Nine Dragons’ cinematic stylization pushes Jovanni Sy’s unflinching script into a rich experience of racial aggression in 1920s Kowloon. But the pressure-cooker surrounding its protagonist, Tommy Lam, remains starkly modern; an unending stream of micro-aggressions forced into view by brilliantly stepping into another time and place.
Lam is the best detective in 1920s Hong Kong, but remains overlooked by his British superiors. His frustrations are forced to the forefront when a string of grisly murders is only taken seriously when a white woman is found murdered. Tommy unravels as he falls into the deepest layers of race, class, and power politics in a bid against the clock to keep his dignity, and the lives of his people intact.
Beginning in tightly controlled deference and falling into near villainous passivity, John Ng’s wonderfully tense performance stands out. Daniel Chen’s turn as Victor Fung, a wealthy playboy hiding terrible secrets, is a rare treat of confidence, clarity, with a touch of malice.
The remaining white characters though are mostly forgettable, with Natascha Girgis’ Mary Weir a slight exception. Her smart rebound from a dropped prop filled out an otherwise two dimensional character.
Director Craig Hall has mastered the use of Scott Reid’s simple, yet expressive set design to layer and hide his actors among Anton De Groot’s incredible lighting. Part cinema, part theatre, all tension; every scene drips with intention without forcing us to choke on it.
Nine Dragons doesn’t preach about the perils of racism. At its core, it portrays the insidious side of human belief, and how its misuse can protect and destroy people on every side. It is a thoughtful and nuanced approach to a dangerous and complex topic. At times it feels like the audience is suffocating under too many themes only to be reminded that, like a good mystery, all threads lead back to the same villain.
In Nine Dragons everyone behaves badly, and everyone is part of the problem. The result is a misbehaviour mystery, that asks ‘whodunnit’? The answer is everyone. Go see it. We all live it.
Nine Dragons by Jovanni Sy. Directed by Craig Hall. A Gateway Theatre, Vertigo Theatre and Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre co-production. On stage at Gateway Theatre (6500 Gilbert Rd, Richmond) until April 21. Visit gatewaytheatre.com for tickets and information.