Dragon Inn (Long men kezhan)
Hong Kong (1967) Dir. King Hu
There is a bitter irony in that one required criteria to be a ruler – along with misplaced megalomania – is balls. In the case of this classic film from celebrated Hong Kong director King Hu, the tyrannical governing presence happens to be a eunuch! Go figure!
Set in 15th China during the Ming Dynasty, the emperor’s first eunuch Tsao Shao Chin (Pai Ying) kills his political enemy Minister Yu, whose children have been exiled to the border. To prevent them extracting revenge and end the Yu bloodline, Tsao despatches a squad from the Eastern Chamber to ambush them down, having learned they are due to meet at the remote Dragon Gate Inn.
Led by noted warrior Shao Tung (Miu Tin), Tsao’s soldiers arrive at the inn first, which is run by Master Wu Ning (Tsao Chien), take it over by force and demand no other visitors are allowed. Unfortunately, they didn’t reckon on swordsman Xiao Shaozi (Shih Chun), a friend of Wu who decides to wait for the absent in-keeper, and sibling bandits Chu Chi (Hsieh Han) and sister Chu Huei (Shang Kuan Ling‐Feng) to interfere with their plans.
Having fallen out with producer Run Run Shaw during the making of 1966’s Come Drink With Me, King Hu left the Shaw Brothers studio and moved to Taiwan, a change that proved fortuitous in many ways. The locations for a start, gave Hu a new playground to work in, creating a different and fresh aesthetic for his wu xia films, which also seemed to affect the philosophical nature of his screenplays too.
Dragon Inn is a curious beast in that it has the distinction of being influenced by its predecessor and influenced a later successor. The inn scene from Come Drink With Me is essentially expanded to lay the foundation for the entire film with the titular hostelry as its main setting, whilst 1973’s The Fate Of Lee Khan not only pretty much apes the plot of this film but was also shot in the same building!
If the title or plot sounds familiar, chances are you’ve seen either the 1992 remake New Dragon Gate Inn or Tsui Hark’s 2011 reimagining The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. Hu’s original is slower than its descendants, keeping the action fleeting until the second half when the cards are on the table and the talking is over. Modern viewers used to wu xia films being wall-to-wall fighting might find their patience tested, and whilst the story is paper thin, the execution is a little clumsy.
A brief prologue outlines the issues with Tsao and the Yu family, but as is often the case with these films, too many people wearing similar attire leads to confusion over which side of the good vs. evil fence they stand. For instance, both Shao Tung and Xiao sport long white robes and tied back black hair, implying they might be swordsmen of the same rank despite being in opposition to each other. Then there are inn staff whose blue tunics are not to dissimilar to the soldiers’ blue garbs.
When siblings Chi and Huei (the latter unconvincingly disguised as a man) are first show we don’t know if they are Tsao’s agents or genuine bandits until they take out a couple of soldiers. Once they arrive at the inn, they play ignorant to Shao Tung’s presence but behind closed doors the secret is finally out – they, like Xiao, were summoned by Wu, a former lieutenant from Yu’s army, to protect Yu’s children.
Story wise that is really all you need to know, and bearing in mind this is a wu xia film and it was 1967, the rest of it write itself. But what Hu did that was different in his films was to always ensure there was a fatality or two on the protagonist’s side to prevent his heroes from being unrealistically indestructible. Hu also pushed female fighters to the fore, something he started with Come Drink and continued here with Huei.
Of the two siblings, Huei is arguably the toughest and the smartest, able to despatch many adversaries alone with a deft swing of her sword and never have a hair out of place, whilst brother Chi is a hot head prone to shouting and diving into a fight without thinking first. Disguising Huei as a man means she isn’t sexualised or objectified but even if she was, she’d carve up some chancer before he could put his tongue away.
But the man of the hour is the ineffably cool Xiao. Not just a demon with a sword and the brains to match but his panache puts James Bond to shame. When was the last time you saw 007 catch a dagger with a pair of chopsticks without even flinching? Yeah, this guy is smooth! His smiley demeanour and general courtesy puts Shao Tung at ease for a moment but he has to test Xiao out, and of course wishes he hadn’t.
The fights may not be as dynamic as in Shaw Brothers films nor as flashy or OTT as they would become just a decade later, but the balletic quality to the choreography and the equally well placed camera work help them tell an actual story and be more than just swords clashing and bodies leaping about. As mentioned earlier, Taiwan’s countryside provides Hu with a picturesque setting, captured in glorious panoramic widescreen, a far cry from the fake sets of Hong Kong studio.
Watching this film, we get the feeling Hu was intent on proving something to his former employers and even if he wasn’t, it is a palpable wake-up call to wu xia and martial arts filmmaker everywhere. Hu would go on to build on this and cement his status as one of the most prominent an influential filmmakers of his generation.
Dragon Inn might not be Hu’s greatest film but it is a landmark one for him and the wu xia genre.