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Dreadnaught
cast: Yuen Biao, Ka-Yan Leung, Tak-Hing Kwan, Yuen Shun-yee, and Lily Lee

director: Yuen Woo-ping

92 minutes (15) 1981
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Hong Kong Legends DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
I no longer possess my small poster for Yuen Woo-ping's 1981 Dreadnaught (aka: Yong zhe wu ju). Centre to the artwork was an angry black and red painted face and it was easy to presume it to be a horror film. In part it is... but those slats of psychotic mania are part of a wider genre confusion, a cultural jigsaw which normally reeks of desperately striven for filmmaking eccentricity. Here, however, it is an honest, opportunistic tribute to everything that the director holds dear in filmed entertainment. The camerawork is lean and clean, and it has to be, to concentrate on the action. It stars a young Yuen Biao, and the film turns out to be the point of no return for Hong Kong film, a goodbye to the simple tomfoolery and action of old and the herald of the stunt fantastic programmes to come. Dreadnaught is an upgrade. Similar in daffy plotlines and slapstick, but approached at a new level technically and physically. Influences are drawn from every direction. The opening titles sequence (which omits the names of the cast members) presents us with the bad tempered villain White Tiger (Yuen Shun-yee) as he and his equally deadly wife trek an arid landscape under a searing sun. The series of close-ups of parched lips, searching eyes and scuffling feet are details from a spaghetti western and the following trap into battle is as much a 'saloon brawl'. The wife is killed in the fight ratcheting his penchant for rage up to new levels. There follows a startlingly choreographed dragon dance, the acrobatics of which are impressive and the miming most skilful.

Biao plays Mousy, and his sister is Lily Lee (from Shatter). She runs a laundry and the feckless brother is co-opted to collect and deliver the clobber. Collecting clothes is one thing, collecting payment is another, and the smallest boo from a dishonourable customer sets him a-running, to sister's displeasure. White Tiger took several injuries and visits Wong Fei-hung for healing. The internal damage appears mended with the mere application of heat and the dislocated shoulder is put back in place with a gentle bit of manipulation. White Tiger approaches Master Tam for protection while he remains in Guang Zhou city to exact revenge and employment of a sort is found for him at the theatre. The short-fused rogue takes a liking to the theatrical makeup and applies a demonic appearance, a guise under which he becomes a more uncontrollably violent version of himself, a character seemingly unappeasable unless he has killed again. Wong Fei-hung and his assistant, Leung Foon (Ka-Yan Leung), represent the Southern River Association in the dragon dance. The dragon earlier seen in practice was Master Tam's team and they take it very seriously, projecting flames from the maw of the covered beast. The dance off is both exciting and dangerous, but Wong Fei-hung and Leung Foon win.

Mousy associates with Leung Foon in order to pick up martial arts tips but Leung Foon decides he also needs some tutoring on women too. Foon eventually makes a referral of Mousy to Wong Fei-hung. The master is at first dismissive but when trouble alights on the house it is Mousy in the thick of it, and Wong Fei-hung bears witness. Mousy's manual laundry wringing skills are automatically adopted for defensive moves and are mistaken by the master for a martial arts form: "He knows Shirt Pinching Toad Trap." Mousy has offended White Tiger along the way and the villain has already killed several people, even rudely leaving a knife in the groin of one hulking great halfwit. Mousy successfully avoids and evades White Tiger in a succession of action pursuit set pieces but the malicious White Tiger then kills someone close to both Wong Fei-hung and Mousy which leaves them with no alternative but to meet the murderer. They both set off to the theatre for an appointed fight to the death.

Yuen Woo-ping also doubles as the action director on Dreadnaught and you picture him approaching the routine direction and becoming quickly bored with it, turning the everyday into the extraordinary. Each household chore is turned into a complex, technically challenging show-stopper, whether it be pegging out laundry or a measuring up by the dangerous local demon tailor (Fung Hark-on). The film never lets up. This is a world in which dull moments are outlawed. A couple of years on and the stunt ante would be upped with Police Story, but that film, as life-threateningly astonishing and exciting as it is, is interspaced with dull comedic social romantic sequences. In Dreadnaught even the slapstick, the bawdy humour and Yuen Biao's over-the-top gurning sneak out laughter when you just know it can't be that funny. When was the last time someone cross-eyed evoked hilarity... silent era comedy? Yet it is funny again here! The spaghetti western is alluded to, the 'old skool' upgraded, pratfall comedy and horror all planked together from beginning to end. The psychotic determination of White Tiger to kill Mousy borders on the terrifying despite the accompanying farce. Twice the size of the youth and with fists like bricks, he powers after him like a rhino, his face a rictus of hatred. When the punches land they are hurt for the audience and very likely for the actors also. The precise action is perfectly framed and the editing never falters. Today you would be calling 'Hey up!' to the screen as the steadi-cameraman wanders off-shot in a failing effort to make you part of the kerfuffle. Some of the narrow alleys will be familiar to anyone with a few 1980s' Hong Kong flicks under their belt, used as they were in Project A and Wheels On Meals. Dreadnaught is immensely enjoyable. If you think the genre is not to your tastes this is the film to prove you mistaken. Don't pass it up on the shelves.

The disc includes a brief history of the Wong Fei-hung character in both Chinese history and film, and an interview with Lily Lee who, despite 30 years of slam-dunking in Hong Kong films, still looks a treat.
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