King Hu Crafts Killer Kung Fu Veiled In Mystery
Wuxia is a subgenre I tend to enjoy in fits and spurts, and which has come to a place of slightly less potency due to the sheer volume of mediocre entries in the mix. Wikipedia tells me that “wuxia” literally means “martial heroes”. To the uninitiated, the easiest way to describe this type of film would be to point to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and to highlight some of the elements of that film such as exciting martial arts, aching romance, sweeping/gorgeous vistas, and a mythological feel. They’re kind of like Chinese super hero tales, with characters sometimes casually exhibiting super human abilities but always possessing tragic flaws and other human traits. They’re so ubiquitous in their native China that I simply can’t keep up with them and really only go after viewing the entries that rise to the top of the heap of critical acclaim. Dragon Inn is one of those entries.
King Hu is a filmmaker I’ve only recently become aware of, and Criterion’s release of his seminal 1967 wuxia film Dragon Inn was my entry point into his filmography. What a stunningly engaging entry point this was. Loaded to the brim with political intrigue, mystery, and badass mystical martial arts, I had an absolute blast with Dragon Inn and have no reservation suggesting it’s among the very best wuxia titles I’ve ever seen.
Beginning with some fairly breakneck narration that probably would have been handled differently for today’s audiences, we’re introduced to the political landscape of Ming era China, and the villainous armies that are on the move spreading injustice throughout the land and killing off powerful politicians and their families in order to shore up their power. The heroes of Dragon Inn are actually the great mysteries here, as we spend most of the first act following our villains as they chart a course to Dragon Inn in order to set up an ambush for a family of captured royals who will be secretly murdered at the remote mountainous Inn. Eventually four disconnected and deceptively powerful heroes will rise up to challenge the villainous army, and all the intrigue will take place in and around the meager Inn.
Through this Criterion release I’ve learned that King Hu came up in the Shaw Brothers’ studio and worked on dozens of films before becoming a director. Dragon Inn is the first film he made after a move to Taiwan in a bid for more creative control over his films in a new environment. He seems to have succeeded wildly in that regard. Shaw Brothers films tend to be created almost entirely on sets, but Dragon Inn takes every opportunity to showcase its arid, isolated location, and the mountains and desert play key roles in the narrative. On top of that, the major set used for the Inn itself feels classical and features some incredible action set pieces that appear to have inspired future films (including Crouching Tiger). There’s an aesthetic beauty to Dragon Inn that’s simply not always found in films of its ilk, and it adds a mythic feel that’s undeniable.
Perhaps the most fun to be found in Dragon Inn is the slow, gradual revelation of who our motley protagonists are. Or, rather, what they can do. There’s extremely little in the way of true character development here, and that’s okay. There are hordes of villains, and the evil blonde eunuch Cao Shao-qin (Bai Ying) is the source of it all. We know he’s the most feared swordsman in the land because the opening narration tells us so. We know all of his soldiers are a similar threat for the very same reason. But we’ll learn about our heroes’ capabilities through a series of wonderfully entertaining sequences in which various strangers converge on the Inn before the royal family (the future victims of our villains) arrive. As the poor innkeepers try to keep it together while being taken over and held hostage by our villains, our heroes insert themselves into the power dynamic slowly and to great effect.
First Xiao Shao-zi (Shih Chun) casually strolls into the Inn looking for a room. Hapless innkeepers try to send him on his way while the incognito evil soldiers keep harassing him and then outright trying to kill him. Mostly seated at a table, Xiao turns the tables on them one sly move after another, (withstanding poison, catching arrows mid-flight, etc) revealing his ultimate badassery and forcing the villains to acquiesce and give him a room, but not after also bringing the absent owner of the Inn, Wu Ning (Tsao Chien) along with him. Now there are two mysterious heroes in the Inn among the wolves.
Next a traveling pair of “brothers” show up at the Inn. I didn’t even know Shangkuan Ling-fung’s character Miss Zhu was travelling in disguise as a man because I’m not familiar with Ming dynasty hair and clothing (and because she’s blatantly a gorgeous woman). But Zhu is a definite show-stealer as a woman just ceaselessly kicking ass for the rest of the film along with her brother. These four, and some other recruits they pick up along the way, basically take down Cao’s entire regiment in a third act battle for the ages. Ultimately they’ll all face off against Cao himself and while the climactic battle may not be quite as engaging as the table-turning scene with Xiao, it’s pretty wildly impressive nonetheless.
Dragon Inn is impressive and brimming with super heroic grandeur and gorgeous, desolate vistas. It is at once complicated with dense political intrigue and as simple as good versus evil. It’s first and foremost an entertaining action/martial arts film, but it pushes that formula in ways that have been often replicated since. It’s a great time at the movies, and a fine introduction to the work of King Hu.
This is Criterion, so the physical media release is cream of the crop. You’ve got a gorgeous 4K digital transfer, you’ve got beautiful cover art and even an enclosed poster-sized piece of art backing the excellent liner note essay from Andrew Chan. There are also some recent interviews with some of the stars and a featurette from Asian film expert Grady Hendrix.
Any and all wuxia or kung fu cinema fans will want to blind buy this spectacularly entertaining film. Even the uninitiated would find a lot to love here what with all the intrigue and action crammed into a forgiving 111 minutes. This is accessible and enjoyable action cinema given the high art treatment by the discerning folks at Criterion, and it does not disappoint.
And I’m Out.
Dragon Inn is now available on Blu-ray from Criterion Collection