Cheng Pei-pei plays two roles in Dragon Swamp (Du long tan, 1969), a mother & daughter, both of whom are masters of martial arts.
Fan Ying (Pei-pei) is the mother of two children. Her son was taken away by her husband, Tang Da-chuan the White Faced General (Wong Chun-shun; aka, Huang Chung-hsin).
He had used her to gain access to the clan which possessed the Jade Dragon Sword. Although Taoist monks got the sword back, Tang Da-chuan would later make another attempt, & would succeed.
Fan Ying was saddened & horrified that her husband took her son & abandoned her, for she had always felt that their love for one another was strong. Though innocent of intent, being easily fooled is no excuse, & for her part in helping her husband get access to the ensrhined sword, she was banished to Dragon Swamp for twenty years.
She took with her a spell scroll & two daggers, & left behind her daughter, having sworn an oath to remain in the swamp the entire twenty years. After that, she might do anything she pleased & go anywhere, & we have to assume what she would do is track down the man she'd married & by whom she was betrayed.
Dragon Swamp Master (Hong Wa credited as Kang Hua, a rough-looking but smouldering & sensual actor who left the film industry relatively early) was a powerful unpredictable warrior.
He enforced just such banishments to his swamp. He was served by an amazon honor guard, over whose numbers Fan Ying would soon hold a high degree of sway. Dragon Swamp Master was widely feared, but had been known occasionally to do good deeds in assisting those who were sufficiently deserving.
In a film genre such as wuxia, noted for unusual beauty of set & costume & physicality, Dragon Swamp evokes an even higher degree of strange beauty, the entrance to the swamp being marked by a creed-emblazoned boulder beyond which, for many, there is no return.
There's a brief sequence when we get to see that the swamp is in fact the dwellingplace of dragons, which are played by actual water monitors, much as real lizards have been used in vintage dinosaur movies. Except monitor lizards really do grow to over ten feet long & it's easy to imagine a vastly larger race of these lizards that survived into medieval times in a Chinese swamp.
Despite that it would certainly have been shlocky, I kind of wanted there to be a battle scene of monitor lizards fighting each other, or a heroic figure fighting a gigantic monitor lizard. But we don't see them a second time.
The film over all has a powerful mystical quality, both for the spooky swamp & magical weapons & for such martial elements to the story generally, especially the Jade Dragon Sword turning whoever possesses it into a heartless killer.
When it was protected by Fan Ying's clan, the sword was enshrined, but never used, because to weild it corrupted the spirit. Now that it has been unleashed into the world, terrible things are apt to occur, but the whereabouts of Fan Ying's husband, as well as his true identity, are unknown.
Sometimes wuxia with its fantasy elements can get downright goofy, but Dragon Swamp is mostly an exception, a moving & attractive heroic fantasy or sword & sorcery tale.
Fan Ying's younger child is a daughter, Qing-erh, raised by the Taoist priest who is head of the Lingshan clan, Master Fan (director Lo Wei giving himself a juicy if small role). Qing-erh is taught advanced martial skills as she grows into a beautiful young woman (Pei-pei's second role).
She sets out on a journey of night errantry & to reclaim the Dragon Jade Sword, in the guise of a young male warrior. As is usual in this sort of swordswoman tale, the disguise is absurd, since she's such a pretty young woman. It nevertheless somehow works on the other characters in the story for as long as she wants to remain incognito. At some point, though, with no change of costume or attitude, people stop pretending they think she's a boy.
Yu Jiang (Lieh Lo) is a powerful authority in a village the wandering young woman-in-non-disguise visits. He has the Jade Dragon Sword & is a tyrant at the command of his master (who is his father & Qing-erh's too, though she doesn't know it). Though a villain, there is something salvagable about Yu Jiang, if the influence of that evil sword can be undone.
Qing-erh's first fight scene is in a teahouse inn by this village, & it is glorious to behold, strongly influenced by Cheng Pei-pei's similar performance at a similar inn for Come Drink with Me (1966).
As long as Yu Jiang has the Jade Dragon Sword, he won't be a pushover to defeat. Qing-erh is assisted by a brave swordsman who calls himself Roaming Knight, played by Hua Yueh
Hua Yueh previously appeared opposite Cheng Pei-pei most famously in Come Drink With Me He was also her co-star in Princess Iron Fan (1966), Brothers Five (1970; it really ought to have been titled Five Brothers & a Sister), Shadow Whip (1971) & Lady of Steel (1970), as well as opposite Shih Szu in The Young Avenger (1972), & many similar films, including those in which Ping Chin plays the swordswoman. So he practically specialized in playing leading man to powerful fighting women.
Roaming Knight roams in search of a long lost love. He is surprised Qing-erh looks like the woman he loved twenty years before, except that would would be older. He does not realize this is in fact Fan Ying's daughter.
Fan Ying had rejected his suit for another man. Roaming Knight never knew that other man betrayed her, nor that she was exiled to Dragon Swamp, but he will soon know much more.
Eventually he & the young woman set forth for Dragon Swamp to learn the fate of Fan Ying, & to seek the assistance of the Dragon Swamp Master in reclaiming Jade Dragon Sword.
The swamp is a trail of traps that provides ample opportunity for further action scenes. Once through these traps, they discover a palace hall & veritable paradise overseen by Fan Ying who appears to be the Dragon Swamp Master's regent.
When we finally meet the Master of Dragon Swamp, there's a small surprise in store, because in fact Fan Ying had long before conquered the swamp's palace & become its true ruler.
Cheng Pei-pei is very good at creating two distinct characterizations, the innocent young Qing-erh, & the lady who rules a magical domain. The mother has not aged, due to a longevity serum manufactured from dragon bladder. Qing-erh thus does not at first realize her twin is much older & in fact her mother; they become more like sisters.
Heading back to the village ruled by the father & son under the evil influence of the Jade Dragon Sword, the duels will be many & epic, with the added burden of both sides of the battle being family.
The elder tyrant of the village is truly evil, & his son has always been obedient without question. But when he sees the woman warrior Fan Ying poisoned & suffering, his heart is moved even though he does not know she is his bother. He strives to convince his dad to give the swordswoman the antidote, & this is the most important step in escaping the cursed sword's spiritual influence.
A fine film despite some standard wuxia nonsensicality, events are carried most powerfully by Cheng Pei-pei who gets to use her acting chops rather than just relying on her amazing beauty. Really the whole cast is excellent, & with characters who learn & grow in the course of the tale, it delivers a praiseworthy story to go with the mindboggling action.
Continue to next Cheng Pei Pei film:
Flying Dagger 1968
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