Dragon Tiger Gate Review
Four words put the fear of god into me when used in relation to HK cinema: Based on the comic. Over the years HK filmmakers’ relationships with their favourite comics have been uneven at best, stretching back for almost thirty years now. In the 80’s we were subjected to (or treated, depending on your viewpoint) crudely made horrors taken from Japanese Manga: The Story of Riki-oh and Wicked City, which provided camp entertainment only for their graphic excess and ridiculously poor special effects. Continuing the Manga theme, the 90’s saw the rise of hit & miss martial arts films like City Hunter and Dragon from Russia, while Andrew Lau took the HK Triad comic Young & Dangerous and kick-started one of the most successful film franchises of the decade, although by the end of the decade too many sequels had left a bad after-taste. In 1998 and 1999 Lau dipped into the HK comic well once more when he directed the big-budget SFX action-extravaganza films: Storm Riders and A Man Called Hero, two vapid, vacuous films where little things like characterisation, story, and even martial-arts took a back seat to CGI effects that could only match US TV shows like Star Trek rather than Hollywood blockbusters like The Matrix.
Almost a decade later and director Wilson Yip is riding high after teaming up with Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen to make the first decent HK martial arts film in too long: Sha Po Lang. When news that he would be working with Donnie Yen again to deliver another martial arts film, I rejoiced, but then I read that it would be a high-budget CGI fest and those four little words…
Based on the immensely popular and influential comic serial “Dragon & Tiger Heroes” by Tony Wong Yuk-Long (which has been running for over 35 years now), Dragon Tiger Gate follows the exploits of two estranged brothers: Tiger Wong (Nicholas Tse) and Dragon Wong (Donnie Yen) and an eager young Nunchaku specialist called Turbo (Shawn Yue), who each have ties to a dojo run by the brothers’ uncle: Wong Jiang-Long (Yuen Wah) at the Dragon Tiger Gate. The film opens as Tiger and his dojo “posse” are enjoying a meal in a restaurant where the Ma Kwun gang are arguing with a rival gang over the fact the powerful Lousha Gang have given Ma Kwun (Chen Kuan-Tai) their Lousha Plaque, which gives his gang the monopoly on smuggling jobs across Lousha territory. While the two gangs argue upstairs, Tiger comes to the aid of a family at a nearby table who are being shook down by Ma Kwun debt collectors. The ensuing melee ends up disrupting the triad meet and Tiger finds himself in possession of the plaque. Opting to keep hold of the plaque as a memento, Tiger is eventually stopped by Ma Kwun’s personal bodyguard, Dragon; who recognises Tiger as his younger brother and refuses to deliver the finishing blow.
When Tiger escapes with the plaque, Dragon tells his boss that he will go retrieve the important item and catches up with Tiger and his friends enjoying a meal in a Japanese restaurant, but before he can take the plaque back to Ma Kwun, fellow gang member Scaly turns up with his own men to take the plaque himself. This causes a huge fight with Dragon and Tiger taking on all of Scaly’s men, which ends up disrupting Turbo who was enjoying a brief meal. With experts fighting Scaly’s men the brawl soon comes to an end, and Dragon swiftly returns the plaque to his boss while Tiger takes Turbo back to the Dragon Tiger Gate because the youngster wants to enrol as a student there, but becoming a student of Wong Jiang-Long is a lot harder than Turbo thinks. Meanwhile, after briefly re—uniting with his younger brother, Dragon starts to realise the decisions he made in life that led to him becoming a triad member were probably the wrong ones, and seriously contemplates leaving the underworld behind for good. As it turns out Ma Kwun is also considering retirement, but when the ruthless Lousha leader Shibumi finds out that the man he entrusted the plaque to is planning to pull out of the crime business, he sets in motion plans that will tear the Wong brothers’ lives apart.
