Movie Review: Men On the Dragon (逆流大叔)

There has been no shortage of films over the years that tell a story about a group of outsiders who come together to form a sports team and end up winning big, perhaps not a championship but rather their pride. Hong Kong filmmakers have also tapped into this well-trodden storyline of late, two years ago with the nostalgic WEEDS ON FIRE and now with MEN ON THE DRAGON.

In this film, Chan Lung (Francis Ng/吳鎮宇, INFERNAL AFFAIRS II), Wong Suk-yee (Poon Chan-leung/潘燦良, THE MAD PHOENIX) and William (Tony Wu Tsz-tung/胡子彤, WEEDS ON FIRE) are installation engineers at the fictional Pegasus Broadband Network in Hong Kong. When the company’s management decides to lay off some of their colleagues, the men are forced to join the company’s new dragon boat racing team in order to keep their jobs. (I’m sure workers’ rights advocate Lee Cheuk-yan/李卓人 would have plenty to say about that!) Not surprisingly, the men’s hearts and minds aren’t into the sport, especially as they all have bigger issues to deal with at home. For Chan, he’s in love with his next-door neighbour, a single mother who is trying to build a career for herself as a cosmetics maven on social media. Because she’s so self-absorbed, she doesn’t appreciate that he prepares an elaborate dinner for them every night or that he’s more of a father to her teenage daughter than the girl’s own father is. For Wong, he’s in a rut in his marriage to his mainland-born wife who is always bickering with her mother-in-law. For William, he’s happy in his relationship with his girlfriend but he regrets that he had to give up his passion to be a professional table tennis player to be with her. To add to the men’s woes, they are joined on the boat by their boss, “Big Brother Tai” (Kenny Wong/黃德斌, THE DANCE OF PASSION), who has his own marriage issues to deal with, and Dorothy (Jennifer Yu/余香凝, soon to be seen in the film DISTINCTION), who not only has to coach this motley crew, she also has to prove to the male-dominated industry that she’s worthy of the job.

Although this movie is harmless summertime fluff, it could have been a much better film than it was. I’m not sure why so many Hong Kong actors feel they have to ham it up in front of the camera… wait, maybe I do. Local audiences love it when they do. I just don’t see the point of going for the cheap laughs at the expense of a good underdog story but clearly first-time director Sunny Chan/陳詠燊, who also wrote the screenplay, would disagree. For me, the story already has plenty of humour and pathos; I don’t need to see a bunch of yahoos acting silly. It doesn’t seem genuine. To their credit, when the three older actors aren’t clowning around, their performances are enjoyable, which really is a testament to their experience in the industry. Tony Wu, who was a semi-professional baseball player before he turned to acting, continues to impress me as he holds his own against these heavyweights in this, his third, film. He needs to break away from playing sports characters though.

Although the film’s ending is a foregone conclusion right from the start, one of the subplots does take a surprising turn that seems out of tone with the rest of the story. I won’t reveal who it involves but I would have written it quite differently — not necessarily happily but certainly happier than it was.

All in all though, MEN ON THE DRAGON is a reasonably fun, summertime film about a bunch of guys whose glory days have almost passed them by. For audiences who know Hong Kong and know how much we love our dragon boat races, they will enjoy seeing the many parts of the territory on display. They may also pick up on a couple of very sly digs at our government leaders, which seems to be very much in vogue these days with young local filmmakers. Audiences who don’t know us, though, may end up scratching their heads over all our quirks and idiosyncrasies.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, August 9th at 8:30 am HK time!

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