An outstanding wu xia (swordplay) adventure from Shaw Brothers, Dragon Swamp was a tailor-made vehicle for the studios then-brightest star. Brave and beautiful sword heroine Fan Ying (Cheng Pei-Pei) falls for no-good Tang Dachuan (Wong Chung-Shun) and helps steal the legendary Jade Dragon Sword. Learning of his duplicitous nature, she refuses to hand him the super-weapon, so Dachuan absconds with their infant son. As punishment for her crime, Ying is exiled to the misty, mysterious Dragon Swamp for twenty years, while Taoist monk Fan (Lo Wei, who also wrote and directed) raises her daughter to adulthood.
Years later, a masked thief steals the Jade Dragon Sword from Lingshan Chungyang Temple and happy-go-lucky Qing-Erh (Cheng Pei-Pei again) ventures into the wider world to retrieve it. She identifies the culprit as Yu Jiang (Lo Lieh), a fearsome fighter working for a so-called security agency with secret plans to conquer the 72 clans and rule the Martial World. Injured in a skirmish, Qing-Erh is rescued by the Roaming Knight (Yueh Hua), an enigmatic hero searching for his long lost love. Our heroes seek refuge at Dragon Swamp, hoping to enlist aid from the all-powerful Swamp Master (Tung Li) who, it transpires, harbours an astonishing secret.
There is much to savour about this fun-filled fantasy, not least being an outstanding dual turn from Cheng Pei-Pei. The iconic actress carefully delineates between the feisty, childlike Qing-Erh and the graceful, warm yet sorrowful Fan Ying. Contrasting their mannerisms right down to the way Fan Ying glides across the floor while Qing-Erh walks with a skip in her step, Pei-Pei pulls off a tour-de-force. The eventual encounter between mother and daughter is a beautifully observed and touching moment, with flawless split-screen work that trumps the admittedly quaint special effects: including theatrical wire-work, rear projection, and dragons played by a bunch of photographically enlarged lizards. Crucial to the storyline are dual themes of damaged families and the redemptive power of love, while the fantastically twisty plot springs consistent thrills and surprises. Things race along at a fair clip, which is a rare plus in the hit-and-miss filmography of veteran Lo Wei.
Wei started out as an actor, taking his first significant leading role in Prisoner of Love (1951) before debuting as a director with Diary of a Husband (1953). A string of steamy love stories made him Hong Kong's first millionaire director, although he made numerous melodramas, spy thrillers like The Golden Buddha (1966), Angel with the Iron Fists (1966) and Summons to Death (1967), and swordplay movies during his lengthy tenure at Shaw Brothers. Critical consensus has it Vengeance of a Snow Girl (1970) is his best effort from this period, although he remains best known for the Bruce Lee classics The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972) made at Golden Harvest. His star dimmed towards the late seventies, with a run of lacklustre action vehicles that ill-served then-protege Jackie Chan, but Wei remained active in film production until his death in 1996.
Actually, detractors - including Jackie Chan - maintain Wei hardly directed at all on-set, preferring to listen to horseracing broadcasts while stunt-coordinators and cameramen did all the work. Certainly, the high quality production values at Shaw studios - including exquisite art direction with sublime sets and intricate miniatures swathed in candy-coloured fog - enhance the uniquely magical atmosphere, but the set-pieces are well-orchestrated.
Genre connoisseurs will relish dragon gall bladders that impart eternal youth; human skin masks; Fan Ying's subterranean palace staffed by her all-female kung fu army; poison darts that leave Lo Lieh's face swollen and purple; palm power that explodes trees or pulls opponents like a magnet; and that staple of wu xia movies, the swordfight at the inn - an ingeniously tense and witty sequence wherein Qing-Erh slowly realises every seemingly ordinary man in town is actually an evil assassin. Lookout for the world's first death by spinning plate plus a line of dialogue that references Cheng Pei-Peis most famous film: Come Drink with Me (1966). Her co-star from that classic, Yueh Hua ennobles his chivalrous, ultimately tragic character, while Lo Lieh (who co-starred in the sequel: Golden Swallow (1968)) excels as the conflicted villain with closer ties to our heroines than he suspects.
Although Qing-Erh eventually gets her hands on the Jade Dragon Sword, Lo Wei indulges a minor misstep by ensuring its his peripheral character who finishes off the baddie, which slightly lessens the emotional impact. The film is redeemed by an achingly poignant, poetic conclusion. More than thirty years later, Cheng Pei-Pei pursued another glowing green super-sword as the villainess Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).