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Wuxia Review: The White Dragon

Before directing Donnie Yen in Ip Man (2008), director Wilson Yip directed this light-hearted Wuxia comedy, The White Dragon, in 2004. This movie is a welcome outlier among all the other Wuxia epics that came out in that decade, and it clearly proves that a Wuxia film can have that fun and upbeat feeling, while still retaining all the xia elements.

The titular "White Dragon" is a female warrior who steals from the corrupt rich and gives to the poor. While working undercover at an academy, the original White Dragon encounters wanted assassin Chicken Feather (Francis Ng) killing the principal for sexual harassment & assault of the female students. After their encounter leads to a fight, the White Dragon is severely wounded and transfers her internal energy (neili) to nearby, affluent student Black Phoenix (Cecilia Cheung). Prior to this, Black Phoenix was pursuing the Second Prince Tian Yang (Andy On) for marriage. Now, she has taken on the mantle of the new White Dragon. Complicating matters is how Chicken Feather tends to her injuries after their fight; this leads to an unlikely relationship that will change both characters.

This is a lighthearted Wuxia comedy, so we cannot expect the same seriousness as we saw in House of Flying Daggers (2004) the same year this came out. While there’s nothing wrong with that film, many films of the decade were produced very similarly. This film stands out from the others, and ensures that we know that. Despite being a period Wuxia film, there are many intentional, humorous anachronisms. Examples include Chicken Feather giving her a paper wrapped mantou (buns) that has “M” written on the bun when Black Phoenix unwraps it, and Black Feather playing tennis on roller skates with Second Prince Tian Yang. For Chinese speakers, Chicken Feather brings Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings) to White Dragon and jokes about how these are named after her (White Dragon’s Chinese name is Xiao Bai Long). Such examples set the expectation that we should not take this too seriously.

Despite being a lighthearted Wuxia comedy, White Dragon explores the theme of “Xia” better than other Wuxia films of the time. As the White Dragon, Black Phoenix steals from the corrupt rich to give to the poor. She comes from a more affluent background and learns to help the needy, though stealing is technically wrong. Chicken Feather only kills those who deserve to die; however, it is still technically murder. Without spoiling the film, each character eventually changes their way for the better of society. Their developed feelings for one another also helps prevent more deaths and uncover a corrupt official behind everything.

Those looking for many intense fights will be disappointed, but those looking for purposeful fights serving to advance to the plot may be quite satisfied with this film. The fights are few, but each one further develops the characters of White Dragon and Chicken Feather. Action Director Ma Yuk-Sing (who also did Shadowless Sword) ensures that each fight is filled with character, and that each successive fight builds upon the previous one. For example, White Dragon plans to pinpoint Chicken Feather’s weakness so she builds a body box trap that is modeled after an acupuncture diagram! Such fights could only work well with the right cast, and thankfully it works brilliantly in The White Dragon.

Initially, it was odd to see Francis Ng pairing with Cecilia Cheung, as there is a 20 year gap between the two. Upon watching the movie, their performances and chemistry made up for that. Francis Ng has always been great at portraying “extreme” characters and his performance here is no exception. Cecilia Cheung delivers in a role that could have been terrible if portrayed by the wrong actress. As a result, we care more for the characters themselves than any grand fight scenes.

White Dragon proves that Wuxia films can be lighthearted with lovable characters. It truly is a Wuxia film at heart, with the characters transforming and abiding by the code of xia by the end of the film. We highly recommend this film for your movie night this week, especially for those curious about director Wilson Yip's work before Ip Man and Donnie Yen!

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By B. Chansy
Immortal Staff

Film Trivia:
1. Chicken Feather may be a parody of the title character in the Japanese martial arts film and TV franchise Zatoichi. Both characters are blind and wield a similar weapon. Ironically the franchise itself has a Wuxia entry: Zatoichi Meets The One Armed Swordsman with Jimmy Wang Yu reprising his role.

2. Francis Ng previously portrayed the Japanese blind swordsman Invincible in the 1999 Hong Kong Wuxia film A Man Called Hero.

3. There is a 1968 Hong Kong Wuxia film and a 1989 Hong Kong ATV (Asia Television) series with the same title. Other than these featuring female leads as the title character, there does not appear to be much similarities from the clips and pictures found on the internet.
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