This review was corrected on Feb. 13, 2003.
Imagine you’re one of the best-known people on the planet and you suddenly discovered that, uh, your family name wasn’t what you’d been led to believe. It’s a problem Jackie Chan — or Jackie Fong, as he should really be called — handles with practiced ease in “Traces of a Dragon,” a moving docu by Hong Kong helmer Mabel Cheung that gains resonance by encapsulating a chaotic era of the Chinese experience pre- and post-WWII. Chan’s name should easily vault this into fests, TV and ancillary, with some theatrical potential besides, especially in Asia.
Film is vague about exactly when Chan’s father revealed the unvarnished truth of his colorful life, though dad himself says it was relatively recently, as he didn’t wish to die with the story untold to his son. Essentially, the man Jackie knew as Chen (Chan in Cantonese) Jiping ‘fessed up he was born Fang (Fong) Daolong, and has two middle-aged sons by a first wife back in China. Also, Jackie’s mother, Lee-lee, has two daughters by an earlier husband on the Mainland.
It turns out Fang worked as a spy for Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT during the ’30s and ’40s, fleeing to Hong Kong in the early ’50s to escape the Communists. Lee-lee, before immigrating illegally to H.K. soon after him, was a former stage performer who ran opium in Shanghai. In Cheung’s docu, Lee-lee, who died last February, is seen as a mute, wheelchair-bound old lady; Chan’s father, a still sprightly and mobile 87-year-old, takes center stage, regaling his awe-struck son with one after another juicy story.
Any way you slice it, Fang Daolong’s story is a helluva yarn. Born in Shandong province in 1915, Fang moved south at an early age to Wuhu, and then to Shanghai to acquire a trade. However, settling down doesn’t seem to have been on Fang’s agenda. After being fired from the KMT army’s staff for persistently goofing off, he joined the Nationalists’ anti-Communist intelligence department, surviving two assassination attempts.
When the Sino-Japanese War broke out in ’37, he fled, like other KMT sympathizers, inland to Chongqing, finally returning home to Shandong to find most of his family dead.
It was in Wuhu that he married for the first time, fathering two sons, Fang Shide and Fang Shisheng, both interviewed in the docu. When his wife died in ’47, Fang left his two kids and fled for his life ahead of the advancing Communists to Shanghai, where he met Lee-lee Chen, who already had two daughters, Chen Guilan and Chen Yulan (both interviewed), by a husband now dead.
Almost penniless, Lee-lee tried, unsuccessfully, to sell her daughters to survive and later took to running opium by the docks. It was there she met Fang, who arrested her and then, in compassion, let her go.
Both ended up walking tall in Shanghai — Fang as head of the so-called Shandong Gang and Lee-lee nicknamed “Third Sister” in the underworld — and they married. After the Communists took over China, Fang hopped a train to Hong Kong, changing his name to Chen Jiping. Lee-lee later joined him, leaving her two daughters behind.
In Hong Kong, Fang had gotten a job as a handyman-cum-cook at the French embassy, and it was in this privileged background, amid the territory’s expat community on Victoria Peak, that Jackie Chan was born in 1954. A sturdy, 9-pound baby, his parents nicknamed him “Shandong Cannon,” and he grew up oblivious to his half-brothers and half-sisters suffering through China’s various persecutions of the ’50s and ’60s.
When the U.S. consul, Marshall Green, was transferred to Canberra in 1961, Fang followed, leaving Jackie behind in a Peking Opera boarding school for 10 years.
That period of rigorous training, during which he grew up along with future movie names like Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, was the subject of the pic “Painted Faces” (1988), scenes from which are neatly excerpted in the docu. (Helmer was Cheung’s partner, Alex Law, who also worked on “Traces.”) When Jackie left the school at age 18, his father bought him an apartment, but Jackie’s career in movies was slow to take off. After spending time in Australia as a construction worker and cook, he finally got a telegram from agent Willie Chan to return to H.K. The rest, as they say, is history.
With China then emerging from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Fang was able to trace his two missing sons through Australia’s Chinese Ambassador. Both sons were still in Wuhu: Shide working as a postman, and Shisheng in a pigsty. Interviewed now, both they and Lee-lee’s daughters appear phlegmatic about being left behind by their parents, a far from rare occurrence in Chinese families of the period. To this day, the sons still have not met Jackie, on the father’s insistence. (Chan simply says, “I don’t believe blood is thicker than water. Our backgrounds are completely different.”)
Final reel of the film, showing Fang visiting his sons and their relatives in Wuhu, carries considerable emotional charge. The whole family tree is now recorded in an official family document, where Jackie’s name is inscribed as Fang Shilong (in Mandarin pronunciation), bringing closure to more than a half-century of tangled history.
Brief clips from nine Jackie Chan pics are woven into the docu, and Chan is extensively shown alongside his father as the older man recounts his story or shoots the breeze with his son in the Canberra countryside. But it’s Fang who’s the star of this picture, a buccaneering figure puffing on his pipe and lapping up his position as head of a vast family.
Tech credits are standard, with extensive use of archival and family material to evoke pre-PRC China and postwar H.K. A historical narration, in Mandarin, by former Shaw Bros. kung-fu star Ti Lung is a tad vague and over-flowery for Western auds and could easily be replaced by more precise captions. Interviews are conducted mostly in Mandarin.