Talon Books’ Kevin Williams (left), Gateway Theatre & playwright Jovanni Sy (middle), and LiterASIAN festival director Allan Cho at the book launch of the new book Jovanni’s ‘Nine Dragons’ – Jovanni is one of the authors featured at LiterASIAN 2018. (Photo:LiterASIAN)

Richmond, B.C.

Theatre Review: Nine Dragons is an entertaining crime drama that goes beyond identity narrative

By Vincent Ternida

Get Out (2017) set a gold standard of delivering an entertaining genre piece without putting identity on centre stage. From April 12-21st at the Gateway Theatre in Richmond, Jovanni Sy’s Nine Dragons delivers just that without compromising the genre and maintaining a balance on his ultimate creative vision.

Nine Dragons follows the harrowing tale of Tommy Lam, a beat cop in Kowloon– in his mind protecting the downtrodden while the English lavishes in their mansions in downtown Hong Kong. He chases after the Kowloon Slasher, a case that he’s followed until top brass takes it from him after the killer murders an English socialite. He follows a hunch towards nightclub owner and scion of an influential Hong Kong family, Victor Fung. The fateful meeting sets of a series of events that places both men from two different worlds in a country divided by race and class.

At first glance, one can be astounded by the play’s set design. It feels as if it is not a stage play that’s being watched but an actual hard boiled crime film. Projected text borrows from film noir conventions and delivers it onstage with such precision that it is organically part of the piece. It transports the audience towards gritty Kowloon, buffeted by shady docks, tenements, and at the centre of it all the eponymous Nine Dragons nightclub where the characters’ realities take a pause and fantasy takes centre stage curated by Victor Fung.

John Ng’s performance as Tommy Lam carries the play from ground up delivering a bilingual role of English and Cantonese. The latter dialect appears mostly during soliloquoys or in response to other ethnic Chinese characters (who aren’t Victor Fung). It is worth noting that the costume changes from both acts paints a picture of the main character moving up in class and how the other characters (mostly white) react to the character with regard to his costume. One would discern the latent frustration and stress that characters expresses throughout the play. As the plot thickens– Tommy is our window to his world and the audience can relate to his small victories, distress, and even his follies.

Another performance worth noting is Daniel Chen who plays Victor Fung. As the main antagonist to Tommy– one sees a mirror of what Tommy could be like if born under a different star. Victor is flamboyant and playful. His world is different– where subterfuge and charisma are his weapons unlike Tommy’s intimidation and manipulation. His wealth is both his armor and his crutch and as the audience we distrust his character but also sympathize with his confusion in regard to his dual background of resisting Chinese customs and assimilating with an English culture.

Overall, Nine Dragons is a treat that goes beyond the usual identity narrative to deliver an entertaining crime drama. The set pieces are engaging and even more so the performances.