Men on the Dragon (Hong Kong, 2018) [SDAFF 2018]

Dragon Boat racing is a collective sport in which a group of people must paddle to the rhythm of a drummer on the bow. All the sportsmen are equally creating a synchronic movement therefore going forward. This is a central metaphor for the story of four men who never really appreciated synchronized work and because of selfish attitude they now struggle with the lack of money, love, compassion and pride. Will the Dragon Boat race they attend together help reconstruct long lost relationships and morals? The answer is not so simple, at least not in Men on the Dragon, a Cantonese comedy with a heart of gold.

Lung (Francis Ng), Suk-Yee (Poon Chan-leung) and William (Tony Wu) are forced to attend Dragon Boat training in attempt to evade employee layoffs. These passive, cowardly and lazy men are joined by their boss Tai (Kenny Wong) who struggles with marriage problems and all slowly learn how to become active in their own lives. Nevertheless, Men on the Dragon is not your usual sport drama. It walks in the steps of Cantonese movies which use sports only as a reason to dive deeper in its characters problems – such as Unbeatable (2013), Full Strike (2015) or Weeds on Fire (2016). Lung is in love with his neighbour (Nancy Wu) and takes care of her daughter, Suk-Yee struggles with marriage, William gave up table tennis carrier to satisfy his girlfriend and Tai’s wife is probably having an affair. They avoid responsibilities and never face their problems. With the help of new coach (Jennifer Yu) things start to change as these formerly passive men take charge of their own lives.

Directed by Sunny Chan, Men on the Dragon tell their stories as a series of touching moments and silly jokes. Francis Ng seems to enjoy this type of fuzzy but lovable character (he plays another one in this year’s The Leakers as well) and the central gang might remind the well-known male bonding from heroic bloodshed they adore so much. First half establishes all the important relationships while changing perspectives every few minutes. Because of that we soon see the parallels between all four men and important themes. The most obvious one is of course becoming an active individual who controls his life but there are quite a few glimpses of others – Wu’s character will do anything for social media, big company solves its issues by letting more and more workers go and a teenage girl won’t have a traditional dish because it is too complicated to eat. Men on the Dragon have a lot to offer.

Chan’s use of film style is impressive as well. Through the story we see glimpses of how creatively one can utilize camera movements, exciting angles and fast paced cutting. The camera work becomes visible especially in his neighbour’s and Lung’s apartment. Both places are tiny but related to different scenarios and emotional states. In first apartment there is usually the mother, daughter and Lung, it’s a tiny home. Therefore, Chan fills the space with shiny trinkets, carpets and puts his camera above the actors’ eye-line strengthening the illusion of spatially tight apartment. On the other hand, Lung’s place is filmed through long shots while the camera is placed slightly under his waist height with mostly empty mise-en-scène underlining the loneliness.

Further, he likes to move his camera around. But not in a rapid way – such as fast movements and zooms reminiscing the 1980s and 90s Hong Kong era – he does it rather calmly. Men on the Dragon have camera floating through the space like a spring breeze, almost watching over the protagonists. I would call this a soothing remain of long-lasting Cantonese stylistic tradition which has been constantly present in local cinema as far as I can remember. Because of this the movie never feels static, there is constant rhythmical movement much like on a Dragon Boat and Chan is on the drum.

Even paddling sequences – usually a series of short takes – are cut with a rhythm referring to the central drum. No specific technique draws all the attention because every single one of them has its place in toned-down yet complex stylistic system.

If you are prone to nostalgia, Men on the Dragon can be almost soul soothing. Good old times are a recurring topic for sensitive Lung who always talks about his favourite movie star. “Did Chow Yun-fat cry?” he says to whimpering Tai, only few moments later starts explaining how important the Laser Disc copy of John Woo’s 1986 classic A Better Tomorrow is. Andy Lau gets name dropped quite often too. Sunny Chan even treats flashbacks with nostalgia by using more long-lasting techniques – slow motion and tonally altered image.

He piles up these nods to Hong Kong cinema and treats nostalgia in such a nonaggressive way. Because of that Men on the Dragon do not stand out as extremely brave or progressive film, but they slowly paddle the way into your heart.

Men on the Dragon is showing on November 10 and 11 at the San Diego Asian Film Festival.