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Junkfood Cinema: Dragon Tiger Gate

By  · Published on November 12th, 2010

Junkfood Cinema

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; we can’t apologize enough. This is the internet column which thankfully you only have to bear once a week. I am an indiscriminate consumer of film and gorge myself on terrible b-movies as often as the AFI Top 100 fodder. Therefore each week I will showcase a bad film near and dear to my heart. I will list its sundry faults while simultaneously lavishing adoration upon it. When you are done duly vomiting, that’s the exact moment where I swoop in and present you with an appropriate junkfood item in an effort to inappropriately ease your cinematic indigestion.

This week’s film may be a bit obscure, and difficult to find, but well worth the diligent hunt. It is a Chinese film called Dragon Tiger Gate. It is the story of two half-brothers, not-so-ironically named Dragon and Tiger, who are separated as children but not before being given a two-part pendant. Their shared father is the master of the Dragon Tiger Gate; a martial art academy that, like a Transformer, is more than meets the eye. Dragon ends up being raised by a ruthless Triad and Tiger remains loyal to the academy. But when the leader of an evil cult, who secretly controls the Triads, sets his sights on the academy, the brothers must band together for the greater good.

What Makes It Bad?

What is really striking about Dragon Tiger Gate is how much it desperately wants to be an American comic book film. Sure, the film is based on a Chinese comic book so the association seems simplistic. But more specifically Dragon Tiger Gate endeavors to be a Marvel film. Its desire is so powerful that the film opens with rapidly flipping animated pages. Also, the colors of the movie are unusually heightened for a martial arts film. There are many familiar bright purples, electric blues, and kryptonite greens. There are shots that are framed in such a way as to feel wholesale lifted from Spiderman or The Fantastic Four; that “hero shot” with the extended arm and closed fist is apparently multicultural. You just don’t see ripoffs this shameless anymore.

In many of the Chinese genre films I’ve seen, and admittedly loved, there is a tendency to derail pacing in favor of melodrama. One would expect a martial arts film aping a Marvel superhero film would further its commitment to borrowing from American blockbusters by streamlining story and ratcheting up the action. But evidently the one element that had to remain culturally secure was the long-winded soap opera moments that go on for 6.3 eternities. It seemed that every fight scene had a corresponding pensive moment featuring terrible music and truckloads of brooding and swooning. It sucks the wind out of the action and doesn’t even work as dramatic interlude.

This movie stars Donnie Yen; the one and only Ip Man himself. As much as I like Donnie, he is at he has chops, but he cheeses it right the hell up every chance he gets. It doesn’t help that he has cinema’s most age-inappropriate haircut. The martial arts film hero cut typically centers around bangs the length of his forearm covering exactly one half of the face. Donnie’s haircut is no exception, but it has the disadvantage of being incongruent with Donnie’s 43 years on this planet. It makes him look more convincing as an ass-kicking lesbian than a youthful hero.

The effects in Dragon Tiger Gate get especially horrendous near the end. The end result they were clearly going for was an epic final battle; an ultimate showdown between the forces of good and evil. What it actually looks like is an awkward, fairly irritated skirmish held entirely within a screen saver. I completely understand the desire to uphold the illusion of Dragon Tiger Gate as a mega-budget American superhero film, but this may be a situation where underplaying the Marvel studio would be totally acceptable.

Why I Love It!

Did I mention Chinese Marvel movie?! As silly as it gets, I love the ambition and showmanship of Dragon Tiger Gate. The fight scene that pans through an entire building, up and over walls, is grandiose and incredible. I am a big fan of foreign interpretations of genres in which America has carved out an unfair monopoly. During Fantastic Fest 2009, I saw a Japanese film called K-20: The Fiend with 20 Faces which sought to replicate the strange American superhero movies of the 90s that were set in decades past (The Shadow, The Phantom, The Rocketeer). This is the same sort of international cinematic love affair displayed by Dragon Tiger Gate and that always tickles me.

Donnie Yen, despite the hair, is still a badass. Dragon Tiger Gate is directed by Ip Man director Wilson Yip who as also directed Yen in S.P.L, Flash Point, and Ip Man 2, and they work well together. The fight scenes, choreographed by Yen himself, are pretty spectacular. A far cry from his grounded, honest fights in Ip Man, Dragon Tiger Gate utilizes quite a few wires and absurdly impossible acrobatics, but that totally works within the confines of the superhero tale. That opening fight in the restaurant has its fair share of moments to induce both empathetic groans and celebratory fist-pumps.

I love the story here and all its various superhero tropes. We have the hero who starts as a villain, youthful tragedy, love gone awry, and even capes! Well actually, there is only one cape to speak of in this film and it belongs to the villain. But that cape is so massive as to provide the equivalent of every single cast member wearing at least a shawl. The bad guy’s cape nicely compliments his desperately scary mask and also manages to chew up as much scenery as he does. The scene wherein each of the three heroes (the two half-brothers are joined by a nunchuck-wielding drifter) receives their powers is like a warm blanket of familiarity.

Junkfood Pairing: Animal Crackers

No movie with two animals in its title should ever be viewed without a box of animal crackers handy. I have the same edict for Eagle vs. Shark, Snake in Eagle’s Shadow, and Milo and Otis…sure. I must say it is a considerable tragedy that the narrow-minded fools over at Nabisco do not feature a dragon-shaped cracker because it’s “not a real animal.” Please follow my example and write your local congressman one letter a day for 17 years until this atrocity is righted.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.