“Men on the Dragon” – 2018 New York Asian Film Festival Review


United in fear of an imminent round of corporate layoffs, four mid-career telecom workers decide to band together and join the company’s dragon boat team in a bid to prove their loyalty and avoid the chop in “Men on the Dragon” (逆流大叔), the latest from veteran Hong Kong director Sunny Chan.

Chan Lung (Francis Ng), Suk Yee (Poon Chan Leung) and William (Tony Wu) are three installation technicians working in the engineering division for an ailing telecom company. After managing to avoid being retrenched in a new wave of corporate cut-backs, they – along with Tai (Kenny Wang) a middle manager who shares their common plight – are selected to represent the company as a team of dragon boat rowers meant to impress possible investors.

Aided by Dorothy (Jennifer Yu) who seeks to be taken seriously as a coach in her own right, these bumbling four navigate the new landscape of competitive rowing and learn the mental fortitude for them to confront their own internal demons: Chan Lung and his unrequited love for a single mom who is his neighbour, Suk Yee and his bickering family, William and his dreams of returning to a career in professional sports, and Tai, who seeks to reconcile with his estranged wife.

As with most sports movies, the film does not shy away from the standard maudlin development of men who learns the ways of cooperation and resilience for a common target: from dispirited beginnings to getting in the zone to bracing themselves for the anxieties of impending races – to avoid getting fired – to the final realisation of discovering fortitude for themselves and genuine sportsmanship. However, the scattershot attempts at capturing emotional depth to lend credo to these characters’ experiences are too diffuse and sloppily written to contribute to any meaningful development. While the narrative orientates itself loosely around the exploits of Chan Lung as he attempts to woo his neighbour, the film’s ambition to capture the internal turmoil of Suk Yee, William, and Tai feels barely more than cursory in a standard deus ex machina to add character to cardboards.

The film’s sincerity in depicting mid-life crises is laudable, but the predictability more than offsets whatever emotional resonance it could mine from the audience—the team wins, duh. It was a foregone conclusion that remained unsatisfactory even if one could see it coming.  The story had busied itself so much with the personal lives of these people that the sport of it all is eclipsed in ironic retrospect. Though the central conflict had been addressed, the gaping holes where logical storytelling should exist remained unfilled, rendering the poignancy of what is supposed to be represented—you win some, you lose some, but if you never try, you lose everything—merely trite, especially since the emotional investments never paid dividends.

Without any additional flourishes or interesting cinematography, the resultant film is just the right amount of uninteresting that is unforgivable. For a work that tried so hard to be likeable, it had succeeded in the worst ways possible: bland and milquetoast, gliding off one’s impression the way a dragon boat would a river.

“Men on the Dragon” screens at the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival on July 12 at 9 p.m. Tickets are available at filmlinc.org.