Heaven Dragon Earth Tiger (1986)

Written & directed by: Ding Sin-Saai
Producers: Cheung Chuen & Keung Leung-Kam
Starring: Chang Yu-Sheng, Lee Hing-Man, Wong Chung-Kwan, Siu Hung-Mui & Wong Kuen

Taiwanese cinema produced historical and deadly war-spectacle with the best of them but on the flipside, a fair amount of efforts in the wake of widescreen epics depicted matters more internally. I.e. Heaven Dragon Earth Tiger is slotted into the genre of the military training-movie. Which sometimes contained stakes, lives on the line, sometimes not but regardless veteran Ding Sin-Saai can't bring the drama to life whether in training or revenge-mode.

Officer Cheng Yi Da is injured after a training exercise and when rehabilitated, he decides to practice for the armed diving squad instead. A tough program awaits, a mentorship with an old instructor and revenge on the elder...

It's neither able to match scope of Ding Sin-Saai's prior genre-vehicles, whether Wuxia pian or war, and being a seemingly low-stakes production done for more mild, nationalistic purposes, it's no surprise the scope is pretty hollow and basic. Not without efficiency in some section as stock shots of military hardware as well as the parachute sequences are integrated smoothly, it's also fairly focused story-wise. Simplicity and even unscripted silliness could go incoherent in someone else's hands but following Cheng Yi Da's training, conflict with instructor, increased brotherhood, romance is easy. It isn't particularly thrilling or even basically workman-like though. Ding may do the right thing by coherently establishing who we are looking at and his goals that in turn will generate the determination and dedication meant as straight communication to the audience but when it's all tallied up no character or beat breaks out of its basic shell.

First half seems to lean towards a more bearable experience in that regard but once we're introduced to a mountain training drill that crosses paths with real criminals, the unconvincing romance and the finale involving infiltrating the smugglers, it's pretty clear that this is nationalistic, commercial exercise that can't push buttons very well. There are manufactured moments yes (including singing about pride in your work, training and brothers) but Ding Sin-Saai is even keeping this back to a surprising degree. It wouldn't have made it any less shallow and I'm sure some were very satisfied how their navy and army looked on screen. But there's clearly not enough that makes for an acceptable, commercial and rousing film for a Taiwanese heart.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson