Movie Review: Dragon Blade (2015)

March 12, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


I had prepared myself for a colossal turd, but I have to give credit where it’s due. Dragon Blade is not THAT bad.

One of the most expensive Chinese movies ever made with a budget of US$65 million, Dragon Blade is a sprawling war epic has already made nearly double that at the box office in China alone. It has plenty of CGI, tons of battle sequences — be it one-on-one or massive armies — and the biggest Chinese action star there is, Jackie Chan. What made the headlines, however, was the casting of two Hollywood A-listers, John Cusack and Adrien Brody, as two Roman soldiers. Honestly, it had all the elements of a massive flop.

Despite its questionable motives and its fair share of annoying flaws, Dragon Blade is actually one of the more acceptable Chinese action films I’ve seen in recent years. The more I think about how bad it could have been, the better I think it actually is.

If you want action, the film definitely delivers, with much of its 127-minute running time dedicated to fighting, fighting and more fighting. It’s all nicely choreographed, albeit a little repetitive, going for the more traditional approach as opposed to the modern stylized version popularized by films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Grandmaster or even Hollywood flicks such as 300.

The special effects are generally well done, but not quite on par with Hollywood productions. There are many sweeping shots of the landscape and ancient architecture that look like paintings (probably because they are), and in my opinion they look fake. If the whole movie had that type of feel (a la 300), then it wouldn’t have been as noticeable, though here it’s jarring because it doesn’t match the rest of the film’s grounded presentation.

The film also falls prey to problems that plague other ambitious Chinese films hoping to crack the international market. The plot is simple but they had to make it unnecessary convoluted. You can tell Hong Kong director Daniel Lee was trying to make the narrative more stylish by making things jump around a little when telling the Roman back story, but I think he made it more confusing instead. They also had to find some other non-Chinese Asian actors to appeal to the wider market. In this case they chose Korean-American pop star Yoo Seung-jun, who has a small token role.

The worst mistake, however, had to be the moronic and unnecessary “modern” link they forced into the plot, starting and ending the film in the present with a couple of unconvincing Asian-American archaeologists (Taiwan’s Vanness Wu and Hong Kong’s Karena Lam) looking for something pointless. It’s the typical “let’s throw some popular Asian starlets in there for no reason” idea Chinese movies love so much. Wu and Lam are cringeworthy. Both the acting and the dialogue are laughably bad.

The central characters are relatively well-developed, I suppose, for this type of film. The big signings, Cusack and Brody, really had to earn their paychecks. Cusack plays the good Roman and has to endure a lot of crap, while Brody plays the bad Roman who has use all his Oscar-winning acting to give his stock-standard villain some much-needed depth. Both guys get opportunities to wield swords, and they actually look convincing. Neither guy has been tearing up the box office as of late — Cusack’s in danger of becoming the next Nicholas Cage with some of his choices of late, and most of Brody’s roles in big films these days are of the supporting kind — so I guess they needed the money.

I find it interesting that Cusack’s role was originally said to have been for Mel Gibson. It makes me smile thinking that he would have agreed to play a Roman — you know, the guys who crucified and killed Jesus Christ — and to star alongside the Jewish Brody.

Anyway, as headline-grabbing as the Americans are, Dragon Blade is of course still Jackie Chan’s film. Unfortunately, Huo An is like every other character Chan has ever played. He’s a big hero; he’s courageous, morally upstanding; he never backs down from doing what’s right. And even though he’s now 60 years old, Jackie’s still getting 20-something actresses to play his love interests as though that’s how it’s meant to be. That said, he’s still got the charm. You can tell he’s desperately trying to show off his acting skills — Jackie has said that he really wants to win an Oscar — which is why there’s nearly half a dozen crying scenes for him in this film. Of course, he also does some singing. Because he can.

Pardon my cynicism. Growing up, Jackie Chan was my guy. Everything he did was the shit: Project A, Police Story, Armour of God. I loved it all. I’ve grown up now, but Jackie’s still the same, except a lot slower and no longer capable of the innovative kung fu acrobatics he’s known for. Oh, and now I also think he’s a bit of a Communist Party stooge.

It doesn’t help that Dragon Blade looks and smells a lot like a piece of Communist Party propaganda. Chan plays Huo An, a commander during the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) tasked with keeping peace on the Silk Road when a bunch of rowdy Romans come knocking. And guess what? Last year, Beijing announced its new “belt and road” initiative, comprising the Silk Road Economic Belt, a land-based belt connecting China to Russia to Europe via Central Asia, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, a maritime route through the Strait of Malacca to India, the Middle East and East Africa. China says the project promotes mutual interests and peace. A coincidence?

