Action / Thrillers, Drama, Films, Hong Kong, Reviews, Shaw Brothers

The Dragon Creek

Intriguing drama from the Shaw Brothers that eschews the wuxia and martial arts they were best known for – but don’t let anyone tell you it’s a mystery…

(This review contains spoilers, but then… so does the film in the first few minutes!)

When Master Gao is murdered, his daughter Er Niu (Cheng Pei-pei, Come Drink With Me, Lady Hermit, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) is that the avaricious Village Chief Wu (Lee Ying, The Knight of Knights, The Monkey Goes West, Shaolin Deadly Kicks) and his sons are involved. But the crucial evidence, a scrap of paper with the killer’s name, has already been removed by Wu.

Er Niu hopes to convince her brother Jian Guo (Chin Han, Sons Of Good Earth, The Blue and the Black, Finger of Doom), just returning from his studies, to take action, but he is taken in by the obsequious Wu. Even though they manage to persuade City Chief Investigator Ma to reopen the investigation, there still isn’t enough proof to bring Wu to justice…

Now I’ve never been one to take the IVL/Celestial Pictures release descriptions too seriously – too many go off on random tangents – but here it seems particularly misleading. If you’re expecting the “martial arts murder mystery” it talks about, then you’ll be in for a major disappointment. The Dragon Creek plays like a minor Hollywood Western of a decade or so before. It’s placed in 30s China, with rifles and guns, not swords and martial arts. When Jian Guo travels home it’s as part of a wagon train, the point of reference is obvious.

And as for the detective work, well, Sarah Lund this is not. So you can guess how accurate the description of Cheng Pei-pei as a “kung-fu Nancy Drew” is…

But Cheng, still probably best known in the West for her appearance in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, makes a striking impression as the feisty young Er Niu: beautiful, resilient, stroppy, bravely throwing branches and rocks at nefarious interlopers into her home. Cheng would have been just 20-years-old when she filmed this, yet seems younger than her appearance in Come Drink With Me released the year before.

This is still the point were women, not men, were the idols of Hong Kong cinema, but even then it’s impossible not to be struck by how strong and well-rounded the female characters are. Ironically, unlike the Westerns this so obviously references, women here are not side lined. It’s an interesting period, just before Chang Cheh’s machismo fashioned with leads like Jimmy Wang Yu, Ti Lung and David Chiang changed cinema into something far more traditionally male-led in the 70s. Even in the 80s, when strong female leads made a come back, it would never be quite the same. It’s not as if Hong Kong society was any less patriarchal than the rest of the world, but you’d like to hope that this era of constant positive, strong role models made some sort of difference. (Even if universal suffrage still seems some years away…)

Even supplementary characters like the singer Jian Guo meets on his way, Yu Mei (Essie Lin Chia, The Jade Faced Assassin, Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, A Taste of Cold Steel), and shepherdess Xi Zi (Lily Li, The Heroic Ones, The Knight of Knights, The Wandering Swordsman, The Bastard) are given far more depth than their male counterparts. (To the point where Wu is so utterly underdeveloped as a villain we get no idea of his motives or previous dispute with Gao.)

Director Griffin Yueh Feng had made a several musicals and Chinese Opera movies for Shaw Brothers by this time. At numerous points in the movie lead (female) characters break into song, but this isn’t a grand, Bollywood movie: the characters just naturally begin fairly traditional, charming little songs. It’s not a jarring as you might think, at least not with the tone of the movie as it stands.

Yueh Feng is a very capable director. The production is of the usual, high quality of Shaw Brothers, and there are plenty of nice tracking shots. It’s much less studio-bound than many and hell, he even throws a few, almost-Malick styled speckled sunlight shots through trees. But what really stands out about the movie is how flat it is without having a wuxia and/or martial arts element to layer upon it. The so-called action between young Gao and the sons is rather lacklustre to say the least.

I rather wanted to see Dragon Creek’s vision of a corrupt local official, eventually worked out by a slow, slightly ineffectual but mainly good administration as some sort of allegory for Hong Kong, but that would be pointed at – at that time at least – the British Government. It most definitely did not relate to the political situation in mainland China, where the Cultural Revolution was taking hold. In reality, it was probably more a stab at corrupt local councillors who get above their station and start exploiting their authority.

So… maybe not the Shaw Brother movie you were looking for… but interesting nonetheless.

The Dragon Creek is available on Hong Kong DVD and VCD from IVL / Celestial Pictures.

Home media details

Distributor:Intercontinental Video (HK)

Edition: DVD (2007)

Strong transfer with a fairly 'unreconstructed' mono soundtrack. Minimal but fine extras including Colour Stills, Original Poster, Production Notes, Biography & Selected Filmography.

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Andrew Heskins
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