Review: Dreadnaught (1981)

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Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

Dreadnaught is a lot of things. A cracker of a fun movie for a start. It’s also a Wong Fei-Hung story, a slasher movie, a star turn for Yuen Biao, the inspiration for a scene in Batman Forever and still remains a unique film in its own right, approaching genre conventions with an unconventional spin. Blending generous helpings of action, comedy, and horror into one madcap mixture only 95 minutes long, some scenes incredibly still manage to drag a little!

Despite not becoming the superstar that his opera school mates Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan have, Yuen Biao found plenty of opportunities to shine in the thriving Hong Kong film industry of the latter 1970s to mid 1990s, bringing flair and charm to many great roles. The stretch of five years or so that Dreadnaught falls into saw him play lead or co-lead in a number of films that showed off his immense physical talents, such as Knockabout, The Prodigal Son and Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain. Contrasting with those heroic roles, in Dreadnaught Biao plays a timid fellow appropriately named Mousy, or Mok Geung (meaning “no guts”). A total scaredy-cat, Mousy can’t even muster enough nerve to collect the fees for the family laundry business he runs with his sister (Lily Li), let alone hope to stand a chance against the deranged killer White Fronted Tiger (Yuen Shun-Yi).

Mousy (Yuen Biao) initially flees from any confrontation.

The Wong Fei-Hung part of the plot has the revered folk hero targeted by jealous rival school master Tam King (Phillip Ko). This was the final time Kwan Tak-Hing played Wong Fei-Hung on screen and it’s a splendid way to close an epic chapter in the character’s portrayal. Fei-Hung’s aiding of an angry martial artist with an injury (San Kuai) early in the film, and a later faux-fight with the clearly ill-intentioned Demon Tailor (Fung Hak-On with an unnerving pallid makeup job) are both impeccably choreographed and tremendously entertaining and display the character’s steadfast desire to guide both friend and foe further along the path of righteousness.

As for Mousy, he is first aided in becoming more confident by his mischievous friend Leung Foon (Leung Kar-Yan), a regular character in the Wong Fei-Hung universe which Yuen Biao played a few times himself, in 1978’s Magnificent Butcher and later in Once Upon a Time in China. After much comedy antics with Leung Foon and a couple of terrifying encounters with the killer stalking the town, Mousy has the chance to become a student of Wong Fei-Hung, which will eventually bring all the major characters together for a finale at the opera hall.

Wong Fei-Hung (Kwan Tak-Hing) assisting a belligerent fellow martial artist (San Kuai).

Action-comedy flicks were a reliable Hong Kong cinema staple for many years and Dreadnaught is part of a trend of taking that combination and splicing horror into the formula as well. Films like Encounters of the Spooky Kind, The Dead and the Deadly and Mr. Vampire are some major examples of this evolving genre mashup, but Dreadnaught is a little different to most. Although it has some well shot spooky sequences and surprises, this is not a supernatural thriller. The horror elements of Dreadnaught carry more of a slasher movie vibe. White Fronted Tiger does not speak a word. His snarling and heavy breathing speak loudly enough and once he puts on the opera makeup and becomes “Painted Face” his twisted facial expressions are amplified even more. Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees wear implacable masks, but Painted Face’s makeup allows his victims — and the viewing audience — to see the fury of his grim visage beneath brought to more menacing life.

Another departure from the usual kung fu film practice at the time is found in the form of the action itself. There is a marked reduction in direct confrontation, but this does not mean the action is lacking. Aside from Wong Fei-Hung’s two great one-on-one scenes mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of slapstick physical comedy, as when Leung Foon helps Mousy stand up to a client who is refusing to pay the laundry bills. There’s also a lengthy lion dance that becomes a lion dance battle, making for a neat pairing with the similar scene that opened The Young Master the year prior.

Mousy spends a lot of his time dodging and running away from opponents, which exhibits Yuen Biao’s precise physical performance abilities as well as any fight. His journey is about realising how to use the skills he already possesses and to that end there are no training sequences, highly unusual for the time. The nearest equivalent is the laundry scene, as Mousy uses his family techniques to wring out and hang up clothing in what he will later discover is known as shirt grappling. The Batman Forever scene with Dick Grayson hanging his laundry is a well known tribute to this iconic sequence, but for Dreadnaught it remains an important moment of story conveyed through “action”.

The distinctive two fingered trademark of what Mousy will later realise is shirt grappling.

The comedic side of the film does carry on a bit at times, especially in a couple of scenes involving the police chief (Fan Mei Sheng) that while consistently funny take a while to get to the point. On the horror side of the equation, there is a dark tone to many moments throughout the film. While not overly graphic, there are some grim deaths and tragic moments as Painted Face goes berserk. This character’s action style is direct and brutal. In a shot cut from some versions of the film he rips the head off a live chicken, which is pretty shocking. Animals were definitely harmed in the making of this film. The standout creepy moment is an actual fight with a masked figure in the darkened opera hall. The performer spins around disconcertingly to reveal dual faces, accompanied by different strains of eerie laughter. It’s hard to tell how the scene was done at times, it’s shot so incredibly well.

When the horror-comedy fusion is smooth it is very effective. Both these genres rely on the timing of setup and surprise to get a reaction, making them an ideal fit. Director Yuen Woo Ping has a lot of fun playing with these structural similarities, such as when two men take a leak in an alley, unaware of what is behind them.

Mousy is still fearful in his face-off with “Painted Face”.

Come the final showdown, Mousy has to step up and face his fears, a reluctant hero to the end, while Wong Fei-Hung and Tam King also settle their differences. Even at the climax, Dreadnaught has more surprises in store, with a goofier take on the already conceptually goofy flying guillotine seen in various earlier movies of the era, and Painted Face unleashing a technique Mousy is ideally primed to face.

This film shows the benefit of mixing things up, which is what makes it so memorable. There’s nothing wrong with a well-executed formula, but by knowingly messing with genre conventions Dreadnaught stands out from the crowd.

8 nifty uses of a mirror out of 10.
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