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White Dragon, The
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by Jay Seaver

"'Valley Girl' for the swordplay lovers."
3 stars

I'm not sure I'd call "The White Dragon" a spoof of the wuxia genre, although there seems to be a bit of that going on. It's more a case of Wilson Yip and company mashing up anything that might entertain them and hoping audiences enjoy the goofy anachronisms as much as they do.

It's not unusual for a movie like this to have a blind assassin running around, murdering those whom he believes are wrongdoers, but when Chicken Feathers (Francis Ng) - so known for announcing his presence by strewing them about before and after a kill - attacks the headmaster of the local boarding school, he runs straight into the White Dragon, sworn protector of justice. Things don't go well for her, and she has to transfer her powers to student Phoenix Black (Cecilia Cheung). This is a total bummer for Phoenix - it turns out superpowers give you pimples which can only be dispersed by doing good deeds, and those really cut into any time she might have with cute Second Prince Tian Yang (Andy On), whom she's just managed to get to notice her! And that's before she gets injured fighting with an archnemesis she didn't even ask for and winds up stuck at his secret base!

There's a long history of reluctant heroes, super or otherwise, in every medium - "refusing the call" is one of the stages that the Joseph Campbell "Hero With Many Faces" passes through - but the one who is just annoyed by the whole thing rather than angst-ridden is a type that we don't get much in America. It seems more popular in Japan than anywhere else, but the same clash between a historic cultural emphasis on duty and modern individualism exists in China, and it lets Yip and co-writer Lo Yiu-fai make Phoenix a bit of a brat, which is a pretty good way to keep funny bits coming.

Part of the trick to that is that Phoenix is more or less a contemporary teen, as are her friends, and the movie is littered with Aladdin-style anachronisms that amuse for how out of place they seem to be in Imperial China. A lot of those gags are rather on the silly side (this is the last place I expected to see the Windows "Copy File" animation used), but they get a chuckle. There does come a point where it looks like Yip and company sort of ran out of story, as things slow down quite a bit once the movie has contracted to just Phoenix and Chicken Feathers - there's a good number of jokes that work, but the movie's wheels seem to be spinning to the point where the atmosphere being irreverent becomes a bit of a negative at times.

It's not on the cast, especially Cecilia Cheung; she's pretty great at making Phoenix's teenaged self-centeredness more funny than annoying. The character could be nothing but a demanding little brat, but there's little malice to her; she's funny even when abrasive. Francis Ng often winds up being more on the deadpan side, and has the handicap that doing an "eyes-always-rolled-back" blindness makes it harder for him to be as expressive as Cheung. There's some comedic chemistry between the pair, but neither Ng nor Andy On is quite charismatic enough in their parts to carry their half of a scene as well as she does.

Cheung and Ng are both fair in the wire-assisted action, at least. Director Wilson Yip made this just before doing five films with Donnie Yen that are often described as reinvigorating the Hong Kong action scene, and while there are hints of that here - the anachronism and spoofing of certain tropes shows that he's a guy who isn't hugely keen on tradition or nostalgia - he and the action crew aren't reaching for that sort of achievement yet. The camera shows what's going on, there's some weight to how the characters fly around, and the fights feel super-powered without becoming totally ungrounded.

Everybody involved is good enough to make "The White Dragon" a little more than a goof on swordwoman movies, even if the thing is pretty silly at times. It gets plenty of laughs and the action isn't bad, so the movie goes down easy, and sometimes that's just what you need.

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originally posted: 09/20/13 06:29:36
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  DVD: 20-Dec-2005



Directed by
  Wilson Yip

Written by
  Wilson Yip

  Cecilia Cheung
  Shiu Hung Hui
  Lei Liu
  Francis Ng
  Andy On
  Nay Suet

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