Review: Chasing the Dragon (2017)

To begin, an admission. I have not seen many Wong Jing films. Not even some of his biggest hits, such as God of Gamblers. Some of his work has flickered across my retinas, but given the fellow’s torrential output over the decades I may as well have folded before even picking up the cards. I know him more by reputation; a film-maker chasing the broadest and basest of cinematic trends. Jackie Chan’s classics are hardly high-brow, but City Hunter has elements that can only be explained by the presence of Wong Jing. When it comes to the crazy stuff I’m all in. The crass, not so much. I’ll grant him this at least — he knew how to maintain a churn that sure kept a lot of film production crews employed.

Sometimes though, preconceptions are challenged and for this viewer that came in the form of The Last Tycoon, or — sigh — The Last Dragon Master as it is known here. While still a film designed for broad appeal, it was populated by actual characters rather than caricatures and boasting modern Chinese film industry funding it looked massively better than the earlier examples of Wong Jing’s work I had seen.

Chasing the Dragon is likewise a historical story about the interplay between crime and the authorities centred in a big city, this time Hong Kong. No superfluous fiddling with the title this time as the phrase is important, referring to a drug user’s longing to recapture their first high. Kicking off in 1960 and unfolding through the following decade and into the 70s, we witness the effect of the booming illicit drug business and accompanying corruption in the government as dramatised in the experiences of real-life gangster Ng Sai “Crippled” Ho (Donnie Yen) and upper-tier law enforcement agent Lee Rock (Andy Lau).

It’s a very different movie, but another film Chasing the Dragon recalls in a couple of ways is the hard-edged crime picture Long Arm of the Law. One parallel is the story begins with a group of mainlanders arriving in Hong Kong chasing the dream of a better life, in this case (not yet crippled) Ho and his buddies. This simple premise launches the viewer into the machinations and political manoeuvring in colonial Hong Kong, as most of the characters and conflicts are set up in the first ten minutes, without being explicitly called to attention. This asks a lot of the audience and can cause some later confusion if not followed closely. One point that won’t be missed though is that British police superintendent Hunter (Bryan Larkin) is the biggest dirtbag of the bunch. He’s untouchable and flaunts it, the distillation of all that was detestable about British rule over Hong Kong. Beneath the British, everyone else tries to make off with as much as they can without upsetting the balance of power that teeters like a late game jenga tower. This playing field sees Ho and Rock forge a mutually beneficial alliance to profit from the drug trade.

Ng Sai Ho (Donnie Yen, centre) and his crew.

Both men openly admit to being greedy for money and there’s even a slow motion shot of Ho gleefully throwing banknotes around like confetti, but Chasing the Dragon refrains from any deep or nuanced commentary. It’s not particularly judgmental of its characters (apart from Hunter and his lackeys), simply relaying the sense that life happens in this crowded city and folks look out for them and theirs. As more of a high society string-puller with the sharp looks to match, Lee Rock is somewhat reserved, yet still willing to defend himself and his interests with violence. More time is spent with Ho, who is more relatable and somewhat sympathetic, despite doing some heinous things. He’s all about loyalty, keeping your word and seeing street justice done. Donnie Yen is excellent in the role and there’s hardly an emotion he’s not called on to play.

Although it’s not portrayed as a safe place, there’s a sense of nostalgia for the freewheeling spirit of old Hong Kong, where the glitz and the grime openly coexisted. The swanky outfits and settings convey the glamour (and give Donnie Yen the chance to wear some leather jackets again) and the back alleys and darkened dens hosting various illegal pursuits impart the desperation to get something more out of life than drudgery. The depiction of all this vice is pretty frank, but never lurid, and although it leans towards celebrating the hustle needed to get ahead, there’s plenty of everyday inhabitants amidst the hubbub just getting on with life. Binding all the liveliness together is the music, headlined by a groovy soul/funk soundtrack, which is also handily close to contemporary with the setting. It’s quite unusual to hear this in a Chinese film and really makes Chasing the Dragon stand out. There’s original work in the score, as well as some Earth, Wind and Fire and, repeatedly, the Donny Hathaway hit The Ghetto.

So much detail is present and correct.

This is the musical calling card of the film and especially applicable to the centrepiece location, the Kowloon Walled City. Stranded in administrative limbo for almost a century, this historical oddity developed a life and ecosystem organically its own and Chasing the Dragon goes to great lengths to recreate it. Iconic sights like the twisting mazes of dripping tunnels, stairs and doorways and the antennae spread across the roofing of the structure like a stunted metallic orchard grown wild are practically essential visual shorthand, but the detail goes much deeper. As seen in historical photographs, a building from the original Qing Dynasty fort can be glimpsed in the central square, protected from rubbish tossed from higher levels by wire covering. There’s also unusual meat for sale and the roar of passing planes is never far away. The mass of buildings is introduced with a title card over a bravura shot of a jet coming in for a hairy-looking landing at the old Kai Tak airport. Wider Hong Kong is still not forgotten and there’s a trip to a jungle compound in Thailand’s Golden Triangle to tick off the classic trope list, but the heart of the movie is that densely packed cluster of dwellings.

There are a few rooftop heart to hearts, but don’t worry, this is not an Infernal Affairs parody.

The actual Kowloon Walled City can be seen in Long Arm of the Law and when demolition of the structure was set to begin in 1993, permission was granted for parts of it to be blown up for real in Crime Story. As in those films, Chasing the Dragon takes the opportunity to set some pivotal action surging through the capillary network of corridors fanning out from Guangyin Square in the walled city’s heart, and these crisis points are where Ho and Rock make several defining choices. The scenes do the job dramatically, without being action standouts, although the final gun battle features a shotgun so powerful it would have John Woo sweating bullets. The focus is the story, characters and atmosphere, so despite a drive-along shootout that calls upon vintage co-ordinator of vehicular carnage Bruce Law, and Donnie Yen getting in some kicks and punches, it’s all more brawling than balletic. When tensions rise it’s typically fingers that are pointed first. Pointing might be the default physical gesture of the film, in point of fact.

Although he wrote the screenplay and is one of the producers, Wong Jing is not the sole leader of this film. Cinematographer Jason Kwan is also a named director and there’s a credit for Aman Chang as co-director. Plus the usual raft of administrative producers et al. that Chinese blockbusters seem to require these days. As well-practiced as he is, the increasing scale and more controlled nature of the mainland Chinese film industry means Wong Jing has had to change with the times. Seeing the effort spent in depicting the heady days of old Hong Kong in Chasing the Dragon, I wonder if he looks back on former times with nostalgia too, even if the experience can never be recaptured.

7 pointed fingers out of 10.
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