Dreadnaught
Hong Kong 1981
Directed by Yuen Wo-Ping.


Dreadnaught is, on the face of things, the very simple story of a crazed, relentless, homacidal maniac. In some ways it is what the movie Terminator might have been like, if it was set in Republican China, and instead of guns there was kung fu, and instead of Arnold's cool and calm "I'll be back" line there was White Tiger's slobbering and maniacal "GRREAHHRRH!".

White Tiger (Yuen Cheung-Yan) and his wife are notorious bandits, so powerful that it seems not even a platoon of officers can subdue them. When they are ambushed in a tea house by the local magistrates men, Tiger's wife is killed in the melee, and White Tiger goes mad with rage, tearing his opponents apart with furious vengeance. When no one is left standing, White Tiger escapes, and approaches his friend Master Tam. Master Tam rather nervously advises him to lie low for a while, at the opera school, where mutual friends will keep him hidden. White Tiger snarls and thumps away.

And just who is this Master Tam? He runs a martial arts school and is a master at Lion Dancing. He waits impatiently for the day when he can defeat his most hated opponent, the famous Wong Fei-Hung. Wong Fei-Hung (the illustrious Kwan Tak-Hing) and his student Ah Foon, meanwhile, practice their aggresive (but effective) style of kung-fu Qigong medicine. When a new restaurant opens, Wong Fei-Hong and Ah Foon perform a remarkable lion dance, until Master Tam shows up in his lion costume with deadly intentions.

Looking on is Mousy (Yuen Biao), a complete coward who works at a laundry/cleaners, and somehow inappropriately works as their money collector, though he is never able to collect a dime. He lives with his sister, where about the only thing he's good for is doing the laundry. She berates him when he dries the laundry incorrectly, forcing him to use the 'family's secret technique.' He would be a nobody, except he happens to be best friends with Ah Foon. They pal around together, with Ah Foon helping Mousy collect the loans, set him up on dates, and so on. The loan that Mousy is having particular trouble with is from a tough named Biggie, who works at same opera school where White Tiger is hiding.

At the opera school, the final piece of the story falls in to place. Mousy and Ah Foon shake Biggie down for the money he owes. Meanwhile, White Tiger hides under a table nearby, immobile while a cockroach skitters across his face. Until he removes it, that is, and starts pulling off legs. Mousy, meanwhile, is so excited that Biggie is paying up, he plays with his necklace, which is made up of tiny bells. White Tiger hears the tiny bells. And recalls that his wife wore a bracelet around one ankle with bells similar to those he is hearing now. Something in his brain snaps. What little humanity he had (though he showed very little) is erased. He becomes a killing machine, a dreadnaught, intent on only one thing -- killing Mousy and silencing those infernal bells.

But this is no ordinary psychotic killer -- he's a psychotic killer with a sense of theatrics. He first dons a Peking Opera costume and paints his face. Before he was a madman, he must've worked in the opera, because he sure does handle the makeup job professionally. His face is not just painted at random, but rather as a specific face -- as a Tiger. It's even written on his forehead (The opera Battle at Golden Sand Beach features a bandit with the character written on his forehead in a similar fashion). The colors of his face are also symbolic of his mental state -- primarily, it is white, the color of evil and treachery, and black, which in this case indicates a fierce and coarse nature. His costume is the simple, open chested black jacket usually worn in the opera by characters of the lower class, or bandits. He wears the more elaborate style of this jacket, which is wrapped tightly in silken cords. At this point he's ready to either (a) kill someone, or (b) star in some kind of kinky gay bondage film. He chooses (a).

Dreadnaught is an amazing film, with enough ideas to fill two or three ordinary movies. And the cast is superb. But those looking for Yuen Biao to light up the screen with action are in for a disappointment. He's a complete wimp. And whiny. And annoying. He does manage some very nice running away scenes, and is very good at doing the laundry, but that's about it. Try not to think about him so much, it'll just bother you. He's just a kid in this one. While all around him the masters get down to business.

First, there's Kwan Tak-Hing as Wong Fei-Hung, the role that he defined. His first turn at the role was in 1949, and he starred in Wong Fei-Hung movies for the next twenty years. Before he became popular in that role, he was a Cantonese opera player, as so many of the masterful kung-fu fighters were. Here, he plays a supporting role, but is phenomenal nonetheless. He has two kung-fu sequences, one in which he is administering a cure to an aggresive patient, the other against a dangerous kung-fu tailor ("Now let me measure your inseam...HIIIIYAHHH!"). And he also does the lion dance, of which the real Wong Fei-Hung was said to be the best in his time. Although I can't speak for the real Wong Fei-Hung, the lion dance fight between Wong Fei-Hung and Master Tam filmed here will leave you breathless. These guys are that good.

Second, there's Yuen Cheung-Yan. There's something alarming about watching him fight. In most martial arts films, the opponents fight as if they were in a carefully choreographed ballet. Not so with Yuen Cheung-Yan. He is so intensely violent its less like a ballet and more like a wrecking ball. He must be seen to be believed. Yuen Biao is finally able to fight him using a few techniques he learned while washing clothes. And he also runs away alot, which works pretty well, too.

Once White Tiger puts on the opera make-up, it seems he becomes a spiritual being, almost a God. His soul is consumed by hate. In Chinese legend, if a person dies an untimely death, such as drowning or being eaten by a tiger, sometimes that persons spirit will linger in that spot and lure another person to death, so that they may be released. With his soul consumed, it seems White Tiger needed to kill, like the dead spirits must, in order to be released.

I was also reminded of an opera called Wu Song's Revenge. In it, a man who had killed a ferocious tiger became known as Tiger Killer thereafter, and through poor circumstance becomes a bandit. This bandit sought combat and revenge again and again, until, in victory, he scrawls his name upon the walls with the blood of his victims. This is exactly what White Tiger does at one point with the blood of some fallen officers.

History, tradition, blood, violence, mayhem, lion dancing, a killer tailor, laundry-fu, all choreographed by action-oriented director Yuen Woo-Ping. How could Dreadnaught be anything but highly recommended?

Rating: Highly Recommended (Highly Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on March 30, 2004.


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