Director Tu Chong-hsunís A City Called Dragon is an intriguing link between King Huís Dragon Gate Inn (1967) and A Touch of Zen (1971). Tu was Huís assistant director on both of those films and Huís influence in this film is apparent everywhere Ė from the main theme of the film (rebellion against authority), the slow drawn out tension of certain scenes, the tracking shots, the percussive soundtrack, the action style and most primarily in his iconic use of actress Hsu Feng. Hsu Feng debuted while a teenager in Dragon Gate Inn as the young girl, but it was in A Touch of Zen that she earned her legendary status as the chivalrous very deadly female warrior fighting for freedom against immense odds. Clearly her character in A City Called Dragon is modeled on Miss Yang from Zen and could almost be the same character at an earlier stage in her life.
A Touch of Zen notoriously took three years to be made and nearly bankrupted Union Film when it tanked at the box office. Hu constructed a small town for the setting and then let it sit in order to give it an aged look. His patience in waiting for the correct shot became legendary as in one such instance when he waited months until some flowers bloomed. It was likely during one of these breaks in which this film was made and though I would have to go back and see it again, the sets in this film looked very much like the ones in Zen and the old mansion is used very much in the same moody haunting manner. But all that said, this is no A Touch of Zen. It is missing Huís elegance and poetic rhythm as well as his insights into character, religion, politics and gender. Still I quite enjoyed the film though I admit much of that came from my appreciation of Hsu Feng who the director poses beautifully with sword in hand time after time in a near beatific light.
The film takes place during the Sung dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) with Emperor Hsiao Hsia in power and rebels, who are based in the Tai-hun Mountains, fighting for their freedom. Miss Shang is on her way to Dragon City to make contact with rebel Chen Young who has secret plans to hand over to her to take to the rebel stronghold. Before reaching the town, Miss Shang learns that Chen was captured and killed along with 80 members of his family by the Mayor (Shih Jun Ė the scholar in A Touch of Zen). Her mission now changes to finding the secret plans and killing the Mayor. Everyone in Dragon City is under suspicion and as soon as she enters she is followed by a coterie of peddlers sending rhythmic signals to one another. She has to kill one of them in order to escape their watching eyes but this alerts the authorities to her presence and the entire security apparatus begins to search for her. Just to be safe, the Mayor requests the assistance of Wuo, a vicious killer with a wicked laugh who works for the Emperor. But all is not as it seems. The film is perhaps too deliberately paced but it creates a tense claustrophobic atmosphere and a mood of solitary heroic desperation. The main fault is that the final fight takes place at night and much of it is lost in the darkness Ė whether due to the transfer or the original is hard to say.
My rating for this film: 7.5