Flying Dragon, Leaping Tiger (2002)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-03-06
Several minutes into “Flying Dragon, Leaping Tiger” Cheng Pei-Pei does something that violates one of the fundamental themes of martial arts movies, that it takes years of study to even begin to learn what the masters of the art know. Her character, a tough old bird named Liu Ru Yan, not only dispatches scores of enemies while using various styles of swordplay but also teaches a particularly apt pupil while doing so, commenting on her hand and foot movements while making them. This could be a metaphor for the state of martial arts movies from Hong Kong in the early part of this decade: you better pick up the tricks of the trade quickly because the wise old men (and women) who know it best won’t be around for much longer. Cheng Pei-Pei is one of the few reasons to watch this movie. She gets to do a lot of scenery chewing—she had at least three distinct death scenes and milked each of them for all she could. She kept going from spitting up clots of blood to slashing a few squads of attacking bad guys. And like Cheng’s character the martial arts movies just refuse to die. She is a lot of fun to watch, an old pro who looks to be having a good time, delivers a terrific performance and shamelessly steals every scene she is in.

One would like to think there remains an inexhaustible number of the creative action directors and do-anything stuntmen that characterized Hong Kong cinema for decades is still around, that the deep seams of visionary violence can still be mined for every more amazing stunts. Paradoxically it is movies like “Flying Dragon, Leaping Tiger” that gives one hope that this is true—that even badly written and underfinanced films can have flashes of brilliance that thrilled so many of us originally.

It is difficult to make a good movie using a poorly written and disorganized script. Adding in some outrageous overacting, cheesy special effects and cinematography that ranges from enthralling to snooze-inducing won’t help much. When “Flying Dragon, Leaping Tiger” was made Sammo Hung Kam-Bo might have been at the nadir of his creative powers—at least one hopes that is the case. It was almost painful to watch the artist who made “Pedicab Driver”, “Magnificent Butcher” and “Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind” sleepwalk his way through this one.

The opening scenes are confusing—whose mother was a horse thief, whose child got burned and whose didn’t and why did an entire platoon of tough desert fighters have to cross the trackless wastes in order to kill a woman and two very young children? And even more mystifying, why didn’t they carry out their mission instead of just shooting a lot of flaming arrows (which looked impressive against the night sky) into a totally isolated cabin? Things don’t stay confusing—they get worse.

Just about everyone in the movie is driven to take revenge upon everyone else but the reasons for them doing so are so muddled by the script that it is impossible to empathize with any of them. Things get wrapped up in the end when several of the characters find they are related to each other through previously unsuspected ties of blood or marriage. This can be dramatically powerful—it worked for Sophocles, Shakespeare and Oliver Wilde—but the audience must be involved with the characters or the revelations either fall flat or are unintentionally funny which is the case here.

Much of FDLT was shot in the bleak western China desert provinces. The land looks uninhabited and uninhabitable—and not only by humans. Rolling hills of sand and dry dirt cut by steep sided gullies stretch to the horizon, uninterrupted by any sign of life. The wind blows constantly and it looked to be very cold at night. The actors’ breathe was visible during the night shots. They looked more wrapped than costumed with layer upon layer of heavy robes making them look “exotic” (or at least unusual) and also keeping them warm. Sammo Hung was so swaddled it was surprising that he could move.

The saving grace (other than the presence of the gorgeous Jade Leung) was the action choreography which shows once again just how imaginative and artistic the action directors and stunt people in Hong Kong film can be. There didn’t look to be much in the budget for anything but the sword play and wire work were well executed, choreographed, shot and edited. They could have taken place in a much more ambitious—or at least expensive—movie. The horsemanship and sheer bravery of the mounted stunt people was thrilling. In addition to the usual unhorsing of cavalrymen by heroes stuck on the ground there was a long mounted chase during which the leaders of the chase switched horses a number of times while at full gallop.

Recommended but only for the action scenes and Cheng Pei-Pei. Definitely not recommended (unrecommended if you will) for just about everything else.
Reviewer Score: 4