After the success of The Young Master, with its action stretching traditional kung fu choreography in unexpected directions, Jackie Chan pushed boundaries further in his follow-up film. Originally a sequel titled Young Master in Love, the experimental action maintains a thematic through-line with Jackie’s previous work, even as the narrative continuity is cast aside. After a long and difficult gestation of almost a year — forever by Hong Kong standards at the time — Dragon Lord was born.
Jackie plays another in a string of characters called Dragon and another of his carefree layabout personas. It’s gratifying to see a co-starring role for long-time Hong Kong supporting actor and stuntman Mars, as the best friend variously called Bull/Cowboy/Chun depending on your translation. The two are spoiled brats, coasting on the wealth of their fathers while skipping their studies and complaining that no one will find a pretty girl for them to marry. Jackie’s films often have a light-hearted feel, but this time he crosses the line from child-like to childish. At least it’s fun to see the rapport between Jackie and Mars on screen. Their antics and rivalry stitch together most of the early scenes of the film, in particular their pursuit of local girl Lai (Shirley Yim).
A concurrent plot concerns a gang of thieves smuggling precious historical artifacts out of China. Stolen antiquities is not an unusual plot point — Jackie himself used the idea later in Drunken Master II and Rush Hour — but here it provides a spark of patriotic pride to rouse the young slackers to action later in the film. With little physical conflict early on, there is ample room for the new action idea Jackie was eager to showcase — sports.
Midway through the film, there’s a match between two teams playing something like a mixture of the ancient game cuju and jianzi, played on a pitch about the size of an indoor soccer court. Each team aims to score by landing a shuttlecock in the opposition net, without using hands and keeping the shuttlecock off the ground. It’s well put together and easy to follow, but save for one brief moment after the game, if the whole thing were cut the film would be unaffected. Having said that, I admire the skill on display and have much respect for the stunt players and extras who sweated it out for weeks in the sun to complete the sequence. I can absolutely understand wanting to include the scene in the finished film. It is also worth watching for the most obvious example of the anachronistic setting of the film, featuring late Qing dynasty cheerleaders with pom-poms and the arena plastered with advertising posters.
The other sporting feature is based on a traditional festival from Cheung Chau island near Hong Kong. It’s a huge four-way contest to retrieve a golden egg-shaped object from the top of a tower of buns and stuff it into a bag. To this end, scores of young men clamber up the bamboo pyramid, and once the egg is down to ground level proceedings devolve into a game of what was called mugby when I was a carefree youth myself. Anything goes in the attempt to carry what is clearly now a footy to the team bag. This sequence is again noteworthy for the effort it took to produce and its lack of significance for the story. The scale is great enough to feel like it could be from a Shaw Brothers film, with its expansive outdoor setting and large crowds and wrangling this many stuntmen into order must have been tough. However its lack of relevance is highlighted by the fact that, depending on the print of the film, it appears at either the beginning or the end.
It’s a shame these sporting scenes are so inconsequential, as they have the potential to draw in an audience put off by more standard flavours of action. According to my own theory, action scenes break down into two main categories: fight scenes and chase scenes. Sports are kind of a distillation of battle into competition with specific rules; similar to fight scenes but with less threat of violence. The sports in this film are easy to understand visually, so there’s no appreciation of subtleties of technique necessary to enjoy watching. There’s a neat thematic link as well — the preservation of cultural tradition in sports along with archaeological artifacts — it just needs to be better integrated into the overall film.
There are some of the usual flavours of action in Dragon Lord, they just take a while to show up. When they do, it’s more of the freestyle flurry of blows and stunts Jackie transitioned to doing on The Young Master. The action style is even commented on by the film itself with Dragon saying street fighting is different to practising when Bull remarks on his scrappy style. A cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof sequence shows some acrobatic leaps and tumbles from Jackie and a brawl at a temple brings the romantic and smuggling plots together nicely. Korean martial artist Whang Ing-sik reprises his role as the final boss from The Young Master, his character differentiated from that appearance by a facial peculiarity hidden with novel camera tricks for most of the film. Dishing out the punishment to Dragon and Bull in a well-utilised barn, he’s pretty much unstoppable.
A mammoth production on so many levels, Dragon Lord winds up being a letdown. Jackie’s ambition exceeded his capability this time, leading to a huge waste of film and resources. Evidence of cut material is evident in the final product, such as the smuggler deputy (Chen Hui Min) twice manifesting injuries he didn’t have in his prior scene. This disappointment also led to greater collaboration with film-makers such as Sammo Hung to help refine future projects. In this sense Dragon Lord is a stepping stone to greater movies and an interesting historical artifact itself.