Review: Dragon Swamp (1969)

Dragon Swamp
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Directed by:
Cast: , , , , ,

Distributed in Australia by:

This film is a wuxia (heroic chivalry) film from when the genre was most popular, starring several A-list actors and with a number of scenes that will seem eerily familiar to people who’ve seen other wuxia films made at the time. It’s great fun though, and has a particularly strong performance from Cheng Pei-pei, in two different lead roles! As the rather frighteningly enthusiastic synopsis above says, this film has both Cheng Pei-pei (this reviewer’s favourite actress of the time) and Lo Lieh, as well as Yueh Hua and several other actors recognisable from many Shaw Brothers films. It’s directed by Lo Wei, who later on became famous for directing both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan in their first starring roles (The Big Boss and New Fist of Fury respectively, I think).

The film starts with a very short scene which shows Tang Dachuan (played by Huang Chung-hsin) being defeated by Taoist monks and forced to give up the Jade Dragon Sword. He had stolen the sword three years previously with the assistance of Fan Ying, a female student from the monastery. In the intervening three years, he and Fan Ying had two children, a boy and a girl — Tang Dachuan escapes with the boy, while Fan Ying is sentenced to exile in the Dragon Swamp for twenty years. The infant girl is given to Master Fan (played by the director, Lo Wei) to bring up, and Fan Ying is warned that the Master of Dragon Swamp is very powerful and unpredictable, but that she will need to defeat him to return.

We then skip forward twenty years, introducing us to the now twenty year-old Qing-erh, orphan girl at the monastery — also played by Cheng Pei-pei. She is accidentally responsible for the theft of the Jade Dragon Sword once again, and leaves the monastery to search for it and redeem herself. Along the way she meets a wandering swordsman, known only as the Roaming Knight (played by Yueh Hua), who suggests that they go to the Dragon Swamp to petition its Master for assistance. Little do they know that the Master of Dragon Swamp is not who he seems…

The plot twists and turns quite a bit and can get terribly silly and melodramatic at times, but the film is so fast-paced and fun that it’s still enjoyable. Cheng Pei-pei absolutely owns the screen, changing quite rapidly between her two characters even when they’re in the same scene; the enthusiastic, tomboyish young swordswoman Qing-erh and the older, worldly and dishonoured Fan Ying. There are things that let it down a bit — there are some truly dated special effects (particularly some scenes in the swamp where giant lizards are projected on to a very visible screen behind our heroes, who cower for effect) and some of the action scenes are pretty clumsy compared to other films of the time. Some of the fight scenes are well-done, particularly the larger melees, but most of the one-on-one fights lack both the technical skill and good direction that the later wuxia/kung fu films of the 70s had and the fluid grace that films like King Hu’s earlier Come Drink With Me had in large quantities.

Thoroughly worth seeing for fans of Cheng Pei-pei, though rather overshadowed by Come Drink With Me”— here you get twice as much as usual, thanks to the two characters. Watch it for a lighthearted, fun wuxia film with some good headgear in it.

7 Dragon Gall Bladders out of 10.
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