A completely charming fairytale, Little Dragon Maiden blends high-flying swordplay and rubber monsters with a magical love story, and comes from the director of cult classic Super Infra-Man (1975). It also features the late, great Leslie Cheung in one of his earliest roles. Typically for a wu xia (“swordplay novel”) adaptation, events take place in the mythical Martial World of strange sects and mystical beings. A hectic battle introduces half a dozen eccentric characters who vanish and reappear throughout the story. Yang Guo (Leslie Cheung), a bedraggled orphan, scavenges amidst the battlefield and is found by Huang Rong (Leanne Lau Suet-Wa) and Guo Jing (chop-socky ace, Chen Kuan-Tai), his long-lost aunt and uncle. It transpires, poor Yang’s father was no good and the family remain suspicious of his dark lineage. He is sent away to the Taoist Quanzhen Sect where Uncle Guo hopes he will grow up to become a righteous man. Big mistake. Yang is beaten and bullied by self-righteous students. Worse, he winds up the fall guy in Prince He Du’s (Goo Goon Chung) scheme to do-in Uncle Guo and take over the Martial World.
Mortally wounded, Yang Guo flees his pursuers and seeks refuge at sacred temple. Enter his mentor-to-be, Little Dragon Girl (achingly lovely, Mary Jean Reimer), a mysterious martial arts prodigy who can fly, shoot emerald energy beams and perform amazing feats with her “internal alchemy”. She spends her days studying kung fu in seclusion. Other sects worship her skill and beauty, and anxiously wait to see which side she’ll take when she’s older. Little Dragon Girl sees off Yang Guo’s adversaries with ease, but one smitten swordsman dreams of dallying with the teenage goddess. Our aloof heroine (if you could fly and fire laser beams, you’d think a lot of yourself too) almost abandons Yang Guo, but a faithful handmaiden persuades her to mystically heal his wounds and take him as her student.
His boyish charm eventually melts the ice-maiden and the temple becoming their happy idyll away from the power struggles and prejudice of the Martial World. Alas, it doesn’t last. Frolicking by a misty, moonlight lakeside, the pair encounter Ouyang Feng (Lo Lieh - genuinely hilarious), wacky master of Toad Style kung fu, who hops around on all fours and tries to teach Yang Guo a potentially life-saving move. Like Shakespeare’s fools, Ouyang Feng means well, but winds up doing more harm than good. He performs a kung fu trick that sends Little Dragon Girl to sleep, then spirits Yang Guo away. Unnoticed by all, that smitten swordsman seizes his chance to ravish the sleeping maiden. Having done the deed, he disappears.
Tragically, when Little Dragon Girl awakens to find Yang Guo looking down, concerned, she couldn’t be happier. She insists they get married. Confused, but elated, Yang Guo agrees. But when the young lovers set out to expose Prince He Du and unite the feuding clans around their joyous union, they are met with suspicion and disgust. Clan elders can’t look beyond Yang Guo’s past, while self-righteous swordsmen see Little Dragon Girl as damaged goods. Worse still, Yang Guo stands accused of rape as conspirators try to coerce his beloved into marrying the real culprit, while Prince He Du wreaks havoc with his new ally, Golden Wheel Monk (Lung Tien Hsiang). Heads roll once the mad monk lets loose his razor edged flying disc and Yang Guo is flung off a cliff towards certain death. However, while grief-stricken Little Dragon Girl rallies the survivors, Yang Guo lands inside a huge nest where his new best friend, a ten-foot tall enchanted bird-monster teaches him how to wield an enormous magic sword. Bet you didn’t see that coming. Can Yang Guo master the secrets of the sword in time to fly back and save his Little Dragon Girl?
Little Dragon Maiden (despite the title, the subtitles say: “girl”) is based on Jin Yong’s epic romance - Return of the Condor Heroes. One year after this Shaw Brothers adaptation came a hugely popular, thirty-hour long TV series starring Andy Lau as Yang Guo. Condensing a mammoth wu xia novel into ninety minutes invariably leaves us with many sub-plots and major characters to keep track of, but the story remains involving throughout because director Hua Shan weaves a strong narrative thread with the star-crossed romance. You really feel the lover’s plight as ignorance and prejudice cast them from chaos to calamity. Wu xia novels are often acclaimed as thinly veiled socio-political allegories (and banned in Mainland China as such). Little Dragon Maiden takes satirical swipes at educational institutions, religious authority and family - with the youngsters ultimately unable to rely on anyone or anything but their own selfless devotion.
Hua Shan’s visual gifts turn the movie into a far-out fairytale with gorgeous costumes and spectacular sets bathed in rainbow colours. The high-flying wire-fu is brief, but well-choreographed and edited, and the special effects have an endearing, theatrical quality reminiscent of Chinese stage-plays. If you can’t take the sight of a man in a giant bird costume - this is the wrong genre for you. Leslie Cheung and Mary Jean Reimer share great chemistry, making their characters seem real and believable no matter how fantastical things get. Watching them perform with fresh-faced sincerity is a little like seeing the two most popular kids in high school performing at the end of term play.