Film review: Chasing the Dragon – Donnie Yen, Andy Lau play notorious criminals Crippled Ho, Lee Rock in slanted biopic
More a showcase for Yen’s acting chops than a biopic of the real-life Hong Kong gangster – and one in which Andy Lau plays second fiddle as the crooked policeman – Wong Jing’s film is sanitised, shameless and a solid gangster tale
By now, it’s less an urban legend than a conclusion drawn from empirical observation: neither Donnie Yen Ji-dan nor Andy Lau Tak-wah – two of Hong Kong cinema’s biggest stars – is enamoured with playing bad guys at this stage of their careers. (Disclosure: I once got a stare from Lau by mentioning his tendency to play heroes.) But if you are holding your breath for them to make a U-turn in this gangster epic, think again.
Of course, the true-life drug lord Crippled Ho (real name Ng Sik-ho) and corrupt police sergeant Lee Rock (originally Lui Lok) have already been brought vividly to life on the big screen in the early 1990s: actor Ray Lui Leung-wai portrayed Ho as a Godfather-esque figure in the brashly immoral classic To Be Number One (1991), while a young Lau memorably played the titular bad police officer in a pair of Wong Jing-produced films, Lee Rock and Lee Rock II, in the same year.
But Chasing the Dragon – the title refers to the slang term for smoking heroin – is a far cry from those earlier films, which smugly revelled in their own depravity. Co-directed by writer-producer Wong and veteran cinematographer Jason Kwan Chi-yiu ( A Nail Clipper Romance ), it is such a sanitised – not to say heavily fictionalised – account of organised crime that its lead protagonists hardly qualify as anti-heroes.
Yen may look nothing like the real-life Crippled Ho, but he has made this film his own with his larger-than-life reimagination of the mobster as an improbably moralistic man. A penniless Chaozhou native who fled to Hong Kong with several of his “brothers” in the 1960s, Ho (Yen) is given a somewhat easier rite of passage than in the 1991 film, as he swiftly becomes one of the city’s most influential drug dealers.
In one of many narrative short cuts that Wong has taken to turn this into a dual portrait, Ho comes to power primarily because of the designs of Lee Rock (Lau, gamely taking second billing), the rapidly rising police officer who identifies Ho – a great fighter who frequently shows off his skills, including in a throwaway duel with Philip Ng Wan-lung – as his ideal accomplice on the other side of the law who can bolster his lucrative empire of corruption.
For all Wong’s attempts to disguise two notorious criminals as righteous citizens worthy of sympathy from China’s strict censors, this is a violent crime thriller that, oddly, resorts to genre tropes rather than properly explore the complicated legacies of its two protagonists in the era before Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption was founded. Scenes showing Ho, a prominent drug dealer, honourably turning young men away from drugs are downright shameless.
Wong’s cheeky sleight of hand has left the film a bad guy short – and Chasing the Dragon makes no apologies for making a villain out of the British colonial government and providing Ho a cartoonish antagonist in the form of a despicable and blatantly racist police superintendent (played by Scottish actor Bryan Larkin). Seen in this light, Lee Rock’s repeated warnings not to murder British officers may be less a virtuous gesture than proof of colonial suppression.
And yet, for a Hong Kong-China co-production positioned to milk history whichever way it likes, Chasing the Dragon is nonetheless a solid representative of the gangster film genre, one that goes to admirable lengths to flesh out the period detail in well-known locations that range from Lockhart Road in the city’s Wan Chai entertainment district to the former Kowloon Walled City. Devotees of To Be Number One will also be pleased to see Kent Cheng Jak-si back to play another foul-mouthed character.
But this is Yen’s film front and centre. Once pigeonholed as a martial artist, the Ip Man star has shown astonishing evolution in the past decade in his quest to be recognised as a solid actor. As this film shows, he is capable of truly charismatic turns when his deceptively stern image is aligned with materials calling for, say, an edge of controlled madness. Chasing the Dragon will be remembered more as a Yen showcase than a Crippled Ho biopic.
Chasing the Dragon opens on September 28
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