What makes it seem even more like propaganda is that the film is filled with unsubtle and unabashed corniness regularly found in Jackie’s movies. It’s a bona fide corn field out there, with an over-the-top musical score and a plethora of “f%*% yeah” moments. I like to call it “Team America-style cheering with Chinese characteristics.” Chinese people want peace! But we will fight to the death for what’s right! We are so righteous even the Romans are willing to follow us!

That’s why no one should be faulted for suspecting that Dragon Blade has a hidden political agenda. It’s a film that demonstrates China can make big blockbusters like Hollywood now, AND they can afford to get top Hollywood actors and even Academy Award winners to join them. China is depicted as a keeper of peace in a volatile world, while the film’s Chinese protagonist is depicted as incorruptible and just. Ethnic minorities are portrayed as uncivilized folk who need the Han Chinese to unify them. I doubt it was an unintentional decision to make Chan’s wife in the movie, played by Mika Wang, an ethnic Uyghur. For those who don’t know, Uyghurs — who say Beijing suppresses their cultural and religious freedoms — are a big problem for China and have been blamed for all the terrorist attacks across the country over the last few years.

The only thing in the film I can think of that really goes against China’s current political philosophies is that Huo infringes Beijing’s principle of non-interference when it comes to the internal matters of other countries — in this case, the Romans. Then again, the Romans were “making trouble” on China’s doorstep, something Chinese president Xi Jinping once said he would not tolerate (though that was in reference to North Korea).

Perhaps I’m over-analyzing. Maybe Dragon Blade is just an innocent action blockbuster after all. Whatever the case may be, it’s not a horrible effort. It is by no means great, or even very good, but at least it’s not boring and it’s not pretentious. The production value is relatively high; Cusack and Brody don’t embarrass themselves like I had anticipated, and the action is solid and occasionally spectacular. As I said, it could have been much much worse.

3.25 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘Party Time’ by Rowan Callick

August 27, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

party time

For someone who writes routinely about the Communist Party of China, I wasn’t sure what to think when I received a copy of Party Time: Who Runs China and How by Rowan Callick, the Asia-Pacific editor of The Australian newspaper. Did I really want to read more about something I already have to deal with every day (and thought I had a pretty good grasp of), or was it a good opportunity to learn something new?

On the basis that Party Time is an awesome book title (albeit an obvious rip-off from Wayne’s World – excellent!), I decided to dig into the book with enthusiasm – and I am glad I did. The CPC is the most powerful organization in the world (take that, Vatican) with more than 80 million members, and yet few people have any idea how they operate. Despite significant progress over the last couple of decades, what is publicly known about the party, even by its own members, remains blurry and messy.

In Party Time, Callick tells us how the party runs the most populous country on the planet – by planting their presence in every aspect of daily Chinese life, from economics, education and law to media, arts and the military, and everything in between. Callick, who worked as a China correspondent for both the Australian Financial Review and The Australian, also conducted a series of interviews with locals – both party and non-party members – to provide a deeper insight into what people on both sides of the fence thought about the party and what it does.

The book is about 220 pages (excluding acknowledgments and the index) and split up into 14 chapters, each capable of standing alone as an independent feature piece. The first chapter, for example, tells readers how one can become a part of the Communist Party – something seemingly simple but lost on most foreigners. Chapter two then goes on to explain what goes on in the 2,000 cadre schools spread all over China (including the ridiculous “self-criticisms” that they all have to write), while chapter three explains China’s dual-system of government (with parallel party and state bodies and positions) and how it administers the country. So on and so forth.

What we learn from the book is that, despite the façade of having a “government”, China is unequivocally ruled by the party, and indeed nearly all government officials are also party members. You don’t have to be a party member to make something of yourself in China, but it certainly helps if you are. That is why so many young people are drawn to the party – even if they don’t believe in its philosophies or principles – because being a party member makes life easier and opens doors further down the track. This means for every hot-blooded party member there is probably one that is disillusioned, though as we find out in the book, once you join the party it’s nearly impossible to leave. One amusing anecdote tells the story of how one guy tried to leave but was told that the party would pay his annual membership for him – for life.

