Heart of Dragon

In Heart of Dragon, Jackie Chan as Tat Fung is a police officer in pre-handover Hong Kong with a lot on his mind; a dangerous career, a girlfriend waiting for a proposal, potential in-laws who object to his career, and being the sole caregiver for his intellectually-disabled brother Danny Fung.

Danny is referred to more often by the diminutive and insulting nickname of “Dodo”, in spite of being nearly 30. In manner and appearance, Danny is portrayed as a big child. He’s dressed in overalls, sneakers, and an infantilizing “bowl” haircut crowning a stocky build. Danny’s penchant for action figures, ice cream, and other trappings of childhood is visual shorthand for his innocence and social naivete. Even in the less enlightened climate of 1985 when this movie was made, it was known that such portrayals did not represent the true preferences of all of the intellectually disabled. Apparently, little effort was made on grooming or hygiene for Danny, or to try to have him “fit in” to adult society. He’s given no useful work to do or activities to participate in, and he’s relegated to spending his days hanging out with the local children. The children tease and torment him (witness the incident where the children turn out his pockets looking for cash, revealing their linings, and then tease him for not wearing underwear) and use him to obtain the privileges of the adult world in turns.

Much of the slapstick comedy of the movie revolves around others–even those who know of Danny’s intellectual disability–nevertheless expecting him to act as a non-disabled person, or manipulating him into behavior that they find humorous. His gullibility has often has more serious consequences; in his position as a police officer, Tat Fung can often intercede on his brother’s behalf, when many encounters between adults with disabilities and law enforcement don’t always conclude happily.

The facial features commonly associated with Downs’ Syndrome are not apparent, as–this being before the groundbreaking TV series Life Goes On, where Hollywood learned people with Down Syndrome could effectively portray themselves in media–Danny was played by non-disabled actor Sammo Hung. The original script called for Danny to participate in kung fu fight scenes, but Hung refused, saying “My character was mentally retarded, mentally disabled, so how can you ask me to fall down and suddenly become well again? And fight? They knew my fighting skills and wanted me to be part of the action but I thought that would have completely destroyed the tone of the film, the principles behind the film.” It might not have been widely known then, but it has become proven now, that some people with Down’s Syndrome can successfully learn and practice the various martial arts at the same level and in the same classes as their non-disabled cohorts. And though the martial arts are still considered prohibite sports by the Special Olympics, progress has recently been made towards the inclusion of karate and tae kwon do.

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