With a number of notable exceptions, the plots of many of the kung-fu films being churned out in the 1970s were fairly standard. Often productions went forward with only the most basic outline of a script (usually based on Chinese Legend or stories performed in Peking Opera), which is why many of the plots usually boil down to basic revenge stories. It's always interesting, therefore, when productions have a bit more ambition in their story, and Return Of The Kung-Fu Dragon certainly has some ambition - though it is throttled significantly by weak production values and editing.
On beautiful Phoenix Island, the Golden City is ruled by a kind and benevolant emperor and his three loyal guards - Chei Chan, Ma Kun and Sian Pau Ting - who have combined their skills into an unbeatable form of kung-fu. One day the Golden City is attacked by General Black and his evil wizard, who storm the palace and murder Chei Chan and Sian Pau Ting, leaving the wounded Ma Kun (who is forced to leave his wife and young daughter behind) to escape with Golden City's princess. He delivers her to Hsiang Chien Chiao before dying.
19 years pass before the now grown princess feels prepared to take the throne, but her kung-fu isn't strong enough so, on Hsian Chien Chiao's advice, she seeks out the children of the murdered guards - starting with the child of Ma Kun, Ma Chen Chen (Polly Kwan), who has been raised by the Empress as her own daughter. After the Empress reveals the truth, Ma Chen Chen tracks down Chan Kwan Yu and Chang Ta, the children of the other two guards, and the three - along with Hsiang Chien Chiao's midget servant - confront the evil Emperor and take back the city.
It wasn't so long ago that the idea of watching a subtitled, widescreen, remastered print of a Shaw Brothers or Golden Harvest production would be almost unthinkable. It's only been in recent years that these films have started to recieve the treatment they desserve, but there are still hundreds of kung-fu films that are available solely in a badly dubbed, pan and scan format. Return of The Kung-Fu Dragon, being in the public domain, is very unlikely to get the royal treatment, so how the film looks in its current incarnation may be the best we can currently expect.
Which is a shame, as while the film is hardly a classic, it's very difficult to review it in its current form, which is obviously quite far removed from the filmmakers' original intent. It suffers from all of the common flaws; atrocious dubbing, tinny sound, and cropping that has characters jumping in and out of frame at random. The zoomed in image is particularly egregious, as this film often has characters approaching each other from the margins of the screen. The kung-fu fights, which are really the highlight of this production, are particularly crippled by this.
Not the the film isn't significantly flawed already. While I praised some of the complexity of the storyline, it's often needlessly confusing - feeling like a dramatically longer work that has significantly cut down. This feeling is enhanced by the odd editing choices throughout; characters appear randomly, music stops suddenly, and occasionally shots are on-screen for a only an instant before it confusingly cuts away. It makes the whole experience of watching rather frustrating.
The high point of the film is the choreography particularly Cheung Lik and Li Chung Chien (Chan Kwan Yu and Chang Ta) who have an acrobatic and hard hitting fighting style. Polly Kwan is great as Ma Chen Chen, particularly when she stamps her foot like a horse when anticipating a fight, but her fighting looks a bit soft and hesitant at times. Hsiao Wang as the creepy, mischievous midget is certainly memorable, and the rest of the cast are fine, though the dubbing certainly hurts their performances.
Part of the Millcreek 50 Kung-Fu film collection, Return Of The Kung-Fu Dragon probably looks very similar to how it did in the VHS days - full-screen, fuzzy, and washed out. It's a colorful film, but the muted colors make already flimsy sets look even cheaper. Online versions seem to look similar, so it's possible there simply isn't a better version of this film commonly available. As usual, we get four chapter stops and nothing else.
While hardly memorable, Return Of The Kung-Fu Dragon is fast paced and has some impressive fights, though this is more than weighed down by a confounding fantasy plot, incomprehensible editing and likely the worst dubbing in this whole collection - and that's saying something. In its original form it might be worthwhile, but this murky, dubbed mess is likely best avoided.