The chapters on law, media, art and business were of particular interest to me. In the law chapter, I learned that all lawyers, party members or not, must swear an oath of allegiance to the party’s mantra of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and to the party itself. Judges’ decisions are “guided” by the party line and “recommendations” of party officials, and overruling a lower court is frowned upon because it causes a “loss of face.” In one case, a local judge allegedly tried to punch a lawyer for suggesting that he intends to appeal the verdict. On top of that, sentences are heavily influenced by a person’s status, particularly if they are an important official or related to one. The examples Callick give include a death sentence for a minor theft by a commoner and 18 months for murder by the son of an official.

The way the party controls and censors the media and the art community in China is something I am well aware of, but it was still interesting to see just how ridiculous things can get sometimes. For instance, Callick describes a scandal in which a news photographer with a state media organization took and published a photo of the city mayor with his eyes closed. For making the mayor “look bad”, the photographer was fined and forced to write a self-criticism which he had to read out loud in public. And then he was sacked anyway.

I was also fascinated to read about how renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) choreographed the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Zhang was honest but also very diplomatic in his responses, saying that while he had full control over the ceremony he was smart enough to know he had to take certain “suggestions” on board if they came from a high-ranking official, or several.

Doing business in China is a scary thought. In the business chapter, Callick takes us on a tour of the plethora of toy factories in Shantou in the east of Guangdong province, where the pay is surprisingly good for workers but profits continue to shrink for businesses. We are told of the dominance of the party’s All-China Federation of Trade Unions over the country’s 800 million-strong workforce, and reminded that the party is China’s most important business organization, with ultimate approval over every investment. It also has branches in every state-owned enterprise and 85% of private enterprises, with ultimate veto rights over all major decisions.

The last few chapters of the book, on subjects such as Mao’s legacy (they party has decided he was 70% right and 30% wrong), the re-emergence of Confucius (who was, by the way, not confused), and short bios of top leaders, were slightly less interesting for me, but I did love the chapter about what life is like in the party’s upper echelons – ie, no life, but all the benefits you can think of upon retirement, from free housing to chauffeurs to free overseas trips all totaling around US$1 million a year.

The best parts of the book are the anecdotes, such as the only recorded joke on record from ex-president Hu Jintao (who may or may not have been a secret Chinese lab experiment to create the ultimate cyborg leader), who told the governor of New Jersey in 2001 that was he willing to share with the United States the secret of how Chinese leaders keep their hair so black. It was also hilarious and insightful to learn how Chinese netizens went crazy when they saw Barack Obama step out of a plane holding his own umbrella (that’s a slave’s job!), and how Chinese consumers paste sticky tape over their tupperware so as to preserve the Lock-Lock logo (a reflection of the economic and social status they have achieved).

While Callick is critical of the party’s lack of transparency and its rigid, often draconian rule, Party Time is far from a “China bashing” book. Callick is quick to point out the positives afforded by an all-powerful centralized government and an insulated society, which demonstrated, among other things, how China was able to escape the 2008 Global Financial Crisis relatively unscathed. He also gives credit to China’s rapid progression and its reforms, and offers due praise to Chinese leaders such as former premier Wen Jiabao and new party leader Xi Jinping.

In all, this is a great book for anyone with an interest in the Communist Party or China in general. Published in mid-2013, the information contained in it is relatively up to date, with regular mentions of disgraced Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai (whose trial just concluded the other day) and blind lawyer activist Chen Guangcheng. I had a good time with Party Time. It’s excellent.


The Beijing Diaries, Day 10 (Part I): Say Hi to China’s New Leaders

November 28, 2012 in China, Travel

Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and a bunch of other old guys

November 15

My Beijing trip is finally drawing to a close, and even though I as on a work assignment I intended for my last full day in the Chinese capital to be one of enjoyment and sightseeing.

But first, there was one thing left to write about: China’s new leadership lineup. Yesterday’s closing ceremony at the 18th National Congress saw the unveiling of the Communist Party’s new 205-member Central Committee. Today, the committee was going to conduct it’s first plenary session and “elect” the members of the new Politburo Standing Committee, effectively China’s highest ruling body. The new lineup would then be introduced to the media at a press conference at the Great Hall of the People.

The previous standing committee had 9 members, and this time there had been swirling rumours that it would be reduced to 7. Many papers had already “leaked” the names of the 7 members, of which five would be new members (only new party leader Xi Jinping and future premier Li Keqiang were returning as the others were all forced to retire due to age).

