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Traces Of A Dragon (2003)

Director : Mabel Cheung
Producer : Willie Chan, Solon So
Cast : Jackie Chan, Chan Chi-Long
Narration : Ti Lung

Jackie Chan grew up thinking that he was an only child, only to discover later in life that he had two older sisters. This was followed by the revelation that he also had two older brothers. Upon finding out about his ‘secret’ family, Jackie asked his father about his these relations and his parents life in China. His father did not want to discuss it with him. Around 1999 Jackie’s mother became quite ill which led to Jackie’s father having a change of heart – he decided that he needed to tell Jackie the truth about his family history. Traces Of A Dragon tells this story.

by Martin Cleary

In his autobiography – My Life In Action – Jackie Chan describes the fear that discovering that he had two older brothers and sisters gave him. He feared that he would find out that he was adopted or some similar terrible secret. The actual truth of Jackie’s parents backgrounds is just as – if not even more – amazing as Jackie’s own ‘rags to riches’ story. As they say, even Hollywood couldn’t write this. Traces Of A Dragon opens with Jackie’s father explaining that he didn’t want his secrets to die with him, so he finally decided to reveal to his son his own past. The documentary uses interviews with Chan Chi-Long (Jackie’s father), and other family members to tell their collective family history.

Traces Of A Dragon is a fantastic documentary. I was interested in seeing the film because I am a big fan of Jackie Chan and I am interested in both his films and in Jackie himself. Traces Of A Dragon gives us much more than an insight into Jackie’s own background and his parents previously unrevealed ‘secrets’ – it provides a basic history of China’s significant political changes and wars over the 100 years. For anyone not interested in learning ‘history’ – don’t panic. This is a history lesson that doesn’t get boring, in fact at times it is so surprising that it seems almost impossible. I won’t reveal too much about exact details of what the documentary contains, but will say that the Sino-Japanese war, the establishment of the Communist state and the Cultural Revolution provide the background for Jackie’s mother and father’s stories. Both parents had to escape China for different reasons, and between them have stories of a career in the army, life as a thug, beheadings, gambling, assassination attempts and selling opium. And it wasn’t Jackie’s father who was the opium seller!

The film uses quite graphic and violent footage of the Japanese army invading China and the subsequent Chinese civil war – it’s very shocking. For viewers – such as myself – this is a really good introductory lesson in Chinese history. The main tale is told primarily through Jackie’s father, and hearing the story in his own words is very moving. Combined with the historical footage, this documentary packs a mean punch. This is somber stuff. The story is however told with a sense of achievement and necessity and doesn’t dwell on sad and emotional moments artificially – nothing is forced. It is impossible to watch Jackie’s older brothers and sisters talking about being abandoned in China by their parents for years and not empathize. All of the family members obviously find it difficult to tell their story – they have all been through some of the most terrible hardships.

Because Jackie himself is such a well known and familiar character, it really adds to the film seeing him interact with his family. There’s no ‘photo-opportunity moments’ – with the exception of one scene which is supposed to show Jackie in his public persona, singing karaoke. What we are given is a really candid view of the Chan family: Jackie’s father speaks while Jackie sits on the floor and listens as intently as a young child, and later we see Jackie taking care of his wheelchair bound mother. For those less interested in Jackie’s fathers background, it is of course, not too long before the man himself appears in the story and there is a decent collection of family photographs of the Chan family living in the Ambassador’s house in Hong Kong. Jackie’s story is examined – through his time at the Opera school (again there are numerous pictures as well as clips of the film Painted Faces) and onto his initial stuntman career and subsequent move to Australia. When Jackie decides to move back to Hong Kong then it’s here that Jackie’s own story really stops as this is the period leading up to his eventual success which is better recorded in various other books and documentaries. Jackie’s ‘public history’ is less important here. If you are already familiar with the story of Jackie’s childhood, then I can still recommend this as the interviews are very unguarded and film clips and photographs are very good. Throughout the story of Jackie’s childhood the film juxtaposes his story with that of his siblings – while Jackie was at the opera school and becoming a stuntman, his brothers in China were on the streets begging. And the Opera school sounded bad enough…

The film ends on a slightly unexpected note – which I won’t reveal – but it displays how honest the documentary makers have been and have not tried to falsify the actions of either Jackie or his family members. The 95 minute duration of Traces Of A Dragon go by very quickly, and are a great encouragement to delve deeper into Chinese history. It could easily have been much longer but that would’ve made it harder to watch – it’s subject matter is heavy enough. What is very eye-opening is that the story of Jackie’s family may well be both amazing and sad, but it is by no means unique – as their story is typical of that of thousands of Chinese families. For casual fans this is an engrossing film, and for Jackie fans it is very impressive (and intimate) material.

Oh – and another thing – Jackie finds out that his surname is not even ‘Chan’….

Plot : -
Acting : -
Entertainment : 5/5
Overall : 5/5

Notable Scenes

DVD Review : Click here

Buy this movie at YesAsia – Traces of a Dragon

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