A City Called Dragon


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

A City Called Dragon
"In many respects it resembles a Cold War thriller, but set under the Manchu dynasty in the 17th Century with all the trappings of classic wuxia."

A city ruled over by a cruel tyrant. A daring spy looking for the secret plans that could lead to his downfall. Swordfights aplenty and a succession of dramatic action set pieces driven by a rising star whose subsequent exploits would win her fans around the world. Not bad for a film made almost by accident.

As the story goes, Tu Chung-Hsun was working as assistant director on the great King Hu's A Touch Of Zen when, at a loss during a lengthy break from shooting, he decided to recruit cast and crew members to make a picture of his own. With little time for script development, he settled on a historical adventure with a ready-made setting and populated it with Taiwanese versions of the stock spy characters popular in European cinema at the time. The result is something that in many respects resembles a Cold War thriller, but set under the Manchu dynasty in the 17th Century with all the trappings of classic wuxia.

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Shang Yen-Chih (Hsu Feng), also known as the Jade Dragonfly, is on her way to the titular city to meet a fellow rebel when she learns that he and his family have been summarily executed by military commander Bu Lung (Shih Chun), who is backed up by legendary fighter Wo Li (Chen Hui-Lou). With her dead ally's little blue book of secret plans reportedly still somewhere in the city, she sets out to look for it, but it's difficult to know whom she can trust and potentially deadly enemies seem to be waiting for her around every corner. It's a good thing that she has some fearsome fighting skills of her own.

With its rare leading action role for a woman, A City Called Dragon helped to propel Taiwanese wuxia in a different direction from its Chinese equivalent. Although not the finest example of the genre in itself, it's historically important because of this and because it launched Tu's career, which in turn introduced a number of European elements to the island's cinema, helping to create that distinctive blend that marks it out to this day. In this film he makes great use of the city as a claustrophobic locale. Shang has come from the mountains across wide open plains. Now she is hemmed in by buildings on all sides, watched from behind pillars or around corners, and nowhere seems safe. Throughout the course of the film she finds herself in smaller and smaller spaces until it opens back out for the final showdown.

Though the last one is a little disappointing, with Wo's weapons more gimmicky than practical, there are some good fight scenes here. The actors' physical skills are well utilised and mixed with practical special effects like the use of hidden trampolines, an early way of creating the look which has latterly been taken to increasingly silly extremes through animé and CGI. Feng is also charismatic enough to carry the story through its purely dramatic sequences, and Tu knows how to ratchet up the tension. Overall, though it may be lacking in subtlety and finesse, there's a lot here to enjoy.

Reviewed on: 18 Sep 2020
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A City Called Dragon packshot
A woman undertakes a dangerous journey to join her comrade in Dragon City, a military base controlled by the Jin regime, to find a map showing the deployment of the resistance army against the northern invaders.

Director: Tu Chun-Hsun

Writer: Tu Chun-Hsun , Han Wu

Starring: Hsu Feng, Shih Chun

Year: 1970

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Taiwan


Taiwan 2020

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