Does Dragon Tiger Gate finally prove that HK can pull off high-spectacle comic book films to match the glut of titles coming out of Hollywood? No, I’m afraid not, BUT it is a hell of a lot better than the horrid Storm Riders and A Man Called Hero. The film’s ultimate failing is that Wilson Yip tries to have his cake and eat it by incorporating five decent sized action sequences and three distinct character arcs into a story that’s over by the 95minute mark. It’s simply too much, the end result is an almost non-existent narrative that barely demands any dramatic involvement from the viewer, and characters that amount to little more than the most basic genre clichés. Action legends Chen Kuan Tai and Yuen Wah are the biggest casualties of this, both have matured into fine character actors in their old age but their dull cardboard cut-out characters give them little opportunity to display this. Only Dragon is afforded much of a back story and some form of moral depth as Dragon, a man with a natural sense of justice who became a Triad to please his adoptive father Ma Kwun and is now realising his heart belongs to the Dragon Tiger Gate. This is pretty much the extent to his character which is shocking considering two-thirds of the narrative is set around this most basic of conflicts. Tiger and Turbo are completely surplus to requirements, Turbo arrives in HK from the US to convince Sifu Wong to join his dojo under any circumstances and that’s it! Tiger is at least afforded a romantic subplot with Ma Kwun’s daughter, but Yip expects the audience to accept them as a creditable romantic couple after they’ve shared two scenes together and swapped mobile phone numbers. What’s most shocking though is that aside from one or two scenes, their story arcs run completely separately to Dragon’s to the extent that they don’t even fight alongside him when the inevitable fight showdown with Shibumi occurs.
Of course, I’m well aware that adaptations of action comics should ultimately be judged by whether they capture the essence of the source material and the strength of their action set-pieces than the actual script, but unfortunately Dragon Tiger Gate is uneven in these areas as well. Wilson Yip is a talented visual director – he’s proven this with his previous films – and he directs a number of scenes with real style, with a particular high point being the shooting of the Japanese restaurant action sequence where Yip’s camera glides, jumps and slides from room to room covering the various participants. It’s obvious that genuine effort has been made to capture the fantastical visual style of action comics, but what looks good on page does not necessarily transfer well to screen. For instance there’s the stylistic difference between the main characters’ world and the villain’s. The HK that Dragon, Tiger and Turbo live in looks pretty much identical to the real thing, but whenever the story cuts to Shibumi he appears to be living in Mordor, only instead of a tower with a big eye on top he is given a huge crypt with a big throne and stairways that lead nowhere. The look of Shibumi’s lair is a big departure from the comic book, but proof that what works on page doesn’t necessarily work on screen is provided by the comical hairstyles that make the three leads look like they have been assaulted by Vidal Sassoon. If their camp appearances as adults wasn’t funny enough, when Dragon flashes back to his childhood we see that the child versions of Dragon and Tiger also sport the exact same clothes and hairstyles! The comic’s creator actually wrote and co-directed a film adaptation of his serial in 1979 which was released in the west as Hell’s Windstaff. Fans of Hwang Jang Lee (who played the villain) will probably remember the film fondly, but I’m not entirely sure it was that faithful to the original comics, but then from what little I know about Dragon & Tiger Heroes it doesn’t look like Wilson Yip’s effort is any more faithful either.
As for the action itself, as mentioned before there are five main set pieces in Dragon Tiger Gate. The first two - set in a Chinese and Japanese restaurant respectively - are technically the most impressive, Nicholas Tse demonstrates some impressive foot work, Shawn Yue looks ok, and Donnie Yen is as good as ever and in fantastic shape for a guy approaching his mid-forties. As action director Yen demonstrates is usual over-reliance on undercranking but considering the fantastical setting of Dragon Tiger Gate and the superhuman abilities of the characters, the fight sequences don’t rely too much on wirework and feature a healthy amount of grounded kung fu. Wilson Yip too ensures the fights are creatively shot. The main problem with the opening set pieces is their heavily contrived setting, both take place before we’ve gotten to know the characters properly and both defy any form of logic. So instead of sitting back and enjoying the spectacle you’re left wondering why the mayhem started and why are there so many triads in these restaurants in the first place. The Japanese restaurant sequence is particularly nonsensical, as we have a snivelling, cowardly Ma Kwun gang member called Scaly deciding to attack fellow gang member Dragon. Dragon appears to be the boss' number two guy and is a strong, just man, whereas Scaly is shown as a complete and utter scumbag who’s horrible to everyone around him, so it makes no sense to see scores of gang members faithfully follow Scaly’s wish and attack another senior gang member.
Thankfully, in the middle act we are treated to two fight sequences placed close to the dramatic high points of the film. Both are satisfyingly staged within the narrative and neither rely that heavily on cranking or wirework. As a result these fights leave a much stronger impression. The latter of these sequences is also the first time we get to see the main villain Shibumi in action, up until this point he’s a very camp villain in a mask who spends his time hitting large objects in his evil lair, but when he eventually gets off his arse and descends upon the Dragon Tiger Gate, he becomes a surprisingly menacing antagonist. Unfortunately this impetus is diffused by the final act and confrontation between Dragon, Tiger, Turbo, and Shibumi which doesn’t show-piece enough Kung fu and relies too much on flash CGI moves.
