I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t find a lot of the recent Hong Kong comedies, well, funny. For the most part the filmmakers take the basest form of what they perceive as comedy and grind it even further into dust, so much so that the only real “comedy” coming out of Hong Kong nowadays is how Hong Kongers continually swallow the sea of generic swills starring one of those interchangeable “pop stars”. Pop-itis has infected Hong Kong so much that you can only count on one or two directors to provide a film that isn’t directed at the undemanding island citizenry. So you’ll understand my shock and dismay when “White Dragon”, a comedy in the guise of a generic wuxia film, turned out to be not only bearable, but also actually quite good.
“White Dragon” stars Cecilia Cheung (a pop star who is not the least bit interchangeable with the army of fresh face teeny bopper cohorts) as the titular White Dragon, a Robin Hood-esque figure in ancient China who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. In a nice twist on the standard superhero formula, White Dragon is something of a narcissist, forever worried about her good looks, even as she’s fighting with Feather (Francis Ng), a blind assassin nicknamed “Chicken Feathers Everywhere” because of his propensity for using chicken feathers as his calling card.
How White Dragon came to possess her super fighting prowess is a bit tricky to explain, but needless to say she was just a vain student before she met Prince Tian-yang (Andy On, “Star Runner”), who becomes targeted for assassination by Feather. After receiving a (literal) martial arts transplant from her school groundskeeper (don’t ask), White Dragon becomes a superpowered Robin Hood. Well, actually, she only starts doing the whole Robin Hood angle because the groundskeeper told her that doing righteous things like stealing from the rich and giving to the poor would help clear up her acne.
Unable to let the man of her dreams get cut to pieces by Feather, White Dragon uses her powers, as well as her prodigious flute skills, to lure Feather into her killing zone. During one of their battles, White Dragon delivers a killing kick to Feather’s crotch — only to break her leg. Although a killer by trade, Feather is nevertheless a pretty nice guy, so he takes White Dragon home with him, taking care of her until her broken leg can mend. Not overly enthuse with the blind killer’s helping hand, White Dragon plots to find his Achilles Heel and gut him like a fish. To no one’s surprise, time turns the two enemies into friends, and then potential romantic interests.
But what about the genteel Prince Tian-yang, who still longs for White Dragon? And can White Dragon convince Feather to leave his life of killing behind? And is Feather mentally deficient, or is it all just an act? But more importantly, was that Marc Anthony’s “I Need to Know” that White Dragon plays on her flute at one point?
I’m being facetious, of course, especially since “White Dragon” is a silly romantic comedy first and wuxia film second. After a couple of skirmishes in the first 30 minutes, the film is mostly devoid of action until the end, when White Dragon and Feather join forces to defeat an enemy and director Wilson Yip (“Skyline Cruisers”) pulls out the mother of all deus ex machina. Not that it matters, mind you, because if you didn’t think White Dragon would come to realize that Feather’s affections for her overwhelms her childish crush on Tian-yang, you haven’t studied up on your formulaic romantic comedies.
Although familiar and highly predictable, “White Dragon” benefits from two excellent actors in the lead. Francis Ng, an old favorite from “Bullets Over Summer” (also directed by Yip) and his exasperated villain in “Heroic Duo”, plays the blind Feather with just the right combination of heroics and questionable intelligence. Feather was blinded as a child, and although we never did know how Feather attained his awesome martial arts ability (he’s so invincible that even kicking him in the crotch only gets you a broken leg), it doesn’t really matters. Ng sells the character so well that even when Yip over saturates the film with cheesy music (which he does quite a bit), you could care less.
With Ng dominating the film with his affable performance, Cecilia Cheung runs the risk of overplaying her hand as the spoiled heroine. Coming off the nihilistic “One Nite in Mongkok”, and before that the tour de force of “Lost in Time”, Cheung hits her comedic strides with just enough flair to keep from morphing into a long lost third Twins. And it’s to the script’s credit that Cheung’s White Dragon remains, from beginning to end, a vain teenager who knows for a fact that she’s pretty, and don’t you forget it. Cheung’s scenes with Ng, as the two antagonists slowly come to appreciate one another, are the highlight of “White Dragon”.
Since the film is part wuxia, there are plenty of flying battles and superpowered moves, most of it taking place early in the film to set up the main romantic comedy premise. Yip chooses some luscious forest setting similar to Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers” for the battles, and indulges in some nifty camerawork and swordplay. The only problem is that “White Dragon” is a comedy first, so there’s no brutality or gritty action in the fights. And of course having White Dragon inform us, in voiceover, that she hopes Feather doesn’t ruin her pretty face (her words) even as they’re slugging it out prevents the scenes from achieving any sense of seriousness.
Not that you’ll go to “White Dragon” for gritty swordplay in the first place. It’s very much a romantic comedy, employing the usual formulas of the genre with some minor exceptions. The script also breaks rank from conventions by making Andy On’s Prince Tian-yang sympathetic and not the “Jerk Boyfriend” that the audience is suppose to hate, but the heroine can’t seem to realize — until the ending, that is. Cecilia Cheung is lively in a comedy role that works (for once, unlike her abysmal stab at comedy in “Sex and the Beauties”) and Francis Ng proves once again that when you have talent comedy is a cinch.
Wilson Yip (director)
CAST: Francis Ng …. Feather
Cecilia Cheung …. Hei-fung/White Dragon
Andy On …. Prince Tian-yang
Shiu Hung Hui …