Blood of the Dragon (1973)
Blood of the Dragon is a fairly entertaining kung fu flick from the golden age of Hong Kong action cinema (the early 1970s, before the Jackie Chan/John Woo era). Set in Ancient China, it tells a classic story of honor and duty and the joys of disemboweling people with sharp objects. It features a veritable whose-who of kung fu stars, the action scenes are very well done, the pacing is tight and well-edited, and even the plot makes sense (sorta). Not a bad way to spend two hours.
Our movie opens with a middle-aged couple walking along a road through the woods. Right off the bat we see some authentic period costumes, with high-peaked coolie hats and silk pajamas, though hairstyles are more 1970s than 1270s. We are also put on early notice that the English dubbers simply didn't care enough to try and match voices and tones with scenes and personalities, but just mailed in voice-overs with blind indifference.
My ex-wife wanted me to roll her around on one of these in the mall. That's why she's my ex-wife now.
The couple is ambushed by four Mongols! Ok, let me stop here and explain our time frame. This is the 13th Century, a time when the independent and insular kingdoms of China fell to the dreaded Mongol hoardes from the north and west. The Mongols took over and set up puppet governments, and generally made life miserable for the Chinese, who they treated as little more than slaves.
This particular small band of Mongol warriors is led by "Kang Fu", who is chief of the guards for the local Mongol leader. Kang Fu's primary weapon is a spiked metal ball on a long chain, which he swings with deadly force like a mace (yes, similar to the killer schoolgirl from Kill Bill, but he doesn't look nearly as good in a short skirt).
The couple are actually well-known rebels, fighting for Chinese nationalism against the oppressive Mongol overlords. As such, it doesn't take but a few seconds for a battle royale to develop.
Now, this is old school kung fu movie making at its best. There are no CGI shots or wires and harnesses, just neat camera tricks and forced perspectives. Great gravity-defying jumps are accomplished either through trampolines just out of frame or by reversing film clips (cheap, yes, but charming in our age of ho-hum Crouching Tiger-style movies). The foleyed-in sound effects are also vintage dubbed late-night kung fu classics, with the "sword clangs" especially overused, as are the "thwacks" whenever someone takes a swing.
Flying through the air with the greatest of ease.
The woman is eventually killed, after she herself kills two of the Mongols with her flashing sword. Her husband (who is the weaker fighter, oddly), takes a blade through the back, but still manages to make it to a horse and escape. He rides to the nearby town of "Pei-Ping", mortally wounded (he really should be dead, but good guys can always take more damage than bad guys, proven fact).
Running Death Toll: 3 (going to keep this rolling as the body count is so high)
The rebel woman meets her end.
Ok, this being the 1970s, the era of Godzilla and Gamera films, its no surprise that our movie features an annoying little kid in a major role. And by annoying I mean fucking annoying with a capital FUCKing. His name is "Ni Chi" or something, but I'm going to call him "Kenny" in honor of all those Japanese monster movies.
Kenny is about ten and a vagrant pick-pocket and scam artist. His classic ploy is to act like a blind beggar and swindle sympathetic passerbys out of their hard-earned crowns. The little scamp even knocks down an old man who won't give him alms and then runs away laughing.
Kenny (I hate him).
While running from that rightfully-angry dude, Kenny meets the dying husband in an alley as he falls off his horse. With his last blood-bubbling breath the man hands Kenny a bamboo tube and begs the boy to take it to the palace and give it to a certain Prince. With that, the man collapses and dies in a pool of his own blood (which in this movie is a decidedly orangey color, maybe to get around some censorship rule).
Running Death Toll: 4
The man hands the tube to Kenny.
So Kenny takes the bamboo tube back to the teahouse where he lives and shows it to the owner, a young woman named "Miss Yen", who has taken him in it seems. Miss Yen is played by the oddly-named Chaio Chaio, who I reviewed recently in 1971's Rage of the Master. In that movie, her character was a karate expert and through the first half of the movie she slaughtered a seemingly endless number of bad guys with some truly vicious kung fu moves. Therefore, I was expecting all through Blood of the Dragon for her to bust a head or two at any moment, but much to my surprise (and irritation), her character remains docile to the end. In fact, she spends most of the movie cowering in the corner whimpering as bad guys break up her plates and cuff around the hired help. It's like seeing Bruce Lee in a movie where all he does is play an airport skycap who takes your luggage to the Avis counter.
