Runtime: 90 mins
Director: Chung Hsun-tu
Writer: Chung Hsun-tu, Han Wu
Stars: Hsu Feng, Chun Shih
By Stephen Palmer
When one considers the great female actresses who have devoted a substantial part of their careers to martial arts movies, some familiar names crop up. Maybe Malaysia’s Michelle Yeoh? Or Thailand’s Yanin “Jeeja” Vismitananda? Japan’s Meiko Kaji? What about American Maggie Q? Of course, we can’t forget China’s Cheng Pei-pei, who embodied the very essence of female Wuxia characters in King Hu‘s classic “Come Drink With Me.”
However, there’s a Taiwanese contender for the crown, a woman who helped collect awards at Cannes as both a cast member and years later as a producer. Let me introduce you to Hsu Feng, an actress who starred in over 40 films in the late 1960s through to the early 1980s, including King Hu’s classics “Dragon Gate Inn,” “A Touch of Zen,” “The Fate of Lee Khan,” “Legend of the Mountain,” and “Raining in the Mountain.” After her retirement after she married (a far too common story in Asian cinema), she returned to produce a number of films, with the pinnacle being Chen Kage’s “Farewell My Concubine.”
Maybe the career of Hsu Feng is worthy of a future article (and that’s what the comment section is for, Readers). For now, let’s look at one Hsu Feng film featured at the Taiwan Film Festival: “A City Called Dragon” (also known as “Dragon City” or “10 Days in Dragon City”), a film I’d wager most people have never heard of. That includes myself, and I’ve been writing and podcasting about Asian cinema for over a decade. But it’s a film I have been entranced by, and I hope you will be too.
In “A City Called Dragon,” political maneuvers are just as important as slashes of the blade.
The storyline is simple. Hsu Feng plays Shang Yen-Chih, a member of the Song who infiltrates a Jin-controlled city during the Southern period of the Song Dynasty (1127–1279). She finds her contact in the city has been killed, along with 80 members of his family, by the local General Bu Lung (Chun Shih). Shang is really after a notebook that is full of Song troop positions, but she is exposed after making a foolhardy assassination attempt on the general. She is captured, tortured, and imprisoned.
These events encourage Bu Long to request help from the Jin Emperor, who sends one of his top fighters to help the Jin cause. However, there is a twist in the final act that I shall not spoil (so please don’t read the Festival’s own synopsis, if at all possible).
“A City Called Dragon” was released in 1970, a time when Hong Kong was pumping out Wuxia films by the boatload. These were flashy, commercial films, full of exciting swordplay (among other weapons), soaked in blood, and popular not only in the Sinophone world, but also in the West. Studios like Shaw Bros. were satisfying an eager audience by implementing a studio system not unlike Hollywood’s some 50 or so years before (along with financial support from organised crime). Not every film was in the Wuxia genre, but the majority were.
The problem with studio systems is they can stifle creativity, and certainly put shackles on the time frames available to create a feature. This led to an exodus of some talent to another territory, namely, Taiwan. King Hu is the most famous of these directors who chose to move, eschewing commercialism for Wuxia films that were more thoughtful, more spiritual, and decidedly more arthouse.
Taiwanese star Hsu Feng, in her first leading role, is lithe and athletic, beautiful yet stern, and — my word — committed and intense.
Whilst “A City Called Dragon” isn’t actually a King Hu film, his fingerprints are all over it, at least in terms of content. The two Taiwanese leads previously had roles in his last big Hong Kong film, “Dragon Inn,” and the director, Chung Hsun-tu, was assistant director on the same film. There are moments of action, but there is no way you could mistake it for a Hong Kong film of the period. It’s full of shots made from foot level, of fights taking place in the darkness of night, lit only by the moon.
Our lead actress actually spends some 40 minutes of the running time imprisoned, with no weapon, just biding her time. Political maneuvers are just as important as slashes of the blade. Of course, there is also a modern statement being made here, with the Jin clearly standing in for Mao’s Communist party and the Song representing the Nationalist KMT. But that’s another 1,000 words in and of itself.
It looks gorgeous too, beautifully restored, with fabrics hued in spectacular blues and reds, and a really fascinating use of sound, where every footstep has a different sound, where wood creaks and meal scrapes the inside of your eardrums. At the centre of it all, we have Hsu Feng, in her first leading role, lithe and athletic, beautiful yet stern, and — my word — committed and intense. She has far more in common with Meiko Kaji’s Scorpion or Lady Snowblood (although this performance predates those iconic roles) than anything I have seen in contemporary Hong Kong cinema.
“A City Called Dragon” is a film I have to call a hidden gem. I’d recommend it for the final twist alone. It provides a key link between the cinemas of martial arts of Hong Kong and Taiwan, and has a heroine and lead actress who is a worthy addition to the Intheirownleague.com role models.