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On Location: Dragon Fight

Even Kung Fu masters are not immune to the glow of The Golden Gate. Still from Dragon Fight.

Welcome to "On Location," a micro-feature taking you to little-known cinematic locations of SF and taking a look at the films shot in the city by the bay over the years.

Originally I'd planned to spend this edition of On Location cataloguing the San Francisco sights in Stanley Kramer's 1967 Oscar magnet Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (spoiler alert: it's Sidney Poitier's parents), but after reviewing the flick, decided singular moments in SFO and a matte painting of the North Bay probably wouldn't make the nut for a whole article. Moreover, Richard O. Moore's doc Take This Hammer, which recently made its way online and into the Bay Area Television Archives, came out a scant few years before GWCD, and is still probably more relevant to the situation of African-Americans in the Bay than Kramer's saccharine (if right-hearted) treacle.

Having boxed myself out of my original piece, I did what any writer in his or her right mind does at this point--I went outside and waited for something to fall into my lap. Since it was Chinese New Year recently, and I happen to live in the center of Clement street, the law of averages dictated that what I did was a big old firecracker, and it came with a brainstorm: Surely there had to be a Hong Kong beat-'em-up with scenes in our fair city? 

A quick trip to the web revealed a Youtube upload of Billy Tang's Dragon Fight, a late 80s action flick starring young, bright and bushy future legends Stephen Chow (of Kung Fu Hustle) and Jet Li, and filmed almost entirely on the streets of San Francisco. While the location is new, the plot is textbook HK in its prime–Jimmy (Jet Li) and his friend Tiger are members of China's Olympic martial arts team, and while abroad on tour, Tiger decides he's going to defect for the golden shores of San Francisco. As it always does, something goes wrong and the two are stranded here–one of them quickly ascending the ranks of a local gang, the other relegated to a low-key life as a lowly shop boy cursed with a bad case of mistaken identity.

A far cry from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Dragon Fight gets its feet on the ground in seconds, milking our city for every possible ounce of local color, with a refreshing lack of postcard flashbacks that American films set here often rely upon. It's interesting to see a vision of the city through the eyes of a total outsider, and it's a testament to the power of the camera that for most of the film, the city looks a great deal like Hong Kong. There's a series of sweeping, emotional vistas of the Bay (sometimes staged from Treasure Island for effect) punctuated by spurts of violence that seem to reduce the city to a series of empty streets and parking lots. Like Guess, the action begins in the biggest parking lot of them all, SFO–which has been conveniently relocated downtown, in close proximity to the Palace of the Arts, where a kung fu exposition is taking place.

Dragon Fight isn't bereft of the usual landmarks–the Transamerica Pyramid, Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower all squeeze their way in too–but it also includes some unlikely history lessons. One chase sequence takes place on the The Left O'Doul Bridge, a fight breaks out under a billboard touting KYA FM 93.3 (an oldies station at the time, now broadcasting Spanish language content as La Raza), and Jimmy spends a great deal of his time meditating beneath the glowing neon sign of 506 Finocchio, arguably the city's first drag club, which opened in 1929 and closed in 1999.

However foreign, no film made here can resist the allure of the mythic San Francisco steeplechase, and Dragon Fight goes all in, giving us at least four of them. At one point, Chow's character initiates one of the strangest car chases ever seen on the streets of San Francisco, following a high class girl in a Mercedes from the Marina to North Beach through the neighborhoods shops while offering her his "big one," until his van stalls out on Hyde and Chestnut. In their desire to make the absolute most out of their exotic environs, Dragon Fight's producers even filmed the incidental scenes in locales around the area. The man behind all the bad deeds, Marco, lives the good life in a McMansion nestled in an evil suburb somewhere outside of the city (we'll call it "Colma") and the final showdown between Tiger and Jimmy takes place on a farm north of the city. Where big-budget films often make so little with so much, it's good to see a smaller film take full advantage of the beauty that surrounds us every day.