Review: Dance Dance Dragon

I went into the screening of Dance Dance Dragon right after having watched We Not Naughty, so you could say that my mood upon entering the cinema was more than a little foul, annoyed at forking out money to catch the latter (to write my review), which was the cinematic equivalent of being bludgeoned to death by a club. So it came as a surprise that I actually quite enjoyed Dance Dance Dragon. It had occasional clever touches, though it was also sporadically annoying – especially at the parts when Aunty Lucy (Dennis Chew) does his spasmodic head movements.

Like We Not Naughty, Dance Dance Dragon is also a Chinese New Year offering, which, in the local context, seems to necessitate a rigidly formulaic approach to filmmaking. In this genre, characters always go through some sort of pseudo conflict before inevitably receiving an inauthentic epiphany about the Great, Unquestionable, Importance of Family. Family members inevitably receive reconciliation at the end; and in the Chinese New Year subgenre of movies, the family is god – no obstacle can stop members of the protagonists’ family from coming together and living happily ever after. Fun, laughter, and happy endings – all these revolving around relationships within families - are the name of the game in such a genre.

If such mawkishness is totally objectionable to you, then watching a Chinese New Year offering (also called a ‘He Sui Pian’) will almost always be a painful affair. I am myself not the biggest fan of such puerile sentimentality and persistent simple-mindedness, but I’ve come to accept the limitations of a Chinese New Year film - if Chinese New Year is a time for relatives to come together, then isn’t it only expected for a Chinese New Year film to exalt and celebrate the family? Having such a singular sensibility is the constraint of the Chinese New Year film, and if you are willing to make peace with it, then you may actually wind up liking Dance Dance Dragon. The key is in the execution, not the plot; if you already know what’s going to happen in the end (i.e. the family reconciles, all obstacles are overcome), the journey towards it better be one helluva ride. And at parts, Dance Dance Dragon does show genuine imagination and spunk.

Since it’s the year of the Dragon, the most auspicious year in the Chinese Zodiac, it makes perfect commercial sense to cash in on Chinese superstition by centering the film’s plot around a dragon baby. A flashback opens the film, with Mother Loong (Lai Ming) - the matriarch of a family who owns a lion dance troupe - in labour, giving birth to her third child, and only son, whom she was intending to deliver during the dragon year , but alas, misses the mark by a couple of hours. (Children born during the year of the Dragon are supposed to be blessed, according to Chinese superstition.) Never losing the desire for a dragon baby to take over the family’s lion dance business, she pins her hopes on her three children to bear her one. Her optimism flags as the years go by, with her two daughters, Lucy (Dennis Chew in drag, reprising his popular TV character) and Ah Bee (Kym Ng) having little luck in their romantic lives. Lucy got dumped by her Indian boyfriend for her frumpiness; Ah Bee can’t score a date because of her intimidating and hard-edged demeanour.

Her youngest son, Ah Long (Melvin Sia), seems to be her only ray of hope, seeing as he is married, and while on the way back from Malaysia (where he is residing) to visit his family, he buys a basket of fruit. Unbeknownst to him, cosmic intervention has taken place, and the Powers that Be have magically placed a dragon baby in the basket he was carrying. Lucy, Ah Bee and Ah Long were all stunned upon the discovery of the baby, but decide to dupe their mom into thinking that is Ah Long’s real son – their family’s long awaited dragon baby – for the sake of appeasing her.

You’re not going to get anything new by way of character here. Every character is but a caricature; none of them are fully-formed or go through any worthwhile struggle or self discovery. Aunty Lucy is particularly grating, and including him in the film likely stems from a mercenary impulse – being a popular and familiar household figure, he would boost the film’s box office prospects. The gags are mostly hit-or-miss; some delight, while some are downright banal and uninspired. The film also veers into racist territory by including a stock Indian character as Lucy’s ex-boyfriend (an implausible pairing, considering how different both of them are), who appears in one scene just to play up every single Indian stereotype in the book.

The actors put in decent performances to their one-dimensional characters, and the comic chemistry between the cast buoys the film a little. Adrian Pang in particular is the right balance of hammy and serious as a Westernized chef with a gambling problem. The cast’s comedic background is evident as they deliver the occasionally snappy dialogue with much punch. A pity then, that the screenplay gives them little work with.

And yet, the film still remains a joyous and exuberant celebration of tradition, while simultaneously espousing the importance of newness and change. The dragon baby that was magically conferred by the gods (played by a bunch of kids, perhaps to increase the cutesy quotient) is the central metaphor in the movie. He represents the new (being a new life), and yet his worth is tied to superstition and traditional beliefs; he is valuable insofar as he is a symbol of good fortune, being born in the year of the Dragon. The film concerns itself with the tension between the contemporary and the traditional. The film acknowledges the importance of modernity and change, but stresses that such change must not come at the expense of heritage, and this theme runs throughout it.

One example of this is in the film’s ostensibly manga-inspired visual interludes, mostly during showdowns featuring the two rival lion dance troupes. They are spirited attempts by director Kat Goh to liven up the proceedings, and they tap into the popularity of the manga in what is Goh’s effort to create a more punkish aesthetic to appeal to younger people. At the same time, those images steep themselves in Chinese mythology and iconography; they are at once contemporary and reverent of tradition. But attempts to modernize by compromising on tradition are punished in the film. Teck’s (Bryan Wong) lion dance troupe, that has substituted standard Chinese musical instruments for sleek audio equipment, is made a mockery of at the end. Eric, who started off the film as a chef who could only serve up Western cuisine and not delicacies belonging to his own culture, is shown to be a washed-up, pathetic, gambling addict; as he progresses along in the film, he clears up his act, and by the end of the film he cooks up reunion dinner for a huge gathering. Aunty Lucy, who in her enduring ambition to be a dancer, joins a young dance group, and discards her traditional garments for a more in-the-times outfit for a dance competition; she gets humiliated as a result.

The film may not be a groundbreaking local work, but it is funny and enjoyable at times. It also articulates its points quite smartly, and unlike We Not Naughty, doesn’t browbeat you into buying into some lofty moral. Which, I think, is enough to make it a decent ‘He Sui Pian’ for the family to enjoy.
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