As I mentioned before, I was not invited to this event, so I had to watch it from the comfort of my hotel room. Like yesterday, the press conference began about an hour later than scheduled, but also like yesterday, there were no other surprises.

No one knows how the Communist Party really operates behind closed doors, but they did emphasize over and over that the members of the standing committee were going to be “elected” by the central committee that morning. And yet, the seven men who walked onto the stage in identical black suits and red ties shortly before noon were exactly the seven that had been supposedly “decided” by the party last month as reported by foreign media, including our own paper. Coincidence?

Nevertheless, I have to say I was very impressed with the speech given by new party general secretary Xi Jinping. Even with the eyes of the world all over him, Xi was cool and calm, and delivered a well rounded speech that sounded genuine and nothing like his predecessor, the monotonous cyborg known as Hu Jintao. Maybe China does have a bright future after all.

The great thing about the predictability of Chinese politics is that I had basically written 85% of my article before the press conference even began. And so within 15 minutes of the press conference finishing I had already sent out my 600 word article, meaning the remainder of the afternoon was going to be absolutely free. At last.

The Beijing Diaries, Day 3: 18th National Congress Begins!

November 11, 2012 in China, Travel

The Great Hall of the People prepares for the opening ceremony of the 18th National Congress

8 November, 2012

The day is finally here. The opening of the 18th National Congress, which I’ve been writing about almost every freaking day for the last 8 months. And while the average Chinese person off the street doesn’t give a shit about this momentous five yearly event, the Communist Party leaders and the rest of the world certainly do.

I ended up leaving the hotel at 7:30 in the morning to walk to Wangfujing station and catch a subway (2 stops) to Tiananmen East. I was supposed to leave earlier but it took me a while to wake myself up after a less than ideal night of sleep. As it turned out, I probably could have left later. I got there by 8am, and it was still relatively quiet, with not a whole lot of press hanging around outside. I went into the Great Hall of the People (which really is a great hall — I’m just not sure it’s “of the people”) at around 8:30 and found a seat on the third floor, which is for writers. The second floor is for photographers and the first floor is for the 2,000+ congress delegates.

At 9am on the dot (those punctual communists!), the spokesperson for the congress officially declared it open, and out came onto the stage all of China’s political heavyweights, all those people I had been writing about for months, from outgoing leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao to new leader Xi Jinping, and ancient leader Jiang Zemin, who looked like he was already half mummified.

The whole point of the opening ceremony was for exiting party leader Hu Jintao to deliver his report from the 17th National Congress to the incoming 18th National Congress. Unlike previous years, they did not release the script to the press in advance — we were told we’d have to get them afterwards.

As the speech got underway, it became obvious why they did that. If the press had the script in advance, there’s no way they would have stayed for the entire duration of the 100-minute coma inducer (many didn’t anyway). Seriously, it was utterly brutal, not just because the content was 100% predictable and all about how great the party’s achievements were over the last decade, but it was delivered in Hu’s trademark monotone and with his expressionless face.  I had hear rumors that the dude has zero personality but my theory is that he is a cyborg born out of a secret Chinese government experiment (after Mao Zedong) to create a leader who has no risk whatsoever of establishing a personality cult.

The only thing that kept the 3,000+ people in that hall from falling asleep was Hu’s tendency to periodically punctuate the end of a section of his report with an exclamation, like “blah blah blah…FOR THE PEOPLE!” or “blah blah blah…INTO THE FUTURE!”  and everyone would wake up and burst into spontaneous applause.

I left the auditorium just before the end of the speech to get some water and to drag a copy of the speech. Even though people had been lining up for ages, as soon as the copies arrived the journalists just went crazy and rushed up to the front in typical Chinese fashion. The staff simply started tossing them out into the crowd like they were free T-shirts and the journalists started climbing over each other to get them. Naturally I managed to snatch one.

Before I left, the one other thing I was told by my bosses to check out was the so called “ritual girls” of the congress (essentially staff who serve water and stand around) who have the reputation of being the prettiest girls from all around China. I was told to see if there was a potential story to write about them, and to be honest, I was sorely disappointed with this year’s crew. Perhaps the party leaders made sure most of the girls were average looking to avoid officials from getting in sex scandals. They had more serious things to discuss, like how to convince the world they were working hard to stamp out corruption.