I’ve probably made Dragon Tiger Gate sound a lot worse than it is. The truth is that at just under 95minutes long the film never drags at all. The story may be piss poor, but viewers are treated to a fair share of flashy fight sequences and Wilson Yip’s visual flair, which ultimately makes for reasonably engaging, disposable entertainment.
PresentationDragon Tiger Gate is distributed in HK by Delta Mac in a 2-disc DVD set that contains the film on Disc 1 and 174 minutes of Extra Features on Disc 2 (34 minutes longer than the 140 minutes stated on the box!). There are three different releases of Dragon Tiger Gate to choose from at the time this review was written, with each separate release containing the exact same 2-disc DVD. The most expensive is the Limited Collectors Edition that comes with small Busts of the three main characters, and three tattoos matching the symbols the main characters have imprinted on their clothing (Star for Tiger, scorpion for Turbo, and lightning bolt for Dragon). The 2nd release is the Collector’s Edition, which comes with just the three tattoos, and finally there’s the just the plain old Regular Edition.
Presented anamorphically at approximately 2.35:1, Dragon the transfer looks quite good at first, but as the film progresses more and more problems pile up. First the good: Brightness and contrast levels are perfectly fine and colours are vivid with only some minor bleed around the edges of bright colours like reds. The image is generally sharp but mid to far range shots exhibit a slight lack of detail. Now the bad: It appears the disc has been encoded by monkeys, because there are compression problems throughout the film. Most of this comes in the form of Mosquito Noise, which together with some excessive Edge Enhancements in some scenes, causes very ugly ringing all through the film. If this wasn’t bad enough, the problem is ramped up to eleven when the action scenes kick in, and some very heavy macroblocking is thrown into the mix too. The transfer for the most part is progressive, but very occasionally some interlaced frames creep into the image.
If the video is lacklustre then the same cannot be said about the audio, with just over 1.7GB of the DVD taken up by the original Cantonese DD6.1-EX, Cantonese DTS 6.1-ES, and Mandarin DD6.1-EX tracks. For the purposes of this review I sat through the film twice listening to each of the Cantonese tracks and can confirm that these are pretty much reference quality. The DTS track is full bitrate (1536 Kbps), aggressive and provides a fantastic audio experience. Dialogue is loud, clear and very solid, bass has serious punch but still remains tightly defined. Sound dynamics are excellent, with every little element coming through rich and clear, while the soundstage is expansive with rears being used to good effect during the action sequences.
In comparison the DD5.1 simply lacks the power of the DTS, everything just seems little bit lesser: Nevertheless dialogue remains loud and clear, bass is powerful deep and tight, and the sound dynamics are very good. There’s certainly no need for those without DTS compatible equipments to feel like they’re not getting the full audio experience from this DVD. As for the Mandarin DD6.1-EX track, it sounds exactly the same as the Cantonese DD6.1-EX track.
Optional English subtitles are provided, with only occasional spelling and grammatical error, nothing that detracts from the film.
ExtrasWhile there isn’t a sniff of an extra feature on Disc 1, slap the 2nd disc into the old DVD player and you’ll be confronted with a wealth of extra material all neatly indexed into sections for your perusal, and best of all there are optional Chinese and English subtitles for everything – well, except for the Deleted Scenes.
Ok, first let’s get the token extras out the way first: Photo Gallery (04min 47sec), Theatrical Trailer, Teaser, and 3 TV Spots, do exactly what it says on the tin. Next up there’s a Deleted Scenes (7m 39s) reel, presented in the original aspect ratio but unfortunately non-anamorphically and without subtitles. Most of the scenes are pretty self explanatory though; many are simple fleshing out of Ma Xiao-Long’s relationship with Tiger and her father. It’s worth noting that the deleted scenes are presented in the original recorded audio (as opposed to the finish film which is dubbed). So Dong Jie and Li Xiao-Ran are delivering their lines in Mandarin while everyone else is using Cantonese.
The rest of the extras are placed in sections entitled: ON THE SET, STAR INTERVIEWS, and CANNES NIGHT & HK GALA, so I will go through each section independently:
ON THE SET:
This section is divided into 3 subsections entitled: The 4 Main Settings, Shooting Diaries, and Making Of:
The 4 Main Settings
Dragon Tiger Gate (02m 34s): Shawn Yue talks about his character Turbo’s role in the movie while we’re treated to behind the scenes footage on the Dragon Tiger Gate dojo set.
