THE SECRET OF THE DIRK Ching Li proves herself an able swordswoman
THE SECRET OF THE DIRK (1970) could have been just another run-of-the-mill Shaw Bros. swordplay adventure, but it comes with the benefits of a strong cast, an abundance of fight scenes, and a short and speedy running time (78 min.). Best of all, it's got one of the Shaw studio's top actresses, Ching Li, in one of the leading fighting roles and she turns out to be quite a vigorous swordswoman in her own right. We never would have known this from watching her demure and elegant leading lady roles opposite the likes of Ti Lung, David Chiang, and Chen Kuan Tai in some of Chang Cheh's kung fu spectacles (BLOOD BROTHERS, BOXER FROM SHANTUNG, MAN OF IRON, DUEL OF FISTS) or some of Chor Yuen's lavish "martial world" costume adventures (SWORDSMAN AND ENCHANTRESS, LEGEND OF THE BAT). Granted, she's no Cheng Pei Pei or Shih Szu in the fighting department, but in a film like this, she does just fine.
The plot, which is not the most intricate, deals with various parties' search for a hidden cache of treasure that belongs to a network of exiled families who fled their besieged city 20 years earlier and entrusted their valuables to an officer who then disappeared. The officer's daughter, played by Shu Pei Pei (so memorable in THE MAGNIFICENT SWORDSMAN), becomes the focus of the hunt and is sought after by both the vicious Black Tiger gang and a quartet of young fighters (three female and one male) led by Ching Li, who represents the Liu family, the rightful claimants to the treasure. In the course of it, the daughter is rescued from the Black Tigers by a wandering swordsman played by Chang Yi (KING CAT, SWORDSWOMEN THREE), who eventually teams up with Ching Li and her group to go after the Black Tigers, culminating in a sprawling battle at an abandoned Buddhist temple.
There are a lot of swordfights throughout the film and Chang Yi displays several original maneuvers involving multiple swords that take out numerous opponents at a time. Cliff Lok, who went on to star in numerous independent kung fu films on his own later in the decade (KUNG FU GENIUS, RING OF DEATH), plays one of Ching Li's fighting cousins and has a pretty large role himself. Helen Ma (DEAF AND MUTE HEROINE, THE FATE OF LEE KHAN) plays another fighting cousin.
It's mostly shot outdoors on picturesque locations (presumably Taiwan) and the supporting cast is filled with dependable Shaw Bros. character actors, including Tien Feng, Wang Hsieh, Chao Hsiung and Fang Mien. It may not be the most compelling example we've seen of this genre, but it is quite enjoyable nonetheless. The director, Hsu Cheng-hung, also directed the Red Lotus trilogy (TEMPLE OF THE RED LOTUS, TWIN SWORDS, THE SWORD AND THE LUTE, all also reviewed on this site).
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