Beware! This review contains spoilers!
Legend of the Red Dragon (more fittingly known as Hung Hei-Koon: Shaolin’s Five Founders, Legend of the Future Shaolin, or The New Legend of Shaolin) is a rather tongue-in-cheek, light-hearted affair showcasing Hung Hei-Kwun’s (Jet Li) exploits as a rebel against the Qing government. Chock-full of colourful, nonstop action, plenty of wirework and unlikely physics, the only thing this fantasy flick from 1994 is bereft of is an actual dragon, red or otherwise! Nonetheless, Wong Jing and Corey Yuen’s film is a prime example of the unique joys of Hong Kong pop culture…read on!
In contrast to Jet Li’s likable role in the previous year’s Fong Sai-yuk (also directed by Corey Yuen), his portrayal of Hung Hei-Kwun is much darker. He rarely shows emotion, even towards his own son, and speaks in monotone throughout the film. His lack of expression is mirrored by Miu Tse, who plays his son. Fortunately, Legend of the Red Dragon explains their backstory well enough to allow for an understanding of these two characters. In addition, casting these two sombre individuals as leads makes the playful juxtaposition with the rest of the cast all the more effective. Chingmy Yau and Diane Yip do a fantastic job as the kick-happy mother-daughter team, and their con artistry is where the majority of the humour and wit in the film is derived. Chi Chuen-Hua creates a maniacal villain in his representation of Ma Ying-Lee, who is clearly out to scare little kiddies and make wimps of us all.
After seemingly sensing trouble from a million miles away, Hung Hei-Kwun races back to his village to find his loved ones slaughtered for rebelling against the corrupt Qing government, with only his infant son, Ting, spared from the carnage. He gives his little one a choice between his favourite rocking horse (death) and a sword (life), of which his son chooses the latter and goes into hiding with his father. After burning the bodies, Hung is greeted by Ma Ling-Yee, who Hung believes is also part of the rebellion. However, our hero soon learns otherwise, as Ying-Lee betrays him for the large bounty the government has placed on his head. And with that, the first of many epic wire fu-tastic battle sequences begins. While the government are hungry for Hung’s head, they’ve also begun pestering the Shaolin Temple. In order to protect the location of their sacred Ming Dynasty treasure, pieces of a map which lead to it are tattooed onto the backs of several pupils.
Meanwhile, Hung and Ting are travelling around China trying to make ends meet, when they come upon the town in which Hung’s brother resides. Hung asks his brother to take care of Ting, only to be betrayed for money a second time. After disposing of his double-crossing sibling, Hung meets the acquaintance of the ravishing Red Bean and her plump suitor, Chong (who also happens to be the father of a Shaolin Temple student named Chu), at which point he comes under the latter’s service as a bodyguard. Soon afterwards, Red Bean and her con artist mother hatch a plan to steal Chong’s necklace, which would require Red Bean taking Hung out of the picture. After a playful, mildly erotic and innuendo-filled kerfuffle, Red Bean withdraws and Hung is left to contemplate some new-found feelings.
Down at the Shaolin Temple, a now revolting-looking, borderline vomit-inducing Ling-Yee has returned from the dead and isn’t taking any prisoners. With the aid of government forces, he massacres the temple’s inhabitants in his search for the Ming Dynasty treasure map. Luckily, the tattooed pupils escape to the safety of Chong’s residence in the nick of time. But it’s not long before the government troops, led by a mascara-clad monk, track the boys down and start murdering everyone in their path to get to them. When all seems lost, our faithful hero with his magical spear and kick-hungry offspring show up to save the day. The ever grotesque Ling-Yee then rolls up in an obscure vehicle he most likely stole from Batman, explaining that some Yee-Hang witch made his body invincible. After a short battle, Hung lures Ling-Yee and his cronies away from the innocent civilians.
With Ting and the tattooed boys being held hostage by the government, Hung sends word to the rebels to meet him at the Red Dragon Pavilion in order to rescue the kids from the enemy stronghold. Soon after, Hung, Red Bean and Red Bean’s mother lay siege on the government’s headquarters, freeing the boys with ease. The boys encounter the lady-monk en route of their escape, but send him reeling with a quick flurry of dragon kicks and elephant drops. Father and son then come up against the impossible-to-look-at Ling-Yee, who in turn comes up against a stick of dynamite and loses. He doesn’t stay down for long though, returning with a vengeance to seek our heroes out at the Red Dragon Pavilion in which they’ve taken refuge with Master Chen, his invincible sword and the rebels.
