I reviewed King Hu’s mysterious, mystical, and surprisingly light-on-the-action wuxia film A Touch of Zen a while ago. I loved it (you can see that review here). At the time, I fully expected The Criterion Collection to release King Hu’s earlier film Dragon Inn within a month or two; they already had the cover art out there, after all. It took a little longer than that, but now, two years after The Criterion Collection brought King Hu’s beautiful vision of ancient China in A Touch of Zen to my home, they’ve finally also delivered his earlier film, Dragon Inn. Quite different from A Touch of Zen, Dragon Inn is brisk, action-packed, and pretty straightforward. It is so much fun!
Dragon Inn has a pretty basic premise and it takes little time establishing it. ln the first scenes we learn that Cao Shao-qin, using his position as part of the Emperor’s secret police, has out-maneuvered a political opponent, General Yu Qian. While a voiceover narrator tells us the backstory, Yu approaches the gaudy stage set for Cao’s regal demonstration of his power. Yu is executed hastily, and we cut to his children, rushing into exile.
All is not well, though. Cao and his henchmen are on their trail, hoping to catch them and murder them before they instigate some kind of uprising.
The children survive the initial attempt on their lives, fortunate to run into a roaming master swordsman at this stage of their journey. But Cao and his men have another plan. On the edge of the western frontier sits the Dragon Gate Inn (the name was shortened in English, according to the supplements on the Criterion disc), an unimpressive place of rest in the remote landscape. There they plan to lie in wait until the children come by. It seems too easy. They arrive and commandeer the premises:
But this version of ancient China has many wanderers who spring out of the wilderness. The first to arrive is Xiao Shao-zi (played by the highly recognizable Shih Chun).
Refusing to leave the inn, Xiao is problem . . . a gifted, dangerous problem at that. He thwarts several attempts on his life with equanimity that only at times touches on annoyance:
While waiting for General Zu’s children to arrive, other wanderers seek shelter at the inn.
Each newcomer who arrives presents another hurdle for Tsao’s men. Their usual attempts to quietly dispatch problems — poison, a dagger, a nighttime assassination — are not working. They — and we — begin to wonder: are they in cahoots?
And so the temperature in the small inn rises, the players jockey for position, and the arrival of General Yu’s children comes closer with each dawn.
I really did love every minute of this film. Hu has complete control of his material and is able to focus on the many many set pieces. I’ve seen people criticize the film for its “video game logic,” meaning the fights get harder and harder, and most follow with a “boss battle.” But, of course, Dragon Inn arrived years before this became a template for video games, and I’m not sure that should be negative criticism anyway. The film is about the outrageous situations these characters get into as they navigate the venerable codes of old. Sure, they’re going to fight to save the children, but that is ancillary to the film’s main purpose: to use all of the film techniques we can to display dynamic battles between the characters we love and the dishonorable soldiers thrown at them.
There is something special about Dragon Inn, though, that sets it apart from the monotonous action-packed films that set blockbuster records these days. Dragon Inn, as much as it might seem like it is just one fight after another, manages to consistently surprise and delight. Some of this is because Hu had an eye for natural settings, from grand, wide-screen vistas to intricate details on individuals stones and trees. He extrapolates this to set tone and mood, and I often sat their in awe at the beauty of the shot. Hu contrasts this within the confines of the inn itself, a place of no particular beauty where the cast of characters is brought for the explosion.