Sonny Chiba’s Dragon Princess

Crummy by mainstream standards, this low-budget martial-arts programmer has lots of charm, starting with the opening shot depicting the inside of a church with saloon-style swinging doors banging against the wind and dust outside, and Tarantino fans will make note of some of the source elements he appropriated for his Kill Bill revenge pastiche. But the real attraction here is Yumi Higaki, playing a talented but reluctant martial-arts disciple seeking payback for injuries to the body and pride of her master (Sonny Chiba, in an extended cameo at the film’s beginning). I had seen her previously in Sister Street Fighter, released two years earlier, but her poise and confidence has improved here. A prototype for any number of femme videogame ass-kickers, from Chun Li down the line, she has an overgrown-kid look to her that makes her determination and eventual triumph in the violent coming-of-age scenario more rousing.

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The film bears all those oft-derided hallmarks of 1970s fight-fests, including power zooms timed to coincide with karate strikes, unconvincing gore effects, poor dubbing in the English-language version, and — at least on the DVD from BCI/Deimos Entertainment that double-features this with Karate Warriors — a wholly inappropriate softcore-sex insert featuring mildly dirty dancing by a man and woman who appear nowhere in the film proper. (This is the kind of thing a U.S. distributor would order spliced into release prints to satisfy the grindhouse audiences.) But the performances are earnest, the camerawork fairly energetic, and most of the karate moves connect with a satisfying economy of motion.

The print used for the DVD has been beaten half to death, but care seems to have been taken in its transfer — some shots seem to have been spliced in from a faded print in the interest of presenting as complete a version of the film as possible — and the picture and sound are certainly adequate. General audiences will likely look to it only for camp value or be turned off altogether but, even in the compromised version currently available, more willing viewers will find it to be a pretty tasty chunk of cult-film candy.

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