Chasing the Dragon (2017)

When I learned that Wong Jing is the writer-director of Chasing the Dragon, I feared the worst. Seriously, his filmography is pretty splotchy, mostly filled with disposable contrived movies that you won’t remember much the moment you walk out of the cinema. But my fears were unfounded, Wong Jing has pulled a rabbit out of the magic hat and this is one helluva entertaining old school triad movie.

Illegal immigrant Ng Sik Ho (Donnie Yen) comes to Hong Kong in 1963 and finds out that he earns more through fighting for rivaling triad groups than from honest work. Before long, he rises through the ranks to become drug lord Crippled Ho. He catches the attention of Detective Sergeant Lui Lok (Andy Lau) who is also rising up the ranks of the Hong Kong Police. Together, they forge a partnership that will reap in the money and have complete control of the drug trade in Hong Kong.

This movie is heavily marketed as the first collaboration between two heavyweight A-listers, Donnie Yen and Andy Lau. But I have to say their symbiotic relationship, which is bound by the code of brotherhood and blood, doesn’t get portrayed satisfyingly. In scenes that featured both of them, it simmers when it should have been boiling in intensity. Between the two, Yen’s role has more opportunities to shine and I am glad he has displaced his quintessential Ip Man persona. Yen employs Teochew and Teochew-accented Cantonese to realise his role as Crippled Ho. His life motto is 生死有命,富贵在天 (life or death, poverty or riches. It’s all destined) and he strikes to maim. Lau, who plays the same role of Liu Lok in Lee Rock I and II (both 1991), is completely organic in the slick as a whistle cop. It is a role he has played many times.

The ensemble cast features many veterans like Ken Tong, Kenneth Tsang, Kent Cheng and Felix Wong. All of them adding substantial meat to their roles. I always dread seeing Caucasians cast as Gwei-los, speaking in heavily English-accented Cantonese and in largely disposable cringeworthy characters, but I am glad to say I didn’t get that dreaded feeling here. Ernest Hunt (Bryan Larkin) is a despicable character and he demonstrates evil flair as a cop who thinks he is above all the locals.

With a runtime of 128 minutes, the plot whizzes by with nary a boring moment, but it does feel like a cross-stitch of greatest hits taken from numerous entries in the triad and heroic bloodshed genre films. This is an observation, not a complaint, because the familiar scenes are loaded with colourful characters and vivid situations.

If the passage of time is not quite up to par, the sense of place is on the mark. The set design encompassing an old Kowloon Walled City is jaw-dropping. At one point, the roving camera does a Goodfellas as it worms through a winding maze of drug dens, seedy brothels, sleazy bars, street hawkers, gambling dens and slum houses. It is a literal hell-hole that no police would dare to step in.

Chasing the Dragon, a euphemism for the effect of taking heroin, also offers a window into a time in Hong Kong where corruption is rampant from the lowest to the highest. The shambolic events culminated to the formation of the Independent Commission Against Corruption formed in 1974 which brought all the guilty parties to justice.

This may not be an award-winning movie (I may be wrong here), but the story is engaging and moves quickly with economical set-ups, proving that it doesn’t need to be top heavy for it to be a lean mean entertaining crime epic. This is a Wong Jing I hardly see.

PS – there is an epilogue after the initial last credits. You won’t want to miss that.


3.5 / 5


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