Screening on 17 October 2004:

Hong Kong director Yuen Woo-Ping is best known to western audiences as the action choreographer for the Matrix films and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His artistic origins are deeply steeped in Chinese martial arts cinema, starting in the 1960s as a Shaw Bros. extra (Temple of the Red Lotus, Vengeance) and then a stuntman / fight arranger (The Miracle Fighters, The Magnificent Butcher) for the emerging Golden Harvest company - by the late 1970s he was the guiding talent behind Jackie Chan's breakthrough movies Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle's Shadow.

With the peak of Cantonese cinema in the mid-1990s, Yuen Woo-Ping was much in demand and he was responsible for star-studded kung fu classics such as Tai Chi Master and Iron Monkey. In 1994, he was hired by a Taiwanese production company to direct Taiwanese superstar Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia (Bride With White Hair, Swordsman 2) in Fire Dragon - it was to be her final feature before retiring. Produced on location in Taiwan, Fire Dragon is a martial arts gem.

The story covers familiar territory and has Brigitte Lin as the title character, an assassin working for Prince Six whose ultimate aim is the overthrow of the emperor. The movie opens with a long burst of martial arts violence as Ah Ha (Lin) pursues Yuen Ming (Mok Siu-Chung), a loyal servant to the emperor who has stumbled upon an incriminating letter which shows Prince Six to be the ringleader of an impending palace coup.

Both Ha and Ming are wounded in this skirmish and find themselves being cared for by a travelling circus troupe led by the shrew-like Sister Yu (Sandra Ng). Much of the film's drama and humour takes place in the confines of this circus. A subtle battle-of-wits between Ha and Ming is a highlight of the film.

Veteran screenwriter Elsa Tang (Once Upon a Time in China, Wing Chun) adds extra menace to the Prince's machinations, as his lover, Snow (Yip Chuen-Chan), is a cold blooded killer waiting in the wings to replace Ha as the Prince's top assassin.

Prince Six is played by Taiwanese star Sin Lap-Man (City Hunter, Reincarnation of Golden Lotus) and is a lurid picture of megalomania in full gallop. In a crazed moment he tells his underlings: "If Buddha blocks my way - I will kill him!"

The film really belongs to Brigitte Lin as the Fire Dragon, a professional hit-woman with a heart of stone, a facade that soon crumbles as she begins to reassess her allegiances to the corrupt Prince Six. Brigitte Lin is a great screen presence and with this film she offers up a memorable, nuanced performance.

Fire Dragon is a big budget production with first-rate Cantonese technical talent on display. Jingle Ma's (Comrades, Almost a Love Story, Drunken Master 2) excellent cinematography bathes the Taiwanese landscape in a luxurious golden hour tint. Plus, his use of deep blue filters in many of the night sequences gives these scenes a near surreal look. Lowell Lo's (The Killer, God of Gamblers) score is many cuts above the generic HK soundtrack - with his clever mix of traditional and contemporary music.

Even so, much of Fire Dragon's technical gloss is overshadowed by Yuen Woo-Ping's extraordinary martial arts choreography. With this film, it's not difficult to say that Woo-Ping was at his peak as a Hong Kong action director. The creativity behind these frenetic sequences is something to fiercely admire (and not a CGI in sight!). A great example of this is the night attack on a peasant village where combatants whirl and unfurl in the most amazing fashion.

The final thirty minutes of Fire Dragon is a non-stop barrage of martial arts mayhem. When Ha decides to "hunt the tiger", this leads into the movie's violent and spectacular conclusion involving a sea of burning oil and deadly necklaces of dynamite. In this sequence, sharp-eyed HK buffs should pick up the brief, but obvious, reference to John Woo's Hard-Boiled.

Fire Dragon unites star and director in sublime action cinema which works beautifully on all levels. For newcomers to the films of Yuen Woo-Ping and Brigitte Lin, Fire Dragon is a near flawless introduction.




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