With Donnie Yen recently announcing his apparent retirement from the martial arts film genre, it may be high time to take a look back at his sprawling career as one of Hong Kong’s greats. Donnie Yen has starred in and choreographed many films in his time with many varying scripts and premises that have seen him as a sword-wielding vampire, in war-torn Foshan, a time-traveling Ming Dynasty officer and even yep…a comic book character!
“Oriental Heroes” is a popular manhua (Chinese comic book) title by Wong Yuk-long that has been in production since 1970. Similar in vein to something like “Fist of the North Star” or “Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple”, mystical martial arts are a central focal point of the series. The immense popularity of this comic with its fast-paced action and graphic fights helped greenlight a film adaptation titled “Dragon Tiger Gate” in 2006.
Donnie Yen plays Dragon Wong, one son of Master Fu Hu Wong, a founder of the Dragon Tiger Gate academy. Nicholas Tse portrays the other son of Master Fu Hu Wong and half-brother of Dragon, Tiger Wong.
Shawn Yue, a recognizable face in Hong Kong cinema, is Turbo Shek, a fledgling martial artist who becomes embroiled in Tiger’s fight against the forces of evil. Yu Kang is the body for Shibumi, a villainous drug-dealing cult leader, while Louis Koo provides the voice for the character. Yuen Wah, whom many will recognize from his role as The Landlord in “Kung Fu Hustle”, appears as Master Wong, both of the boys’ father. Donnie Yen also served as the fight choreographer for the film.
Once upon a time, the Dragon Tiger Gate academy was founded by two powerful martial artists to train others and uphold justice against the Triad, while also providing a safe haven for children who have been orphaned by the Triad’s activities.
Behind the scenes, the Luocha Cult, a pan-Asian drug trafficking organization headed by a man named Shibumi, is the one really pulling the strings behind the Triad.
Dragon and Tiger Wong, sons of Fu Hu Wong (one of the original founders of the academy), end up on two separate paths in life when tragedy strikes and Dragon’s mother dies in a fire when both boys were still very young. The only thing she is remembered by is a jade pendant of which half is given to Dragon and the other half, to Tiger. Dragon ends up under the care of the Triad while Tiger is taken care of by his uncle.
Years later these two long-lost half brothers’ destinies collide through a ‘chance’ encounter and they must unite to defeat the ultimate evil once and for all, Shibumi!
Having Donnie Yen helm as fight choreographer, you can expect a certain level of finesse in the fight scenes with all the talent being put to good use.
All the characters execute blazing-fast strikes, a staple of Yen’s style.
Interestingly, this is before Yen had fully developed his main style of action. There are much more of the wire-assisted acrobatics found in the wuxia genre when compared to Yen’s later films such as “Flash Point” (2007), in which he incorporated aspects of MMA into the fights to create a more realistic and grounded style of action; something that would later become another iconic aspect of Yen’s style.
The level of detail in the choreography even helps convey just how different these two half-brothers are due to their chosen paths in life, as Dragon and Tiger are meant to be foils for one another.
Though Tiger Wong is supposed to be a master of kung fu, Nicholas Tse actually trained in Taekwondo for this film to execute many flashy, high-flying kicks. In fact, Tiger Wong almost entirely relies on kicks and his lower body in the many brawls he finds himself in. On the flipside, Dragon Wong relies mostly on his hands and upper body.
A plethora of melee weapons, sure to pique the interest of any martial arts fan are also on display; the staff, three-section staff, sai, guandao (Chinese glaive), the classic nunchaku – these and many more can be seen in action.
Though the tide of Donnie Yen’s career as a martial arts action star may have come in, there are plenty of superb fight action films to look back on, indulge in and enjoy from his long and illustrious career.
In “Dragon Tiger Gate” we get the chance to see him as a comic book character and all the high-flying absurdity that comes with it. The preposterous physics, the epic struggle between good and evil; all spiced up with martial arts action. It makes one wonder what could’ve been if, in an alternate universe somewhere, Yen was cast into mainstream Marvel films for example…y’know, just saying.
- A punching bag constructed for the film holds the Guinness World Record for the largest punching bag in the world, standing at 2.4 m (8 feet) high, 1.5 m (5 feet) wide, and weighing around 181 kg (400 lbs).
- The creator of “Oriental Heroes”, Wong Yuk-long, has a brief cameo as Master Qi.
- The Chinese name for the comic book (龙虎门 Lóng Hǔ Mén) literally translates to “Dragon Tiger Gate”, in reference to the fictional kung fu academy and hence how the film got its name.
- The fight scene with Shibumi while he is holding a sign is a reference to “Fist of Fury” (1972), starring Bruce Lee.
- Xing Yu (perhaps best known for his roles in “Kung Fu Hustle”, “The Wrath of Vajra”, and more recently “Master Z: Ip Man Legacy”) has a brief role as Fan.
- Nicholas Tse was taught martial arts from a number of notable people, such as Philip Ng, Andy On, Sammo Hung, and Jackie Chan stunt team leader Chung Chi Li.
- Yuen Wah is one of the “Seven Little Fortunes”, having been a classmate of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Corey Yuen, and Yuen Qiu.