Japanese Restaurant (02m 24s): This is some brief behind the scenes footage on the Japanese Restaurant set while Donnie and Wilson Yip talk about shooting the Japanese restaurant fight scene and how they achieved the fluid high angle camera sweeps.
Lousha Gate (02m 35s): Again Donnie and Wilson talk about how they came up with the idea for building a vast set to be the headquarters for the Lousha Gang as behind the scenes footage is shown. One surprising revelation comes when we see that the giant punch bag Shibumi uses for training in the film is an authentic one.
Floating Restaurant (02m 27s): Nicholas Tse and Donnie discuss the shooting of the opening fight scene while we’re treated to footage of the shoot. This There are plenty of clips showing Donnie directing Tse and making sure he gets the best out of him.
Pre-Production (03m 19s): Almost devoid of dialogue, this is a series of clips showing artwork from the comic book and comic creator Tony Wong playing his part in the film’s promotion. After this we’re shown footage of how the look and style of each charcter was achieved.
Shooting Diaries 1 (03m 33s): Random behind the scenes footage from various scenes in the film, mostly the action sequences.
Shooting Diaries 2 (03m 59s): This one concentrates mostly on the set design for the Lousha Lair and the Dragon Tiger Gate, although by the end of the feature we have returned the shooting of the fight sequences.
Shooting Diaries 3 (03m 30s): The last Shooting Diaries featurette follows the same pattern as the others, a few random clips from the shoot and then a swift concentration on the shooting of the fight sequences.
Making Of (18m 27s): A very generic Making Of featurette, consisting of cast and director interviews and the occasional bit of behind the scenes footage. Unfortunately almost all the interview footage is repeated from the longer, separate interviews on this disc.
STAR INTERVIEWS: (Each interview is presented here in the order they are on the DVD)
Donnie Yen (24m 30s): A long and informative interview with the Yenster where he discusses the challenges his dual role as star and action director brought. Yen talks intelligently about every aspect of the action sequences, providing an excellent breakdown of each scene and how he tailored his choreography to match Nicholas and Shawn’s individual strengths. This is probably the best feature on the disc.
Nicholas Tse (13m 42s): Tse talks about all his co-stars and reveals Donnie Yen is one of his all time favourite HK action icons and a big reason why he took the project on. Apparently studios had been trying to get this film into production for at least five years now, as Tse was offered the role of Tiger back in 2001, but he turned it down because he felt he wasn’t quite good enough for such a high profile, action intensive role.
Shawn Yue(13m 13s): Yue receives the same questions as Tse and replies with similar answers, revealing an earnest, hard working nature.
Dong Jie (07m 28s): The first question Dong’s asked is to talk about her character in the film, she then proceeds to basically describe every single scene the character of Ma Xiao-Ling takes part in! Even more amusing, her next question is “What is your most memorable scene?” – I think the answer is all of them! Once she’s done with the scene descriptions though, she does give some insight as to what it’s like for a young Mainland actress working over in HK and the different attitudes of the crews.
Li Xiao-Ran (07m 11s): Like Dong, Li also talks us through pretty much every scene her character appears in, but then her part in Dragon Tiger Gate was so slight, it’s no wonder she’d want to talk about everything. Almost all Li’s scenes in the film were one-on-one with Donnie, so she doesn’t have a lot to say about co-stars, but she does reveal that Donnie has a very playful side and would wind her up mercilessly each day on set.
Wilson Yip (18m 00s): Director Yip talks briefly about each member of his crew (Composer Kenji Kawai, Costume Deisigner Willam Chang, etc) and of course goes on to discuss the stars of the film and what they brought to each role, he even reveals that he intends Dragon Tiger Gate to be the first in a franchise of films based on the comic. This is the second longest interview on the disc, but also one of the best.
CANNES NIGHT & HK GALA:
Cannes Night (2m 00s): Various footage from the Cannes Film Festival where the film was playing, we see Donnie & Co doing all the promotions and stuff. Note that this feature is set to music, without dialogue, so no subtitles are provided or indeed needed.
HK Gala (3m 46s): Footage from the film’s special gala premier ball set to music, so no dialogue or subtitles.
When looking at the extra material as a whole, there’s a definite case of quantity over quantity here. The production featurettes are all too short and leave you wanting more, while the shooting diaries are split up into too many categories when they should’ve just covered all the action sequeneces in one long diary and then keep the non-action footage for over diaries. The most informative and thus interesting extras are the Star Interviews, but it’s seriously disappointing that Yuen Wah and Chen Kuan Tai are completely ignored, especially considering their contribution to HK action films over the years.