Anyway, the Mongol Kang Fu and another soldier come to the teahouse to retrieve the bamboo tube (more on that later), which they know the boy probably has (eh?). Out the back door runs little Kenny, the Mongols in pursuit. He stupidly hides behind a tree that's skinnier than he is and is caught and he and Miss Yen, who follows them out, are abused verbally by the uncouth Mongols.
Nice job, Kenny.
But before anything untoward can happen, the Mongols are ordered to stop! The command comes from up in a tree, where a man in a white robe is relaxing and eating grapefruit (seriously, like a howler monkey). You can just tell what a badass this produce-munching arboreal dude is by the way he oh-so casually ignores the threats from the Mongols. He even spits a seed at one of the guys and knocks out his two front teeth! Yes, from like thirty feet away, in the dark. Badass!
Up in the tree.
This will be our film's Hero and his name will prove to be "White Dragon", and he's a well-known and much-feared freelance warrior in these parts (he's called a "lone wolf with many enemies"). He doesn't seem to have any sort of job, other than stomping and killing, and can be thought of as an intenerate wandering hero type. White Dragon's weapon of choice (the only one he uses all movie), is a six-foot long metal spear, tipped with a double-bladed head. Anybody see Hero with Jet Li? That movie kicked ass and took names (in Mandarin). Well, remember Sky, the guy in the long robes who was the master of the spear? Well, our guy is who that character was modeled after (I am proclaiming it to be so).
Sky. Go watch Hero again. Now.
White Dragon is played by 29-year old "Jimmy" Yu Wang, one of the most memorable martial arts experts from the 1970s and early 1980s, both in Hong Kong and in Taiwan. He was also in 1971's Rage of the Master, where he was quite the extinction-level killer. In our movie he sports a hideous pencil-thin goatee and flowing hair, and tends to look bit girly in some scenes. Still, though, I wouldn't want to mess with him.
Ok, back to the fight. White Dragon jumps down from the tree now and sets to do battle with the two Mongols, who are itching for a fight themselves. Kenny and Miss Yen look on with adoration as White Dragon defends them with an impressive show of spear-fu. I've always been a fan of weapons in martial arts, so to see the spear-vs.-mace showdown here was fun for me. The fight ends when Kang Fu gets his mace caught on White Dragon's spear and has a finger torn off (ouch!). White Dragon sends them running with a warning not to be so mean and icky in the future.
Kang Fu, sans digit.
Kenny explains the bamboo tube and his "mission", which he really doesn't want anything to do with (though in his defense, he is just a snotnosed kid). White Dragon doesn't ask a lot of questions, but he does explain to Kenny his obligation to fulfill the dying man's request (keeping face and honor is job one in China). While he's talking, you can just see that Kenny has hero worship glowing in his eyes, and the boy agrees to do the deed. White Dragon, not having much to do today, and already getting involved, decides to accompany the boy to the palace to deliver the tube.
Kenny loves him.
White Dragon and Kenny go to the palace to see the Prince, traveling many days across the verdant forests of China. The Prince is a younger man in fine robes whose exact royal lineage is not explained (though it's to be assumed that he's Chinese and not Mongol).
At the first sight of White Dragon, the Prince's eyes burn with fire. It seems that many years ago, the Prince's father was in a duel with White Dragon. His father lost the duel, and later killed himself out of shame for having lost (ancient cultures are fucked up). Ever since then, the Prince has trained for the day when he could avenge his father. That day is now. Before he can even explain why he's here (and it's definitely not to fight), White Dragon finds himself on the defensive.
We actually saw this fight in a pre-credits prologue, but I wasn't paying attention at the time.
The Prince has his father's "Magic Sword", which looks like a regular sword except that it has a hidden dagger in the hilt (doesn't seem very magic to me). Both fighters give good accounts of themselves, and it's only when the Prince sneaks out that hidden blade and knifes White Dragon in the back that the issue is decided. Loosing blood and nearly in shock, White Dragon is hard pressed to hold his own. In one of the more awesome ideas ever dreamed up by a scriptwriter, White Dragon has Kenny jump up on his back and press in close to act as a human compress against his wound, all the while continuing to swing and jab with his spear. Both a stunningly unique scene and a blatant example of child endangerment!