After the rebel army proves surprisingly useless given its theatrical, wire-tastic entrance, it’s up to Red Bean’s mother to defend the boys against the government force’s commander. After elegantly spitting a lugie directly into the commander’s mouth, granny doesn’t take long to dispatch him with her lightning-quick dart technique. The grand finale between Ling-Yee and the father-son dream team , looks to take a sour turn until Biao the wax maker (and secret Shaolin master) shows-up with his dragon fists, allowing Hung and Ting a temporary reprieve from the violence. Hung eventually manages, through a series of highly entertaining (albeit unlikely) circumstances, to send our sadistic and deformed antagonist to his doom.
In a movie dominated by swords, spears and wirework, Legend of the Red Dragon’s action never stops. Highly entertaining and perhaps overly theatric, the battle scenes are incredibly impressive and superbly choreographed, especially when Hung and Ting team up. Hung wields his magical spear with incredible speed and skill in his initial altercation with Ying-Lee, and again when he comes up against his own brother. The next bout, a mildly sensual and innuendo-filled exchange between Hung and Red Bean, is filled with lassoing laces and amazing acrobatics!
By far the most impressive scenes however, are those involving the incredibly brave and disciplined Ting. Displaying amazing flexibility and strength, he swats away would-be bullies like flies. He employs his trademark dragon kick against multiple opponents, all with pinpoint accuracy and to brutal effect. Ting also possesses the amazing ability to float in the air for extended periods, allowing him to dropkick his opponents endlessly…
The wire fu-tacular reunion-collision between Hung and Ying-Lee pits swiftness and spear against brutality and Batmobile! Hung takes some serious hits before Ting comes to the rescue. The best move of the movie goes to Red Bean’s mother who, after spitting directly into the commander’s mouth, proceeds to finish him off with her dart-fu. The climactic battle between good and evil features some amazing spear work from father and son and some particularly impressive roundhouse kicks by Ting. And before Ying-Lee meets his end in a big bowl of wax, he pulls off an amazing, albeit ineffective, floating helicopter twirl…
Legend of the Red Dragon explores the traditional Chinese themes of loyalty, obedience, sacrifice, fraternity and filial piety in a rather silly yet highly enjoyable manner. The choreography at once contains plenty of wirework and impossible feats against gravity, but is also awfully engaging and extremely humorous at times. While this isn’t the most remarkable martial arts film that I’ve seen, it was absorbing, fairly well-acted and the action came at a brisk pace.
- In the opening sequence, Hung Hei-Kwun asks his son – who is far too young to understand – to choose between his favourite toy and a sword. If the child chooses the toy, Hung will send the son to his mother in heaven. In the first Lone Wolf & Cub/Baby Cart movie, Ogami Itto asks his son – who is also too young to understand – to choose between a ball and a sword. In both movies, the boy chooses the sword and lives.
- This is one of two films in which Jet Li and Miu Tse play a father-son duo, the other being, My Father is a Hero.
Film Rating: 6/10
Hung Hei-Kwun: “If you choose your favorite toy, I will send you to heaven to join your beautiful mother”
Random citizen: “Come on, give me a break. Why does she want a fat slob like you for?”
Chong: “What’s that? This is my business. Move along you!”
Random citizen: “What’s your choice huh? Pork belly? Or a real man?”
Red Bean: “You honour me with your greatness”
Chong: “Ahhh, but you will experience my true greatness on our wedding night”
Chong: “And above all, remember my golden rule; do unto others so I can help myself”
Hung Hei-Kwun: “I don’t like that rule”
Red Bean: “Can I give you a hand?”
Ting: “Can you help me get these stains out of my dad’s underwear?”
Ting: “Men act strange around pretty women. Their brains turn to mush and they do weird things. You watch yourself around her dad because she’s nothing but trouble with a capital T”
Hung: “You are wise beyond your years”
Ting: “Well dad, I just worry about ya”‘
Hung: “Thanks for washing my underwear, but you tore them”
Ting: “I’m sorry”
Hung: That’s okay. I made a smaller pair out of them for you”
Ting: “Thanks dad. Does that mean you’re not wearing any underpants?”
Hung: “I don’t mind. It’s cooler”
Rebel 1: “Are you as nervous as I am?”
Rebel 2: “You know it brother”