“A young girl like you has to be careful” a well-meaning palanquin driver warns our heroine, little knowing that into the heart of danger is exactly where she means to go. Tu Chun-Hsun’s Taiwanese wuxia A City Called Dragon (龍城十日, Lóngchéng Shí Rì) stars relative newcomer Hsu Feng immediately before her breakout role in King Hu’s A Touch of Zen as a noble Han Chinese revolutionary resisting Manchu oppression in the Song Dynasty bravely venturing into Dragon City currently in lockdown under the increasingly paranoid rule of its new magistrate, Lord Pu (Shih Chun).
In 1131, “Jade Dragonfly” Shang Yen-Chih (Hsu Feng) leaves the mountain stronghold for Dragon City in order to rendezvous with Chen, a fellow revolutionary in possession of a plan book essential for the coming battle against the oppressive Manchu regime. As the palanquin drivers inform her, however, Chen, along with 80 members of his family, was executed for treason two days previously on orders of the new governor. The city is in a state of paranoid chaos that leaves the drivers unwilling to approach. Nevertheless, Yen-Chih is undaunted knowing she must get her hands on the book before it falls into the hands of the authorities.
Tu conjures a world of tension and intrigue perfectly capturing the anxieties of Yen-chih’s undercover existence, painfully aware of each and every sound and always on the look out for trouble or betrayal as she wanders the paranoid city. Shortly before she arrives, a group of local men is brought in for questioning on the mere suspicion of visiting Chen’s grave, tainted by association and sent off to be tortured, bearing out the bearers’ assertion that Pu is a dangerously paranoid authoritarian intent on stamping out any and all dissent. If there’s a parallel to the White Terror here is it in implication only, but it’s presence is perhaps felt in the innate dangers of the world in which Yen-Chih now finds herself. In any case, she is perhaps in some instances protected by her appearance, written off as a genteel young woman in need of protection rather than a fearsome revolutionary able to leap tall walls in a single bound and endure days of torture never wavering in her mission.
Meanwhile, Pu’s Manchu guards are universally corrupt. Yen-Chih makes a nervous entry into the city alarmed by a sudden cry of “freeze” only to realise the soldiers haven’t even noticed her, they are too busy gambling. Later they make a point of carting off her collaborator, tipped off by an obsequious informant hoping for advancement, and then ransacking his pharmacy, burning all his goods in the central square (which considering what they are might not be the best move), careful to pocket any valuables first. In such an atmosphere, perhaps it’s not surprising that Yen-Chih succeeds in finding unexpected allies, radicalising a young thief brought in, ironically, on suspicion of killing a spy she herself killed while they are both in prison.
The Manchu regime and most particularly Pu’s deputy are indeed corrupt and oppressive, but as expected not quite everything is as we first assumed it to be. The ground constantly shifting beneath her feet, Yen-Chih chases the book but eventually discovers that she has been under a misapprehension as to its keepers and not only that, she’s also in the middle of someone else’s complicated revenge plot. The resolution though not exactly unexpected paves the way towards a surprisingly empathetic finale in which Yen-Chih is moved to discover the the extent to which a comrade has undertaken their duty, protecting her in facilitating her mission and allowing her to return to their shared cause with new hope while they remain behind alone in the increasingly destabilised environment of Dragon City the forces of Manchu for the moment seemingly turned against themselves.
Breathtakingly tense, Tu’s anxious, low angle camera captures the sense of a city locked down by fear and paranoia while lending a ghostly air to the abandoned Chen estate where Yen-chih encounters its creepy butler before an intense showdown with Pu’s guards once again tipped off by their duplicitous informant. Boasting an extremely accomplished and charismatic performance from Hsu Feng as the intense swordswoman revolutionary and genuinely exciting choreography, A City Called Dragon is a forgotten gem of the ’70s Taiwanese wuxia boom.
Trailer (English subtitles)