Kenny is a human bandage.
Eventually, White Dragon and Kenny escape the palace and flee into the woods. Along the way back to the teahouse, they stop to rest beside a pretty stream. Kenny helps bandage White Dragon's wound and he takes a chance and opens the bamboo tube, curious what all the fuss is about. Inside the tube is a rolled up parchment with a bunch of names listed on it. White Dragon knows what this is about, much to our surprise.
Remember that the native Chinese population is currently under the unpleasant thumb of the Mongols. The resistance movement is powerful, but deep underground at this time. This is a list of all the main rebel leaders and where they can be found, so it's clearly a critically important piece of information. In Mongol hands, it could spell the swift end of the rebellion, but in the hands of the Prince (a main rebel leader) it would help organize and command the coming uprising.
White Dragon now realizes that the Prince is a "true patriot". The fact that he attacked him earlier had nothing to do with this, the Prince didn't know that White Dragon and Kenny were bringing him the list, he just reacted out of revenge and honor for his father. White Dragon tells a disbelieving Kenny that despite everything, he still has to make sure the Prince gets this list.
The list, which will end up being a MacGuffin all movie long.
Meanwhile, while they were away, the Mongols learn of White Dragon's interference (from Kang Fu, who went running back to his masters after losing the fight to him). They send a fat dude named "Gold Leopard" and three soldiers to the teahouse to wait for him, sure that he will return. There they insult Miss Yen with unflattering comments about her hairstyle and her choice of crockery. She takes it all in stride, and I am again flashing back to her other movies, where she would have killed them all with her bare hands by now.
White Dragon arrives that night, limping up in the dark with Kenny as his crutch. The three nondescript soldiers come out to check on a noise and are engaged by White Dragon and his spear of devastation. The fight is pretty intense, but in the end, he kills the three soldiers by pinning them against a tree with his spear when they all conveniently stand in a line. "Roast in hell!" White Dragon mutters to the bleeding corpses, which really seems out-of-place in a movie like this.
Running Death Toll: 7
Too dark to see, sorry, the film grain is lousy.
Inside the teahouse, White Dragon faces down Gold Leopard, who doesn't act so tough when he's not surrounded by his buddies (we all know the type). Despite using a cool three-segmented nunchuck, Gold Leopard is thumped and kicked out of the teahouse badly bruised. The doors are locked behind him.
The Prime Minister and some soldiers show up now. The Prime Minister is apparently a Mongol, or at least a Mongol lackey, and is an able sword fighter in his own right. The PM bangs on the teahouse door, challenging White Dragon to open up and fight like a man. He's going to have to wait, though.
The Prime Minister (which seems like an odd choice of terms, perhaps due to the British dubbing company).
Inside, the injured White Dragon needs wine to heal him (the curative properties of homebrewed Chinese wine are legendary...). "Bring me wine!" he repeats over and over between jugs, barely stopping chugging long enough to kill a snooping soldier who climbed up on the roof.
Running Death Toll: 8
Wine good, trauma bad.
Once White Dragon has enough wine in him (an inexact science, it seems), he lets the Prime Minister in for a fight. The PM has skills, but he's no match for White Dragon's whirling dervish style and barely escapes with his head on his shoulders. Kenny shuts and bars the door behind him, and White Dragon sits back down to his wine. The Prime Minister (being the leader on site) decides not to risk another duel, but to besiege the teahouse and wait for "General Tai" to arrive (he's on his way).
Waiting around for some more swords to arrive.
General Tai (also called "The Red Wolf") is a former Chinese general who deserted to the Mongols and is considered a traitor by the locals. He's the "best swordsman in the empire" and only takes on the most important tasks. He uses a sword that turns into whip (really!) and throwing stars (called "spurs" here). If he can't defeat White Dragon, then no one can.
By this time it's clear that wine can only go so far when you are dealing with massive blood loss and tissue lacerations. White Dragon needs an actual doctor and some medicine. Stepping up to the plate, Kenny sneaks out in the darkness, headed for town to get some help (as well he should, this whole thing is his fault if you look at it, if he'd just taken the tube to the Prince himself everything would have turned out fine). He's captured by Kang Fu (the nine-fingered Mongol warrior), but Kenny tricks him into coming into town with him (something about turning sides, wink wink).