The Beijing Diaries, Day 1: Arrival

November 8, 2012 in China, Travel

G’day, Chairman Mao

November 6, 2012

The last time I was in Beijing was 1990, merely 8 months after  Tiananmen Square. I don’t remember much of that visit apart from my sister enjoying a Forbidden City bento box no other member of the family would touch out of hygiene concerns. This time, I’m going as a reporter to cover China’s 18th National Congress.

For those of you who know jack, the national congress is a big deal in China — and these days, the entire world. It happens once every five years and every second congress they swap Communist Party leaders. This year, Hu Jintao is handing over his title of Communist Party General Secretary to his successor Xi Jinping. It’s gonna be very RED.

The 18th National Congress runs from Nov. 8-14, and it’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’ll be in Beijing for a total of 11 days, including 2 days before and 2 days after for contingencies. Not like I really had a choice in saying no, but for me, the only drawback is that I’ll be away from my wife and 10-month-old son. And it’s a major drawback. In the 10 years I’ve been with my wife (including before we were married), I had only been away from her for more than a week on two occasions — Hong Kong for a month in 2003/4 and Singapore for a week in 2006 — both for work purposes. And needless to say, I’m dreading being away from my son. What if I miss his first unaided steps or more new words?

Anyway, this was the day I travelled to the Chinese capital, and it was quite a journey. I had been battling the effects of a nasty stomach virus in the days leading up to the departure and my head was still stinging by the time I got to the airport, which was jam packed with Chinese tourists. One particularly memorable image was three Chinese tourists on a travelator heading towards their (my) gate. For some inexplicable reason, they stood about 10m apart from each other, though it did not prevent them from having a full blown conversation that sounded much more like a screaming match.

The plane ride was also an experience. As I had not selected my seats until check-in, I ended up smack bang in the Chinese tourist section right at the back. It was unlike anything I had ever seen or heard before. It sounded like a meat market and people were literally climbing over each other and testing the limits of the overhead cabinets by cramming in things that probably should have been checked-in. The middle-aged woman who sat next to me was quiet enough, but she kept encroaching onto my space while attempting to find a comfortable position to sleep in. In the end I basically just let her lie against me.

Luckily the Xanax I took for my severe flight anxiety mellowed out any intentions I had of biting her in the face.

I landed at Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International Airport (because it’s the capital, duh) at around 7pm. It’s supposed to be the biggest airport terminal in the world, bigger than all 5 Heathrow terminals combined. I must admit, I had some preconceived notions of Beijing despite everything I had heard about it, and my first impression of the airport was that it looked just like every other major airport in the world.

It wasn’t until I was waiting in line for my taxi to the hotel that I experienced my first real taste — of thick clouds of cigarette smoke in an area with 47 “No Smoking” signs (I counted)…and phlegm hocking on surround sound. Not to mention the little bald man who thought no one would notice if he just squeezed in front of everyone.

The hotel booked for me (by a colleague from a sister paper) is situated in the Dongcheng district and about a 20-minute walk from the Great Hall of the People where many of the congress sessions will take place. It’s a 3-star hotel. Not that I look down on 3-stars because most 3-stars are perfectly fine, but my fear was that it would be a “China 3-star”, if you know what I mean. I had been too pampered on former business trips working for a rich law firm where everything was business class, 5-star hotels and gourmet meals, so the type of travel “perks” you get from a poor news agency (well, maybe not poor, but definitely cheap) came as a rude awakening.

The ruder awakening, however, was finding out upon arrival that my hotel room had been cancelled. As it turned out, my colleague typed the wrong mobile number in the booking form and when the hotel called to confirm the booking the woman on the other end said she had never heard of me (because she hadn’t!).

A furious search for other hotels in the same chain ensued, and a moment later I was told that I had 30 minutes to get to this other hotel or that booking would be cancelled too. I was also told — while carrying a big suitcase and a massive backpack and all — that it would be difficult hailing a cab at that time of the night and I was better off catching a bus and walking.

I passed on that brilliant idea and found a cab. I grinned whenever the cab passed another bus with passengers packed like sardines.

At around 9pm, I finally checked into the hotel. To be fair, the hotel room is no worse than any of the 3-stars I stayed in during my Eurotrips. A flatscreen TV, a table, a big bed and free internet access. Notwithstanding that it was unnaturally dark in the room even with all the lights on, I though the room was more than good enough for me.

And so that ends the first day of my Beijing trip. I look forward to the rest of it with a mix of fear and excitement. If I don’t post on this blog again, I think it is safe to assume that I ended up like Richard Gere in Red Corner.