I guess you could say I have a complicated relationship with Jackie Chan.
I admire his work and his skill and his career, all of which are completely and utterly legendary. His body of work is as impressive as it is daunting. He is truly a veteran actor in all respects, and he deserves a label far greater than “legend”.
But you know what? I’ve never actually never gone out of my way to see any of his movies. If it happened to be on TV or playing at someone’s house, fine, I would totally watch it. If I was sitting around being lazy with a friend and they happened to stream one of his films on Netflix, I’d most definitely sit through it.
Would I actually take the initiative to watch one of his movies? Nope, not usually. Which is strange, because I’ve always loved martial arts cinema and cheesy dubbing. There’s nothing that more intriguing to me than a poorly translated yellow subtitle, either.
So I decided to give myself a challenge: watch one Jackie Chan movie per day for seven days in total. Why seven? Because that's a week, silly.
This is my experience watching them.
(And then writing about them.)
Will I be a Jackie Chan fan after this? I’ll be tracking my progress each day.
For Day 1, we're kicking things off (get it!) with Dragon Fist (1979).
It’s been quite a while since I’ve watched a martial arts flick. It’s not because I haven’t wanted to, or because I’m not interested, or because I don’t have several lying around on my hard drive or my shelf at all times. Because I totally do. I’d blame it on a couple things. Lack of time being one. The other, probably not being in the mood.
So sitting down and putting on Dragon Fist was kind of a process. First, I had to get in the zone. Kung Fu movies aren’t really known for their coherency or their easy to follow dialogue. Second, I had to perk my ears up for bad muffled dubbing. Then I had to prepare myself for the whole being constantly bombarded with cartoon slapping sound effects thing.
The first 15 or so minutes of Dragon Fist had all of these elements and more crammed in a short period of time. I literally had to rewind and rewatch this bit a couple times before I grasped who the characters were and what the storyline was. Basically, it was sort of like an endurance test for the rest of the movie. If you passed it, you were considered cool enough to enjoy the rest of the film’s better moments.
And Dragon Fist definitely has them. What’s so fascinating about this movie is that it’s not your average hopsockey slap-happy exercise in stunt fueled zaniness. It’s actually a thoughtful piece of revenge cinema, a multi-layered noir dressed up in a blood soaked silk uniform. And that caught me completely off guard.
The story starts off as simple as it gets. The movie begins in media res during the final round of a Kung Fu tournament. San Thye, the leader of the San Thye Clan, is about to win the champion title. After he defeats his opponent, he actually does. But before they can celebrate and enjoy the spoils of victory (which just so happens to include a cool new sign that I can’t read), the standing winner of last year’s competition, Chung, shows up with his clan.
What does he do? He kicks the shit out of San Thye until he coughs up blood and dies. Then he jump kicks their fancy new sign and breaks it in two. What a bitch!
This is where Jackie Chan comes in. He plays Tang, a loyal student and disciple of poor San Thye, who swears vengeance against the dastardly Chung and his sassy clan. Because why wouldn’t he? Plus, there really wouldn’t be much of a movie if he didn’t, right?
Little does Tang know, though, that Chung’s smug celebration is cut short back home when he discovers his wife has hung herself in shame and regret over his sinful actions. She leaves a letter telling him exactly why she did it and how she hopes the gods will forgive him. Overwhelmed with grief and remorse, Chung grabs a sharp sword and cuts off his own leg so he won’t kick any more innocent martial arts masters to death ever again.
We skip ahead in time. I guess Tang has spent time training to get his revenge on, and travels to Chung’s village to finally check it off of his bucket list. He arrives with San Thye’s wife and daughter as his companions, which makes sense but kind of doesn’t at the same time. I mean, if I was seeking some much needed retribution for the murder of my Kung Fu master, I’d probably be doing it solo. But whatever. Strength in numbers and all that.
As the story progresses, Tang confronts Chung and finds out that he’s not the same asshole he met in the beginning. He’s reformed, regretful, and pretty stationary now because of the self-mutilation. So his grand dreams of Kill Bill-esque “eye for an eye” have been all but dismissed.
It’s true. Chung and his clan aren’t exactly the scum of the earth we were expecting them to be. They aren’t lovable by any means, and we don’t really feel like rooting for them, but we relate to them. And so does Tang. So where do we go from here?
This is where Dragon Fist really takes off. Instead of giving us what we expected, and maybe even what we wanted, it trades deep red blood for colorless, somber uncertainty. Hell is what what was promised, yet we were given limbo instead. Which confuses our protagonist Tang just as much as it does us.
Eventually, a third party - an evil warlord named Wing - enters the picture and manipulates Tang into working for him as a bodyguard of sorts. In the grey area this movie has become, Wing’s character is charcoal colored. He’s the true evil bastard of the film, especially since he pretends he’s not. But his corrupt machinations (which I’m not going to spoil here) make him the truly detestable serpent writhing around in this film’s pit of snakes.
Without giving anything else away, the climax of Dragon Fist is, in short, fucking amazing. After the slow burn of this film’s unconventionally moody plot, I would have never guessed a grand down-and-dirty battle royale involving just about every character would erupt in such a way. But it does, and it’s every bit as glorious as it sounds.
This isn’t just because of the action itself, but because of how damn cathartic it all is. All of the built up tension that has been simmering beneath the narrative’s surface boils over and Tang is caught in the middle of it, without any excuses or clear allies. To say that I was blown away sounds cliche, but it’s the truth and nothing but.
I’ll be real with you, though. Dragon Fist is not the kind of Kung Fu movie you turn to if you want some insane, over-the-top sequences that involve wire-fu or vampires or mystical beast techniques. It dismisses all such conceits as naive romanticism with a blank expression and a slight shake of its heavy head.
What it chooses to embrace instead, however, are themes found in any worthwhile Spaghetti western or film noir: cynicism, corruption, irony, misplaced motivation, and the fatalistic nightmare.
Watch it if you are feeling like a rough-and-tumble downer. Avoid if you’re craving Jackie Chan’s standard brew of cartoony escapism.
Join me next time for Day 2: Shaolin Wooden Men (1976). Be there, or be punched and/or kicked. Perhaps repeatedly. You've been warned.