Kenny leads a gullible Kang Fu.
In the town, they run into the Prince, who is coming to find White Dragon and see about that list. The Prince fights an unarmed Kang Fu (where are his weapons?) in a very wicked but quick fight involving park benches and bundles of firewood (really). In the end, Kang Fu is downed by that sneaky throwing knife in the Magic Sword's hilt, after doing a masterful job of dodging and parrying the Prince's attacks with his bare hands. I'm going to miss Kang Fu, he was delightfully evil and I respect that in a character.
Running Death Toll: 9
Kang Fu gives his all.
After chatting with Kenny, the Prince figures out what happened and agrees to go to the teahouse with Kenny. Once there, the Prince and White Dragon kiss and make up, after a few tense moments where it looks like the Prince's revenge coda might get the better of him after all. The Prince has brought some medicine to heal White Dragon's wound (though it's in a tiny little bottle, so it's probably more of a pain killer than anything else).
The Prince plays doctor, my guess is that's pure morphine.
Outside, the Prime Minister sends a man off for more soldiers, and they wait for reinforcements. General Tai shows up then, and 90 or so soldiers arrive also. Bolstered by all these extra swords, they feel confidant that they can take on anyone.
The forces of evil assemble.
Inside the teahouse, they all talk about what to do. It's clear that they will have to fight their way out of there, one way or the other. The Prince will take the list and head out the back to escape, while White Dragon goes out the front and holds them off. The most important thing of all is that the list makes it away from here safely, even if it means White Dragon will sacrifice himself in the process. Miss Yen and Kenny are not happy about this, as they've grown quite fond of him (she and White Dragon even shared a little bonding moment earlier where he held her hand and she blushed demurely, which is as close to lovin' as you will get in this movie).
White Dragon and the Prince discuss options, all of which are grim.
Not all the bad guys are out front, however, and the Prince has to fight his way through a bunch of them to get to his horse. The Prince is a crazyass killer, spinning, slashing, and jabbing, scything through the hapless soldiers like they were cardboard cutouts. When the field is clear, he leaps on horse and rides away, carrying that list with him. Behind him, he leaves 38 dead bodies and my healthy respect for the actor's martial arts skills.
Running Death Toll: 47
The Prince is a machine.
While the Prince was going all Tafume out the back door, White Dragon goes out the front door to face a triple-stacked legion of soldiers. When asked why he's meddling in these affairs, White Dragon, who is normally apolitical, responds with a blood-chilling smile, "I'm not meddling, this is just too good a fight to pass up." He then proceeds to mangle anyone who gets within five feet of him, running them through with his spear (though it's painfully obvious in some shots that the stuntmen catch the spear tip under their arms and then collapse as a blood bag hidden in their shirt pops).
He kills 22 before General Tai spars with him for a bit. The General is a tough fighter, and he gives White Dragon some serious hits before they step back to exchange insults and one-liners. I've been trying to figure out the mechanics of the sword/whip weapon, but it's surely just one of those too-awesome-to-exist-in-real-life Asian movie weapons, like the Hanzo samurai sword, the flying dagger, and the Oxygen Destroyer.
Running Death Toll: 69
One against many, but we know the odds.
White Dragon then kills another 22 luckless soldiers before moving on to the named bad guys. First he kills Gold Leopard, after kicking (!) him up onto the porch and stabbing him up through the roof. Then he kills the Prime Minister (with four quick jabs to the stomach and a fifth through the chest) before taking a break to glower and trade more insults with General Tai.
Running Death Toll: 93
Fight to the death!
Now it's just down to General Tai and seven soldiers. White Dragon takes care of the seven men in about seven seconds, and then it's rightfully down to the final one-on-one duel. He and General Tai fight for a long time before they kill each other. A fitting end to White Dragon's final battle.
Running Death Toll: 102 (final tally)
White Dragon's demise, Miss Yen closes his dead eyes for him.
All over a stupid list. Why couldn't they have just emailed it?
Written in May 2008 by Nathan Decker.
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that's between you and the vengeful wrath of your personal god...