Everyone knows John Woo as one of the best action film directors in the world today. During his early days as a director, he tackled the kung fu film and this film, his second as director, is quite interesting as we get to see a look at the motifs that would later become a trademark of the Woo-style of action filmmaking.
The film revolves around two martial artists from China who are well versed in different styles. Fan Zhongjie is a kung fu expert who has arrived in Korea with the intention to have a spar with a respected Tae Kwon Do master, Shen Rongzheng. Along the way, he meets Tae Kwon Do coach Nan Gong and the two become friends. Nan is actually a protégé of Shen and has eyes for Shen’s daughter Mingmei. Another student, Jindi also has eyes for Nan Gong and becomes jealous of Mingmei.
While Fan is quite good at kung fu, when he is introduced to Yan, who has taken over Shen’s school after retiring, things start to unravel. Yan challenges another Tae Kwon Do master, Bai-Mu. Yan loses heavily and Fan asks that Bai-Mu train him in Tae Kwon Do for his spar with Shen. When Shen finally accepts the spar, it is clear that Fan has no ulterior motives, but to show his skills against Shen. When Fan wins the duel, it may have caused some sort of anger and sorrow, but Shen ultimately respects Fan and welcomes him as a friend. When Fan begins training Mingmei, the two fall for each other, something Nan Gong ends up not being happy about.
Meanwhile, the town’s other martial arts schools are being targeted for a takeover. Yan and his younger brother Gong have been going to the local schools and giving them a choic: ally themselves with the Yan school or face their wrath. To add some insurance to their wrath, the Yans hire a lunatic fighter and Baifeng, a female martial arts champion from overseas. When Fan and Nan hear of the Yan’s plans and Bai-Mu is seriously injured, they decide to put their differences aside and take on the Yans and their thugs in a final confrontation.
John Woo wrote the screenplay and directed this pretty underrated kung fu film. It is definite that Woo definitely knows what he is doing here as his style runs smoothly with his very own script that seems to revolve around the Korean art of Tae Kwon Do. Add some international flavor by casting actors from Japan and Korea, where the film was shot and is set, and you have quite a pretty good martial arts film.
I have to admit, it was tiring seeing James Tien play villains in films and it’s great to see him more as a likable character in the form of Tae Kwon Do coach Nan Gong. He runs a school with mainly female students and yes, he is in love with his teacher’s daughter. While he played likable characters in Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, he always felt short-lived. Here, he plays co-lead alongside the great Carter Wong as a kung fu expert who ultimately combines his kung fu with Tae Kwon Do to stop the villains.
In a nod to perhaps the western, the villains mainly wear black and in some scenes, wear capes as if they were magicians. As much as that proves to be laughable, they make up for it in skills. While Korean actor Kim Ki-Joo played the older brother, it is clear the real leader is younger brother Gong, played by Yeung Wai. Yeung and Tien would reunite in Woo’s Hand of Death in role reversals. However, the twist comes at the very tail end of the film. Just when you think the film is over, a surprise comes. Look out for the following Woo-style motifs: the doves (in which they fly with James Tien looking on) and the use of slow motion at the right moments as well.
The action director of the film is Chan Chuen and he does a pretty good job in using the skills of Tien and Wong as well as Kim and Yeung. The opening fight scene involves two groups of female fighters taking each other and in one section of this fight, three girls are fighting in the mud and yes, there is some nudity involved, which may bring one to worry that this would be a film similar to The Association, which was released that same year. Thankfully, it is not even close to that. Hapkido grandmaster Ji Han-Jae gets some nice fight scenes himself, or more like great sparring scenes first with Tien then Wong.
The Dragon Tamers is an underrated kung fu film. It is an early look at John Woo’s style of action filmmaking and the cast does quite well. Definitely worth a rental.
WFG RATING: B
A Golden Harvest (HK) Ltd. Production. Director: John Woo. Producer: Raymond Chow. Writer: John Woo. Cinematography: Lee Seong-Chun. Editing: Peter Cheung.
Cast: James Tien, Carter Wong, Ji Han-Jae, Kim Ki-Joo, Yeung Wai, Kim Chang-Suk, Chie Kobayashi, Ryoko Ina, Chan Chuen, Hsu Hsia, Woo Jeon-Yeong, Nami Saijo, Keiko Hara, Park Seong-Jae, Lee Dae-Yeob.