is clear, and that's exactly why getting drunk is a bad idea. I don't know much about weaning people from opium addiction, but I'm betting they don't do it with booze.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Fist of the Red Dragon:

Myth Level: Medium (kung fu masters standing for what's right and battling evil and all that)

Quality: High (good story, good action, likable characters, goofball humor)

Religion/Ethics: Medium (replacing opium with alcohol is a bad idea)

Filmography links and data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database.

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