The White Dragon (2004) / Action-Comedy
aka Fei Hap Siu Baak Lung
aka The Flying Heroine: Little White Dragon
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG-13 for violence, language and crude humor
Running time: 92 min.
Cast: Cecilia Cheung, Frances Ng, Andy On, Liu Lei, Hiu Sheu Hung, Patrick Tang, Suet Nay, Kitty Yuen
Director: Wilson Yip
Screenplay: Wilson Yip, Lo Yiu Fai (a remake of the classic 1968 kung fu film, The White Dragon)
Almost a guilty pleasure of sorts, The White Dragon is far too uneven to be called a truly successful film, but there are moments that are quite memorable, either because they are so bizarre or because they are actually laugh-out-loud funny. Written and directed by the highly eclectic filmmaker Wilson Yip (Bio Zombie, 2002), the spoof of wuxia mixed with anachronistic sight gags is eclectic in and of itself, and while it definitely won't be everyone's thing, there's just something refreshingly silly about it that is hard to dislike. Despite some funny moments, Yip isn't very successful at keeping all of these wild ideas of his consistent with the rest of the story, which is a fairly conventional romance about a woman torn between two lovers on opposite sides of the law.
Cecilia Cheung (Lost in Time, Cat and Mouse) stars as Black Phoenix, a pretty, young, and vain student who thinks she has what it takes to woo the most desirable eligible bachelor in the land, Second Prince Tian Yang (Andy On, Finding Mr. Perfect). Utilizing her prodigious skill in music, Phoenix finds her audience with the Prince, who is won over by her music and natural beauty. Meanwhile, a cold-blooded assassin (Francis Ng, The Mission) has been rumored to be around the castle, possibly there to assassinate the fair prince. He goes by the moniker of Chicken Feathers, because a trail of chicken feathers follows him when he is out to make a kill. Chicken Feathers is challenged by White Dragon, an elderly woman with proficient skills in martial arts to almost match his, but not quite enough it seems. Before she expires, White Dragon transfers her kung fu knowledge into empty shell Black Phoenix, turning the young woman into the prettiest martial arts expert around. Although she doesn't understand her new powers, she does noble deeds like rob from the rich and give to the poor, but only because doing such things prevents her from getting acne. This also puts her face-to-face with the blind swordsman, Chicken Feathers, who is still too good for the new White Dragon, although he does nurse her back to health after their heated battle. While Chicken Feathers plays nurse, White Dragon seeks to find his weak point to stop him once and for all.
Although it runs at a scant 90 minutes, there's a lot going on in The White Dragon, although this does come at a heavy price to the overall experience. While the humor does add a nice flavor to the formulaic action elements, these moments occur too sporadically for the proper tone to ever set in. The film starts off in conventional mode, only to have the humor kick in with a very anachronistic sight gag showing the transfer of powers between White Dragon and Black Phoenix as represented by a Microsoft Windows file transfer display (I'll admit, it was funny). From then on, many other gags do appear, but not really often enough to take this as a pure comedy, especially when the romance and deadly assassination stories are mostly handled with earnest seriousness.
If one were to compare The White Dragon to its closest American counterpart, I would probably put it in the same genre as Shrek, although this is a live-action film. Both tell very routine stories that are injected with modern day references for some laughs. The White Dragon isn't as successful as Shrek, however, as the writing isn't sharp enough to keep the energy going, while the fight choreography and strange sound effects shows that Yip isn't really an expert yet at crafting kung fu action. He seems far more comfortable in the smaller story of the potential romance between Chicken Feathers and Black Phoenix, which would probably have made for a nice story on its own, if it wasn't sandwiched in between the silliness and the violence.
For all of its charm, The White Dragon probably doesn't have enough juice to satisfy anyone who isn't into heavily quirky movies that tinker with long-established conventions without any logical sense. It's a movie that asks us not to take it seriously during some scenes, and then wants us to be truly engaged in others -- a feat that only a true master storyteller can pull off. Yip shows here that he is not quite ready to take up such a mantle.
©2005 Vince Leo