Film Review: ‘Fist of Dragon’ 《龙拳》is An Earnest Martial Arts Film Marred by Missteps6 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
The story of Li, who comes to Southeast Asia at the request of his father to help out his uncle who has been facing financial difficulties and get rid of local mobsters harassing him.
Director: Michael Chuah
Cast: Michael Chuah, Henry Thia, Fiona Xie, Wang Xiao Cheng, Monday Kang
Country: Singapore, China
Runtime: 91 minutes
From a region not known for producing martial arts films, Malaysian filmmaker Michael Chuah rose up to the challenge 10 years ago with Fist of Dragon 《龙拳》. The Singapore-China co-production is an earnest effort, with Chuah bringing his passion for the genre to the director’s seat while bringing his martial arts prowess to the leading role.
The action scenes here are clear highlights, filled with heart-pumping choreography that could hang with its contemporaries. Unfortunately, just about every other element of Fist of Dragon feels amateurish in comparison. It’s a bizarre film just shy of possibly reaching cult status with its puzzling film techniques and a plot that eventually descends into a fever dream. But with a forgiving mindset and an appetite for action, Fist of Dragon will definitely catch viewers off-guard with how entertaining it can be.
Li (Michael Chuah) ventures from China to Southeast Asia to help out Uncle Chen (Henry Thia) with money issues. His uncle’s town has been endlessly terrorised and extorted by the local gang. Instead of bringing him money, Li brings his martial arts skills to the sleepy town in an attempt to fend off the gangsters — much to the chagrin of the townsfolk who sees him as yet another troublemaker.
Fist of Dragon does a spectacular job of setting up its antagonists. In particular, Monday Kang, who plays the gang boss’s underling See Ming, is deliciously over-the-top, with enough ham in his performance to make any deli jealous. His eyeliner — as on fleek as the rest of his compatriots — is the icing on top. See Ming is insufferable in all the right ways.
However, all his efforts largely go to waste with how the antagonists present virtually no threat to the protagonist. Fans of martial arts cinema won’t have to wait long before the action starts. In a stylish sequence, Li decimates a fellow martial arts expert. Then he decimates See Ming’s crew in Southeast Asia. Then he decimates See Ming’s extended crew armed with weapons. It goes on. Li still emerges largely unharmed. He makes Ip Man look like a chump.
The lack of stakes eventually bubbles into action fatigue for the audience — which can be a puzzling reaction given how well-choreographed they are. One explanation could be due to how ridiculous the sequences eventually become, with goons quite literally circling around and getting in line to get their ass kicked. Another might be how Li simply doesn’t stand out with his paper-thin personality and having to share the same wardrobe with the people he is beating up. Fists continue to fly but it becomes difficult to keep track of what is going on and if it all matters at all.
The only thing that seems to truly wound Li is Uncle Chen’s resentment. Henry Thia brings levity to the film with a select few wisecracks but his performances largely feel directionless. Uncle Chen’s employee Xiao Qing, played by Wang Xiao Cheng, looks to patch things up between two men but her character is severely underdeveloped.
Fist of Dragon does not handle drama well. Plot points are drawn out through unnecessary conversations. Conversations are edited in such an awkward way that characters don’t feel like they’re in the same country. Li has the stuntwork down but lacks the charisma necessary for a lead.
Perhaps in direct response to the sore lack of tension, Fist of Dragon goes all out for its last third, introducing an element to the plot that nobody — absolutely nobody! — will see coming. Story-wise, it is precipitated by gang member Lily, played by Fiona Xie, who infiltrated the gang to investigate the murder of her mother. What she finds out is incredible. The tonal whiplash alone makes the film well worth a watch.
Unfortunately, Fist of Dragon brings to attention techniques that would otherwise be assumed to be a given in most productions. It has a tendency to fade to black between scenes. It struggles with framing conversations and with shot compositions in general. It highlights the importance of art direction and depth in wardrobe choices. The film could easily be sneered at and dissected for its shortcomings but it feels like a necessary step forward for the filmmaker.
Throughout its many faults, there is still a clear sense of passion. There is the scale of it all, most prominently with the sheer number of gang members and townsfolk. No effort is spared in presenting the best thriller its modest budget could muster. The cast largely wanders without a sense of direction but give their all when they do.
Given the galaxy of martial arts films out there, Fist of Dragon is a difficult recommendation for anyone other than Asian film completionists. Budding filmmakers, however, will have a lot to learn from the film, providing important lessons in editing, writing and cinematography, and the pure passion and tenacity required to be a director.
The ambition found here is undeniable; the guts required to execute a martial arts film in this part of the world is admirable enough. While the film falters in its execution, it’s still heartening to see that director Chuah’s heart for filmmaking has not wavered, directing two more films since. Fist of Dragon is a necessary first step that is worth celebrating.
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