Legend of the Red Dragon very obviously references the Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub movies, so a few of my random thoughts about this film were in regards to this seminal Japanese film series of the 1970s.
Random thought number 1:
“The father / son relationship is modeled on the Japanese Lone Wolf and Cub series…” Leon Hunt, p. 70, Kung Fu Cult Masters
In an early scene the protagonist, Hung Hei Kwun (played by Jet Li), discovers that his wife has been killed and his village ransacked. He instructs his baby son to choose between a sword and a toy. If the infant chooses the sword then he will join his father in a life as renegade warrior. If he chooses the toy then his father will kill him so he can join his mother in the afterlife. This scene is a direct ‘steal’ from the first Lone Wolf and Cub film, Sword of Vengeance, made in 1972.
I have 2 DVD versions of Legend of the Red Dragon – one is dubbed by American voices, and the other offers a choice of Mandarin or Cantonese dubs with English subtitles. Interestingly, in the American version Hung tells his son that if he dies he will join his beautiful mother in Heaven. In the Chinese version Hung tells his son that Hell is where he and his mother will go. I am not sure if this tiny discrepancy reflects a need to sugarcoat a potential infanticide for Western sensibilities, or whether it reflects a different cultural or religious view of the sort of afterlife that awaits those who die violent deaths.
Random thought number 2:
The referencing of the Lone Wolf and Cub films perhaps explains the bizarre performance style of Jet Li in this film. His interpretation of the film’s hero is stilted and poker faced in the extreme. The main actor in the Lone Wolf films performed his fearsomely stoic and undemonstrative character with a glowering and understated intensity – it’s the ‘still waters run deep’ thing taken to extremes and a fabulous performance. We know that Li is capable of beautifully understated performances – his film career is littered with them (Once Upon a Time in China, Kiss of the Dragon, Hero) – so this very odd, almost clumsily robotic turn is not typical of him. I have decided to blame his director. This is a Wong Jing film, and I have a personal theory that Wong is trying to bring his art form down from the inside (and have a good laugh while he is doing it) (which is OK since most of his audience gets to laugh along with him). Instead of respectfully paying tribute to the Lone Wolf and Cub series, it is more likely that Wong is trying to send the films up. Thus we see Li aping the original lone wolf’s performance style for laughs, rather than interpreting the character on a deeper level. It is not Li’s finest moment as an actor, but, I repeat, this is a Wong Jing film so I would not have expected it to be. Li does find moments to animate his character and stop him from being absolutely wooden; and his strong screen presence saves him from disappearing underneath the weight of the strangeness of the performance style he is constrained to use in this film.
Random Thought number 3:
Cheeky cutie-pie Chingmy Yau, as the heroine Miss Red Bean, is the complete antithesis to the female characters who turn up in the Lone Wolf and Cub films. These women are tragic and damaged creatures, whether they be assassins or victims of rape (or sometimes both). But Chingmy has too much spunk and bounce to ever seriously invite our concern. I tend to think of her as the Goldie Hawn of Kung Fu movies and she comfortably negotiates Wong’s nonsense with more wit and flair than it sometimes deserves. She and Jet Li made 3 films together for Wong Jing (the other 2 are High Risk and Kung Fu Cult Master). They have a good on screen rapport and work well together.
Random Thought number 4:
In the Lone Wolf and Cub series, Legend of the Red Dragon and My Father is a Hero, there are plenty of what I mentally refer to as ‘Call the social workers’ moments. Plenty of psychological and physical violence gets meted out to the kids in these films, and the sensibility of this is quite different to the way it would be approached in Western movies. As much as I really love Asian martial arts films this is something I can’t quite get used to, and I don’t even want to. In this film, for example, the boy characters are shown sweating and grimacing as a map is tattooed onto their backs. Small boys are hunted and slaughtered alongside adult monks in an attack on Shaolin temple, and throughout the rest of the film they regularly get beaten during fights. When they receive a serious blow they are seen doubling over, tearing up and coughing up blood or bile. Not nice.