With this year's dragon boat races cancelled due to the pandemic, it's time to revisit the 2018 film Men on the Dragon
instead for the Dragon Boat Festival. A critical and commercial hit in Hong Kong, Sunny Chan's comedy-drama follows four ordinary men facing midlife crises who invigorate their lives through dragon boat racing.
Francis Ng is at his natural best as the affable, unmotivated Lung who works for a broadband service provider. He and his co-workers Suk Yi (theater actor Poon Chan Leung) and William (Weeds on Fire's Tony Wu) fulfill your general expectations of those tech-support guys who show up late to set up your internet. Lung holds an obvious torch for his neighbor Coral (TVB actress Nancy Wu), a single mother and online beauty influencer. He visits and helps her out often, but falls short of actually saying his feelings out loud. When rumors of upcoming layoffs circulate at work, Lung, Suk Yi and William, as well as their rigid manager (TVB veteran Kenny Wong) who is going through a marital crisis, decide to sign up for the company dragon boat racing team in order to gain some brownie points. The reluctant amateur athletes are not in particularly good shape or spirits for the challenge ahead, but through time and tough training, they'll come to appreciate the sport and their camaraderie.
Besides providing tried-and-true underdog sports drama moments, Men on the Dragon offers a glimpse into the unique Chinese sport of dragon boat racing. Associated with the traditional Dragon Boat Festival holiday, dragon boat racing is a canoe sport that depends on the strength, endurance and teamwork of rowers, a steersperson and a drummer. Synchronizing with the paddle strokes, the drummer beats on a large traditional Chinese drum while seated at the front of a long, brightly painted paddle boat that is decorated with a dragon head and tail. It's a fascinating, culturally steeped sport, and Men on the Dragon infuses the traditional pastime with contemporary Hong Kong stories and characters.
Men on the Dragon marks the directorial debut of author and screenwriter Sunny Chan, who co-wrote Joe Ma's bubbly early 2000s output like Dummy Mummy Without a Baby, Love Undercover, Funeral March, Diva, Ah Hey! and Three of a Kind. Those scripts are quite indicative of what Chan brings to his own directorial effort, which is mostly good-humored but also underlined with bittersweet tones and observations about everyday Hong Kong life. It's apparent to locals which broadband provider the film is poking fun at, and even the context of the company dragon boat team signals common work frustrations – the protagonists feel compelled to volunteer personal time for a company activity and a clueless male expat gets hired as the coach on paper while "assistant" Dorothy (Jennifer Yu) does all the actual work.
The four zeroes-to-sorta-heroes of the film are unambitiously average in an amusing and relatable way. Their uninspiring routine of going to work, going along with things, and doing just enough to get by might not be too different in spirit from many of our own average daily lives. In Men on the Dragon, their process of getting mentally and physically fit for dragon boat racing serves as a spark to attempt change and to fight the malaise of being stagnant and unfulfilled in life. Whether it's for the dragon boat racing or the slice of Hong Kong midlife, Men on the Dragon is an underdog story worth rooting for.