The Fate Of Lee Khan (Ying chun ge zhi Fengbo)
Hong Kong (1973) Dir. King Hu
You’ve heard of Genghis Khan and probably even Kublai Khan but less is known about Lee Khan, largely because he is a fictional creation of legendary wu xia director King Hu. Lee is however, cut from the same cloth as his real life inspirations, a high-ranking official of the Mongol tyranny that was the Yuan Dynasty who hasn’t made may friends among those under his rule and faces threats to his life.
A map detailing plans by resistance fighters is known to Lee Khan (Tien Feng) and his sister Wan-er (Hsu Feng), which they plan to obtain for themselves. T do so they must travel to the Shaanxi province, where the owner of the remote Spring Inn, Madam Wan (Li Li-Hua), has been tipped off by a fellow inn keeper and rebel Liu (Chia-Hsiang Wu) that Khan plans to stay at her inn.
The rebel forces arrange for four new barmaids to work for Wan – Hai Mu-Tan (Angela Mao), Yeh Li-Hsiang (Helen Ma), Shui Mi-Tao (Chin Hu), and Liu San-Hu (Nan Chiang) – all capable fighters with shady pasts. Along with other rebel spies, everyone is keeping their eyes out for anyone suspicious who may be Khan’s men, whilst Khan himself is aware there is a spy among his ranks.
King Hu was the undisputed guvnor of the epic wu xia movie in the late 60s and early 70’s, setting the template for the likes of Tsui Hark and Zhang Yimou to emulate decades later. The Fate Of Lee Khan was the third film in his “Inn Trilogy” following Dragon Inn and A Touch Of Zen, and covers a lot of ground – it’s part martial arts mayhem, part noir thriller, and part amiable comedy.
It is also, in line with Hu’s other films, very progressive in how it portrays women; there are no damsels in distress here, Hu’s ladies all kick ass and make their victims apologise for scuffing their shoes. Aside from the lascivious drunkard Mr. Hu (Ping Ou Wei), there is no objectifying the women and their attire covers them from head to toe, but it is their feisty attitudes and fighting skills that is their calling cards.
For the first thirty minutes or so, after a brisk info dump to set up the plot, the action is a Hitchcockian mix of drama and comedy with the revolving door of patrons dropping into the inn, all under suspicion of being spies of Khan’s. Most are actually not, but their behaviour leave a lot to be desire and they soon incur the wrath of the battling barmaids when they misbehave.
Whether it is arrogant officials trying to throw their weight around, cheating gamblers or bandits out of their depth, there is never a dull moment at the inn and the staff are kept busy. They have additional muscle from wandering minstrel Sha (Han Ying-Chieh) and Wan’s cousin Wang Shih Cheng (Ying Bai) posing as her accountant, though they keep themselves mostly undercover until the final act when the brown stuff hits the fan.
So, we know there is a tight little cabal hoping to relieve Khan of the map and then kill him, but we don’t know much about this motley crew of rebels. We learn Li-Hsiang was formerly a bandit and has a temper on her, whilst Mi-Tao was a thief which is played for comedy in the first half and proves handy in the second, but that is it. Even their resentment towards Khan isn’t given much context beyond him being the nominal bad guy of the tale.
Yet, when Khan does arrive, he comes across as menacing but that is due to his sharp facial features and stern demeanour, but carries himself with the deportment of a noble and not a tyrant’s envoy. Sister Wan-er on the other hand is all steely stares and frosty disdain for anyone not her brother, intimating who has the grapefruits in that family, and gets to demonstrate it later on.
They essentially put the inn on lockdown during his stay, which makes it harder to steal the map without the convenient distraction of their daily trade of thirsty and hungry patrons, and reckless gamblers. The group’s resourcefulness is put to the test in pulling off the theft with Khan’s brutish guards, his savage sister, and aggressive captain Tsao Yu-kun (Roy Chiao), who proves to be a pivotal player in this game.
Hu is mostly known for wu xia films but this isn’t one as heavy on fighting as you might suspect given the central premise involves an assassination, but there are some occasional scrapes to allow the ladies to show off their fighting prowess ahead of the climax which is all action. Other famed wu xia touches employed include gravity defying single leaps from the ground to the second floor and hidden trampoline assisted traversing across the inn.
Any shortcomings in the script concerning character development are made up for by the performances, notably Tien Feng as Khan, who brings an unusual grace to the role but with an unnerving edge to remind us he is supposed to be feared, which allows him to leave the antagonism to those around him, to keep an air of mystery about if and when he may finally reveal his true self.
Conversely, Angela Mao aka Lady Whirlwind, once positioned as a female Bruce Lee, so is the most timid of the fighting femmes and sadly, the one to see the least action. At least the other girls get stuck in, but with Hu’s use of close up framing for the fights with the actor’s head off camera, we might have been watching doubles instead. The fights themselves are fun to watch however.
In concluding his “Inn Trilogy”, Hu spins a compelling yarn that might have worked just as well without the fights and could be transposed to any other genre but, as part of the wu xia oeuvre, is a highly enjoyable entry.