Heart of Dragon Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: April 11, 2023
Audio: Cantonese, Mandarin, and Classic English dub, all in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono (Hong Kong Cut); Cantonese Hong Kong and Japanese Soundtracks, and Hybrid English/Cantonese dub, all in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono (Extended Cantonese Cut)
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 91:25 (Hong Kong Cut), 99:11 (Extended Japanese Cut)
Director: Sammo Hung
Tat (Jackie Chan) is a hot shot cop with more stress than he can bear: if he's not on the verge of getting beaten up on his day job, he's looking out for his mentally handicapped brother Dodo (Sammo Hung), who needs constant supervision in case his naïve, kind nature gets taken advantage of. Tat wants nothing more than to escape his obligations and see the world; but, when Dodo accidentally winds up in the line of fire, Tat must run into danger and make the ultimate sacrifice to save his brother. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Trained in the same Peking Opera School, Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Corey Yuen, and Yuen Wah rose to prominence in Hong Kong martial arts cinema together alongside Raymond Chow & Leonard Ho’s Golden Harvest Studios. While Chan’s stardom tends to eclipse the others outside of Asia, all five of the Seven Little Fortunes (a misnomer for a group of up to 14 children) grew into three of the region’s most influential actors, performers, choreographers, and filmmakers, and continued to support each other throughout their careers, often working on each other’s movies (for more on the Seven Little Fortunes, see my review of Dragons Forever ). One of the group’s stranger collaborations – directed by Hung, starring Hung and Chan with Yuen Wah and Corey Yuen in supporting roles – was Heart of Dragon (aka: First Mission and Heart of the Dragon, 1985), which (according to screenwriter Barry Wong) was designed as a modern Hong Kong riff on John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (pub: 1937). Though released three years prior, it could almost be described as the Hong Kong variation of Barry Levinson’s Rain Man (1988) with Hung playing an intellectually disabled adult, instead of a severely autistic man, and Chan playing a up and coming cop, instead of a sketchy, yuppie car dealer.*
Heart of Dragon’s challenge is in the fact that it refuses to blend its borderline incompatible genre conventions. Rather, it tends to hard cut between its serious family drama, hardboiled action and stunts, which reflect Chan’s Police Story (1985), and a few bits of broad comedy that seem inspired by the popularity of Hung’s Winners and Sinners (1983). To his credit, Hung took his role of Dodo very seriously to the point that it caused problems with Golden Harvest, who wanted him to perform stunts and fight alongside Chan – something he didn’t think would be appropriate for a developmentally disabled character. The portrayal of disability hasn’t aged very well, but really isn’t all that far off from the still-celebrated title character of Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump (1994). Hung’s performance is sympathetic, even if it isn’t entirely respectful by 2023 standards, because the audience is meant to empathize with him and never laugh at his disability. His naivety is a source of uncomfortable comedy during scenes where his child-aged friends take advantage of his size and age, but, whenever adults tease or exploit him, it is a source of genuine sorrow. Chan’s performance is similarly heartfelt, though he’s practically playing two different characters, an ambitious cadet and a tragic George Milton type that just wants to be a sailor. Perpetual Seven Little Fortunes supporting player Mang Hoi is the movie’s secret MVP, however, as Chan’s friend who also protects Hung from exploitative people.
Despite never really connecting its parts and occasionally undermining its goals, Heart of Dragon is a unique entry in Chan and Hung’s Golden Harvest oeuvre and worth seeing for its earnest approach and over-the-top climax alone. Yes, there’s a lot of non-action for action junkies to wade through – assuming you aren’t watching the extended Japanese cut, which includes two sizable fight sequences that were added to please Japanese distributors who weren’t interested in a releasing a relatively straight-forward drama – but the climax is worth the wait. After Dodo is kidnapped, his brother leads a wild car vs. motorcycle chase across the city and engages thugs alongside his cadet buddies in a violent construction site shoot-out, followed by a brutal series of fist and weapon fights and a shockingly high body count. It feels like the final reel from an unrelated film, but everything ties together in the end with a lump-in-the-throat montage of everyone chipping in to care for Dodo, while they wait for Tat to return.
