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  City Called Dragon, A Secret Swordswoman
Year: 1970
Director: Tu Chung Hsun
Stars: Hsu Feng, Shih Chun, Chen Hui Lou, Chen Ming-Lai, Chen Shih Wei, Chin Pin, Hsieh Han, Kao Ming, Ku Lu-Shih, Li Chiang, Li Kwei, Lu Shih, Lung Fei, Wan Chung-Shan, Yu Sung Chao
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Martial ArtsBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Miss Shang (Hsu Feng) is being taken to Dragon City through the mountains, and as she travels her bearers warn her that life there is very dangerous, especially for a young woman on her own: she may he tempting fate in a way that could lead her to serious consequences. However, serious consequences are what she wants, though not for herself, as with this region of China being under a totalitarian regime where any protest is swiftly quashed with extreme violence, she is part of the freedom fighters' movement. She wants to get the plans for a rebellion back from the Mayor, who has tortured and murdered her compatriots, but she is confident she can succeed in her mission: though first she must find a contact.

Hsu became a powerful movie producer in China after she retired from the screen, but before that successful phase of her life she was a popular star of wuxia action flicks (a favourite of legendary director King Hu), and A City Called Dragon was one of those, garnering fresh appreciation when it was restored by the Taiwanese cultural drive to preserve its cinematic past. For many fans of martial arts, Taiwan was synonymous not with any sensitive dramas about struggling farmers or whatever, but its fighting films, which aped the worldwide hits that Hong Kong was unleashing across the globe, were a kind of rival to the southern colony's efforts in that vein. To most outsiders' eyes, they would have trouble noticing much difference between the two regions' output.

To be honest, A City Called Dragon was maybe not the best showcase for the action side of their movies, since director Tu Chung Hsun preferred to concentrate on the suspense aspect here, crafting what amounted to a spy thriller, even a spy drama at a push, that was stronger on suspense that its heroine's combat skills. Nevertheless, when we did see her in action we could acknowledge she had the ability to hold her own in a tricky situation, and it was enough to be aware Shang could take down a whole bunch of evildoers in one fell swoop should the situation arise, as indeed she does at least a couple of time during the plot. Yet most of this was cultivating its strongest suit: an all-pervasive paranoia borne of watching the protagonist picking her way through enemy territory, danger lurking at every turn, as they say.

That's not to indicate she has it all her own way, as she does end up captured by the Mayor's forces, leading to her torture (by stretching!) and imprisonment. Perhaps this was a mistake as far as the narrative progress went, for as many a screenwriter has found (Tu penned the script himself) once you imprison your lead character, you do spend a lot of time trying to set them free again. Luckily, Shang has some allies in the city who come to her aid, and there's a pretty decent sequence involving a key hidden inside a fish that increases the tension significantly. The Mayor was not even the big bad, as everyone is awaiting the arrival of the mysterious Mr Wo, who turns out to be one of those white-haired men with mad skillz (and mad weaponry, it had to be said) to be overcome in a climactic battle. Curiously, Hsu was sidelined for almost the entire denouement, suggesting the film was not entirely certain what to do with her, a pity since she was clearly capable of so much more. That aside, it was the atmosphere of creeping and tangible fear pervading every scene that made this worthwhile.

[Click here to see the Taiwan Film Festival website where this and other films can be watched, 18th-27th September 2020.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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