White Dragon
Hong Kong 2004
Directed by Wilson Yip.

It's rare that I see a Hong Kong movie in the theater. But this one ran at the Gene Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago, and I popped over after work this evening to catch it. The movie was shown in the small auditorium at the Film Center, and I mean small -- smaller than even the smallest of Cinema Multiplex screens. Even so, the theater was hardly filled, a far cry from the days, some years earlier, when a Hong Kong film playing at the Film Center was guaranteed to pack the house. It's hard for me to lament the small audience too much, since the absent majority were clearly the wise ones. WHITE DRAGON was a tiresome comedy in a genre that has worn out its welcome.

Cecilia Cheung stars as Phoenix Black, a spoiled rich school girl who plans on marrying the second Prince. Her plan goes well, until the blind assassin Chicken Feathers (or C.F., played by Francis Ng) shows up to kill the school principal. The cleaning woman furiously battles C.F. but loses, and in her near-death state, transfers her powers to Phoenix, who becomes "White Dragon Jr." afterwards and steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Not for altruistic reasons, but because it is good for her complexion. Later she and the second Prince fall in love, but they discover that C.F. has been hired to assassinate him, so she tries all the methods at her command to kill C.F. before it's too late.

Another in a long line of period romantic comedies with contemporary flourishes (these anacronisms are supposed to be the source of the humor). It's better than The Lion Roars, but not by much. The main problem is the humor falls flat, fails miserably, is predictable, or just old. The best jokes manage to elicit a groan or a head shake, the worst make you turn away from the screen, not wanting to embarass the performers further while watching the material kill them. Like when Phoenix asks the cleaning lady to repeat something, the film rewinds with zippy rewind sounds back to when she started speaking, at it repeats. Ugh.

This type of comedy was pioneered by Stephen Chow, who made it work because he understands comedy. He inhabited his period setting fully, but then occasionally whipped some anachronistic device out from nowhere. It was absurd, and funny. Watching Cecilia Cheun play a Pipa like it is a guitar and she is a rock star: not funny. WHITE DRAGON even trots out the old ancient McDonalds joke, perfected in God of Gamblers 3: Back to Shanghai, but it's tired.

When the comedy fails, we might at least hope the romance works. Alas, no. While both performers are good, Francis Ng's C.F. is just too silly and childlike, and it is not at all believable that Phoenix falls for him in any way. (The small audience groaned and sniggered when it seemed she would. Nobody was buying it).

Well, how about the action? The action, actually, is really good, and the only enjoyable component of the whole production. But it made me wonder -- why not build a serious film around those action setpieces? Why can't we have the story of a romance between a blind assassin and a social climber be told in a serious, or at least a straight-period, fashion? Frankly, I chalk it up to lack of nerve. Comedies sell, serious martial arts is more risky. Risk adverse producers and directors want to appeal to the whole movie going family, to make a light popcorn film minimally offensive and maximally profitable. WHITE DRAGON offends no one, but it entertains no one either. Wake me up when Hong Kong moviemakers find the courage to make a serious period swordplay film again.

As I was leaving the theater, I saw the lobby of the Film Center was packed. Everyone was waiting to see the next movie of the night. It wasn't a Hong Kong movie. Used to be, I would shake my head and think, "you don't know what you're missing." Today, I thought, "hey, what am I missing?"

Rating: Not Recommended (Not Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on February 10, 2005.

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