* For the record, there actually is a movie about a spectrum martial artist prodigy called Chocolate, made in 2008 by Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior director Prachya Pinkaew
Sammo Hung, the One and Only by Lam Chiu-wing, from Golden Harvest: Leading Change in Changing Times (Hong Kong Film Archive, 2013)
Sammo Hung: Making Kung Fu Comedies to Showcase My Strengths interviews by Cheung Chi-sing and Po Fung, from When the Wind Was Blowing Wild: Hong Kong Cinema of the 1970s (Hong Kong Film Archive, 2018)
As was the case for a lot of Golden Harvest movies, Heart of Dragon wasn’t easy to find on VHS. Your best bet was an import or bootleg of the HK tape. Tai Seng put out the first non-anamorphic R1 DVD in 2000, followed by an anamorphic disc from Fox in 2003, which was matched by a R2 PAL version from Hong Kong Legends in 2004. There are a number of Blu-rays available from various companies in Japan, Hong Kong, Scandinavia, and Germany, but the closest thing to Arrow’s new US debut is 88 Films’ UK exclusive from 2020, including some of the same extras and a 2K restoration of the original negative, which was supplied to both companies by Fortune Star. Both releases also include two versions of the film: the 91-minute Hong Kong cut and the 99-minute extended Japanese cut. For a complete breakdown on the differences between these versions, check out this link from movie-censorship.com.
This era of Hong Kong film has had a rough history on DVD and Heart of Dragon gives a pretty good indication as to why, even if it isn’t exactly an extreme example of the era’s aesthetic. It's purposefully foggy, purposefully cooled, and roughly shot on location at high speed. Cinematographer Arthur Wong doesn’t do anything wrong, the photography just requires a higher degree of detail and dynamic range to look ‘good.’ The 2K restoration is grainy and wide-angle textures are a little fuzzy, but it looks authentic. Unlike standard definition versions, which are full of compression artifacts throughout the fuzziest, grainiest shots, shapes and colors are well-defined and black levels, though dependent on lighting, are strong (only a selection of shots during the car chase appear particularly damaged).
The original Hong Kong cut of the film has Cantonese, Mandarin, and English DTS-HD Master Audio mono options. If you opt for the longer Japanese cut, you have a choice between two Cantonese tracks: one with the HK soundtrack music (and zero music for the Japanese only scenes) and one with the Japanese exclusive music, and a hybrid English track that defaults to Cantonese for scenes that were never dubbed into English. The Cantonese tracks feature the better performance and lip sync, including Chan’s actual voice, and the original HK track has the better overall sound quality. For whatever reason, it is louder than the somewhat muffled Japanese music version (if you watch the Japanese cut with the HK mix, you can actually hear the quality take a dip during the Japan exclusive scenes). The score is a joint effort between Violet Lam and Sherman Chow, who create a mix of goofball themes and Miami Vice-like action cues. Lam’s song, “Who Could Be Dependent” (lyrics by Calvin Poon and sung by Julie Su), won the film its only Hong Kong Film Award for best original song. The highlight, however, is the New Wave title sequence bop, “China Blue,” sung by Chan and composed by Takanaka Masayoshi (only heard on the Japanese cut’s track).
Commentary with Frank Djeng & FJ DeSanto (extended cut) – Djeng, the NY Asian Film Festival programmer, leads yet another fact-filled HK martial arts movie track, this time alongside DeSanto, a critic and the producer of various Transformers animated series (among other credits). Together, they discuss the careers of the greater cast & crew, Heart of Dragon’s place in everyone’s filmographies, differences between the HK and Japanese cuts, differences between Hung and Chan’s approach to action choreography, HK locations, and how the film was received upon release.
Hong Kong Legends archive featurettes:
The Making of The First Mission (48:43, SD) – A raw, but extensive collection of behind-the-scenes footage, recorded by a Japanese crew. It’s set mostly to funky music, but there is some on-set audio.
The First Mission: Pre-Release Event (15:23, SD) – Follow-up footage from a Japanese EPK.
Different Strokes with Sammo Hung (11:24, SD) – A 2004 interview with the director/star about the appeal of making a drama.
Jackie Chan (9:27, SD)
Sammo Hung (7:29, SD)
Rocky Lai (10:05, SD)
Arthur Wong (15:12, SD)
Alternate First Mission English language credits (2:32, SD)
Trailer Gallery – HK theatrical trailer, English export trailer, Japanese theatrical trailer and teasers, and Fortune Star’s re-release trailer
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be seen by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.