I had initially rolled my eyes knowing that the title for this dance movie had to have the word "Dragon" in it, as I thought it's about high time we move away from mystical creatures and martial arts with movies based in Singapore, coupled with a very surreal setting of what seemed to be Chinatown, since no other races in our multi-cultural society were represented, not even as a token. But that aside, this International movie with cast and crew from the US, Australia and Singapore, made for a very standard film with good production values, though it had plenty of room to inject what was lacking the most - heart.
Not that it was absent totally. There are three distinct characters here, each played by someone of different nationality, and had in their own fiefdom, crafted scenes within their own comfort zone, but when put together, seem to have awkwardness stamped all over it. I shall begin with the strongest. This is no doubt Jang Hyuk's vehicle, as he stars as Tae, a Korean whom as a boy, thanks to his mother who took him to a dance performance, fell in love with the art, and vow to pursue this dream of his despite not knowing how to, and facing great opposition from his father, who deemed it a sissy sport and would have preferred he picked up martial arts as a hobby. So when he reached adulthood, and with savings from his factory job, he bids his parents goodbye, and off he comes to Singapore to attend a dance audition.
American Idol style no doubt, with artificial caustic remarks being thrown about by a lacklustre panel of three, but not before having a Singapore Tourism Board approved montage of the usual Singapore Skyline, Esplanade, Raffles Place et al shots that always plague every Singapore-based movie. And from here, let's move on to Fann's Emi Lim, whose signature is so easy to copy, I could've written plenty of cheques in her name. A has been dance instructor whose weak ankle meant a halt in competition, her retirement at the top of her game allowed her to sustain a school with plenty of students who can groove (much better than her of course), while she harbours the thought of one day returning to the ballroom. Taken in by the strikingly good looking Tae, coupled with the fact that he's a virgin (of dance), she relishes the challenge of unlearning what he had learnt, without partner and teacher, and I tell you, always cock teases him so much so that he begins to fall for her.
Alas Emi has a beau who doesn't pay her any attention, and Jason Scott Lee fills in this jealous boyfriend role with flared nostrils and wide hard-staring eyes with aplomb. As Cheng, who's also a has-been given his injured knee (a lot of injured has beens in this movie, and this pair's like made one for the other), his dojo, set up opposite the dance school along the same Wong Street, is running in the red, and he deals with shady characters like Lim Kay Tong's in order to keep his school afloat. Not happy with the good vibes between teacher and student, he tends to show off a lot of his martial arts capability in a bid to scare off the newbie dancer, only to set up an inevitable showdown between the two in due course.
To the movie's credit, the story's quite coherent, except that it relied on a number of cliches to carry the movie through, and not necessarily for the better. There were plenty of superficial subplots and elements that could have been developed further given the running time of close to 2 hours, but instead there were a number of slow moving scenes which while nice to look at, didn't provide depth any more than to establish some background for the characters. Amongst all, I liked Tae's story best, well since he's the main character and had adequate screen time dedicated, where the relationship between him and his father was one of the strongest in the movie with so much meant despite so little being said. Besides, I always enjoyed characters who can learn by observation or from books and videos, and in doing so, lack the basis of understanding which can sometimes plague their execution.
And there are a couple of really creative and unexpected development which I thought I had it nailed, but was wrong. Which of course is a plus point. But the more important question here is, can the leads dance? Scenes of dancing together were limited, and for the most parts Fann and Jang Hyuk danced solo. They were given plenty of opportunity to air the armpits, and the filmmakers were smart to have spliced little set pieces together rather than have dances in one continuous motion and scene, since this will definitely expose plenty of shortcomings especially for Fann's Emi, supposedly being World Class and all. What was worse, was the sudden inject of the song Hero by Enrique Iglesias, which I thought was somewhat inappropriate for a ballroom dance sequence, but I suppose fitted the scene at the time.
Thankfully though, the rest of the score for the movie was beautiful and memorable, the same one in which you can hear in the trailer. If memory serves me correct, almost every scene had a score to accompany the visuals, making it a rather musical film to sit through as well, though at times you have to grit your teeth as Emi seem to have a knack of spouting hokey dance philosophy. Production wise, I would liken it to last year's Cages where it's a different, beautiful side of Singapore being put on celluloid, almost romantic in quality and dreamlike.
Dance of the Dragon is not all bad, just that it lacked some amount of heart and detail to truly make it excellent. There's no doubt fans of Fann and Jang Hyuk will turn up in droves to catch this movie (like in today's screening), though there are also those who decided that enough is enough and had to walk out. In my opinion, this movie shouldn't have warranted that, but just don't set your sights and expectations too high in wanting to watch a movie with superb dancing or martial arts, of which it has neither, but took effort to craft believable scenes as best as it could.