DRAGON BLOOD (1982) is the third and final John Liu directorial work, and the only one where the American release doesn’t pretend it’s about ninjas. This one is a traditional period martial arts picture, so he can’t play Hong Kong movie star and creator of Zen Kwan Do John Liu. Or at least I don’t think so. But about halfway through he’s referred to by name for the first time, and it’s “John Liu.” Also, his co-star of all three films, Roger Paschy, plays “Paschy.” Maybe they’re older than they look. Or maybe they’re just such iconic characters they can be transported to different time periods, like Mickey Mouse.
This John Liu is the son of China’s best fighter. Dear old dad won that title and two small golden dragons from the Emperor. That was a curse, though, because he spent the rest of his life fighting off Chinese challengers to the title and western treasure seekers. He hated it. A total bummer. Never win the golden dragons, is my advice.
But on his last day he fights a guy who does not want the dragons, just the honor of challenging the greatest fighter, and as a fight connoisseur himself he’s cool with that. But then he gets jumped by another guy so he gives the dragons to the first guy and makes him promise to take care of his son. Personally I would be like, “Well, I mean, I’m flattered, but I wasn’t really looking for that type of a life time commitment here,” but this guy is more responsible so he becomes John Liu’s adoptive father.
Known as “the guardian” now, this guy raises John and teaches him more kung fu, but eventually he gets killed. That’s dragon life for you. Unrelated to that John seems to be getting into his idealistic college kid years, he has a conscience and interest in social justice and like all John Lius he’s drawn to America, so he goes there to protect the immigrants who have been mistreated since building the rail roads.
There John is attacked in the desert and blinded. He’s discovered on the beach by Paulette (Cyrielle Clair, SWORD OF GIDEON, Eric Rohmer’s TRIPLE AGENT), who recognizes him as a stranger who rescued her years ago. She gave him a weird knife that looks like a nutcracker and he made her promise to help Chinese immigrants. Now they’re reunited.
Unlike the other two John Lius we’ve seen, this one is not a Don Juan. He builds a marriage-like relationship with Paulette as she trains him to fight blind by swinging rocks and eggs at him on strings. Also she makes him wear a blindfold stuffed with herbs that eventually cures him. In one scene Liu kicks a whole bunch of eggs as she throws them at him, and he’s blindfolded so we know that he really did the scene with some kind of visual impairment.
I don’t know where they find all those eggs out there though.
John doesn’t take it all in stride. In one scene Paulette goes to town without telling him. He throws a big crying fit until she gets home. He says she’s been gone for two days, but she doesn’t act like it, walking up with a big smile like nothing’s wrong. Either she’s totally crazy or he’s being a huge baby.
Meanwhile there’s a Mayor who looks kinda like Jonathan Banks in a sombrero who wants revenge on all Chinese people for burning a boat. Also there’s an assassin sent by the Chinese government, and some lady, and they’re all trying to kill John. And Paschy lives nearby and doesn’t like him. And he’s guardian to a chubby white kid. Although much more straight forward than the other Lius this one also lost me with a confusing flashback structure. He always had to get complicated.
Liu continues with his theme of training to be the best fighter while being fed up with all the fighting. This time he preaches in the name of Chinese unity. He convinces Paschy that they have to team up to fight for their Chinese immigrant brothers. He keeps talking about some huddled masses that we never see. The dragons represent both the Chinese bloodline and the endless bloodshed. At the end they literally have blood on them that the kid tries to wash off. I don’t know if he represents the white man trying to cover his sins or the new generation trying to start over or both or neither.
The weird ending of AVENGING NINJA (where he goes home without rescuing his family) seemed kinda accidental, but this one is a much more intentional bummer. John takes a bullet to save Paulette, but kills the Mayor. Paulette takes a bullet to save the kid, and throws a knife into the assassin lady, but then the kid pulls out a gun and shoots her. So it ends with an orphan-turned-killer on a beach alone with a bunch of corpses. John has died sitting up, and the kid is shaking him saying “Wake up, uncle! Why are so many people dying? Tell me why!”
Cut to a sunset and cool music again. The end.
I enjoyed this movie, even though it’s a little more sane than the other two. But I have to admit that my very favorite thing about it is just a weird credit at the beginning. (I hope it’s on all versions, but in case you’re wondering, the one I watched was the DVD that’s a double feature with SHANGHAI JOE. The transfer comes from VHS [there are some tracking problems], it’s dubbed into English, the opening credits are squeezed into the wrong aspect ratio and the whole movie has burned in Dutch subtitles.)
First of all, Mr. Liu has graduated from just being a champion to being a founder:
But more importantly we have this credit for his ingenue:
This is amazing for two reasons. The first reason is that I have never in my life seen a movie that on the credits lists what other movies a star has been in. But the second and much more important reason is that the movie listed for her is TUSK (1980), an Alejandro Jodorowsky film that he has disowned and that has never been released on video. She stars with an elephant and Christopher Mitchum.
If for some reason there is one movie where the credits mention that the lead actress is in another movie, what are the chances it would be a Jodorowsky movie? And if there is one movie where the credits mention that the lead actress is in a Jodorowsky movie, what are the chances it would be TUSK? Probly not huge. And that’s the miracle of dragon blood.
Clair went on to a prolific career in television and film, mostly in France. Her most recent credit is in Francois Ozon’s FRANTZ (2016). Liu, however, seems to have given up the movie dream after this one. According to a light-in-citations Wikipedia entry, “Liu has made total of 3 films… all of them in which got the poor reputation among the John Liu fans. Ever since his down fall of his directed films, he retired from the film business and start to develop his own martial art form, known as Zen Kwan Do, where it is named after his sifu Liu Zen.”
He did, however, return to the screen in 1998 playing “Roger Pashy” in Robert Tai’s TRINITY GOES EAST. In the 2000s he’s had cameos in the Italian comedies ANY REASON NOT TO MARRY? (2006) and WELCOME MR. PRESIDENT (2013).