Movie Review: Chasing the Dragon (2017)
The first fight fooled me into thinking this movie might be more than it is.
Early on, our four heroes—OK, one hero, Ho (Donnie Yen of “Ip Man”), and his three nondescript pals—newly and illegally arrived in Hong Kong from China in 1960, are talking about making money by fighting, so I assumed they meant a competition: rings, rules, etc. Ho would shine (he’s Ip Man, after all), and from there, who knows? But that’s all wrong. They’ve lent their services to a local gang, fighting another local gang, under the watchful eyes of corrupt police. In this free-for-all, Ho does shine, but not in the usual martial-arts movie manner. The movements aren’t crisp and super-choreographed; they’re messy and sloppy. It looks like a real fight.
That fact, plus the period nature of the piece—Hong Kong from roughly 1960 to 1974—made me think they (director Wong Jing, some mucky-muck in the Chinese film industry) wanted something more like a Scorsese picture rather than the typical Hong Kong actioner.
They didn't get it.
“Chasing the Dragon” (追龍) is the story of how a half-corrupt cop, Lui Lok or Lee Rock, (Andy Lau, reprising the role he played in the 1990s), and a halfway-decent crook (Ho), band together to “save” Hong Kong from more nefarious forces. It’s basically the rise and fall of a drug dealer.
Problems? Some of the film’s shorthand. We first see Ho being decent to a little girl, Alva, bringing her a bowl of congee; and though they owe their landlords money, he surreptitiously hands a nerdy kid a few bills for his tuition. See? He’s decent. The nerdlinger turns out to be his kid brother who gets hooked on the drugs Ho peddles, while the girl turns into a beauty whom Ho uses to infiltrate the police dept. She winds up dead, he winds up a vegetable.
The filmmakers also screw up the period nature. More oddly, they actually get it right except for our main characters. We see them arriving in Hong Kong—where, we’re told, everything was super-corrupt before 1974—so I assumed, based on their period hairstyles and the fact that Ho is smoking pot, that it was 1974. It’s not; it’s 1960.
Here’s how they look in 1960:
And here’s everyone else:
I hate this kind of thing. I wrote about it recently. Details matter. The hairstyles of 1974 are not interchangeable with the hairstyles of 1960. That change is in fact the story, and to ignore it, or get it wrong, is to fuck up the story.
In that opening brawl, Ho also knocks out a corrupt British cop, Hunt (Bryan Larkin), and nearly gets beaten to death in prison for it. Lee Rock saves him so the two have this bond. Later, Ho returns the favor and gets his kneecap bashed in; he winds up with a lifelong limp. We suspected this might happen because in the intro he calls himself “Crippled Ho,” which is the name he goes by for the second half of the film. The Chinese are nothing if not politically incorrect in this manner. See “Piggy” (Kent Cheng) and “Chubby” (Ben Ng). See screen legend Sammo Hung, who is still called “Fatty.”
As our heroes rise through the various layers of gangsters and corrupt cops, Rock becomes more cautious, Ho less so. He wants revenge: against the gangster who crippled him; against Hunt, who is generally awful and racist. The film wants revenge. It lays the blame for the corrupt situation at the feet of the British imperialists, even though the organization that helped clean up Hong Kong, the ICAC, or Independent Commission Against Corruption, was formed in February 1974 by the British governor. You almost want the movie to be about them. But such a movie might be less xenophobic, and xenophobia is the watchword of Chinese cinema now.
This movie meanders. We never really know who Ho is. He's just a series of gestures that don't add up to a complete character. We get moments of melodrama (the kid brother becoming a vegetable), moments of suspense (will Rock’s family make it out?), and a Han Soloish surprise return by Rock (to save Ho yet again). There’s a final rooftop confrontation between Ho and Hunt, but Rock intervenes. You think he’s talked him back from the ledge. But after the two heroes look into each other’s eyes, and Ho says “You’ve been a good brother,” he fires two shots back, without looking, and kills Hunt. That’s a good scene. Also handled well is Rock’s reaction. He sighs, takes his own gun, shoots himself in the shoulder, then wipes it clean and puts it in Hunt’s dead hand. The camera pulls back. The music wells. Then the movie reminds us one more time that all of this was all the result of British imperialism.
“Chasing the Dragon,” with its double meaning, is, I found out, a remake of the 1991 film “To Be Number One,” which was highly acclaimed: It won best picture at the Hong Kong Film Awards, beating out both “Once Upon a Time in China” and—interestingly— Andy Lau’s “Lee Rock,” about the character he plays here. Its Chinese name, by the way, isn’t “To Be Number One.” It’s 跛毫 or Bo hao: “Crippled Ho.”
This one was kind of acclaimed, too. It was nominated for six Hong Kong awards (including picture), and won two (cinematography, editing). But I’m surprised it got that far. It’s not that good.