Dragon Inn (1967)
AKA Dragon Gate Inn
Starring Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Polly Kuan, Miao Tian, Sit Hon, Cho Kin, Go Ming, Got Siu-Bo, Ko Fei, Tien Peng, Han Ying-Chieh, Man Chung-San
Directed by King Hu
Expectations: High, this is one of the most influential early martial arts films.
When it comes to martial arts films, 1967 was a huge, formative year. The first mega-hit of the genre, The One-Armed Swordsman, made Jimmy Wang Yu a star and cemented director Chang Cheh as the genre’s leading visionary. Just a few months after the release of that film, director King Hu, having recently left the Shaw Brothers after creative differences on Come Drink With Me, unleashed Dragon Inn. As an independent film out of Taiwan it may not have had the budget or the clout of the Shaw Brothers studio behind it, but Dragon Inn is arguably more well-known than almost all the 1960s martial arts films from the Shaw studio. I knew all this going into Dragon Inn, and even with an incredible amount of historical hype behind it, Dragon Inn wowed me with its cinematic artistry and an ahead-of-its-time ability to craft thrilling martial arts sequences through editing.
The story of Dragon Inn is a well-known one, but that doesn’t impede the film’s ability to enthrall. The government is corrupt and controlled by devious eunuchs, and our story begins as Zhao Shao Qin, a eunuch with unparalleled power, orders the execution of General Yu, a good man who was framed. Yu’s family is sent to the remote outpost of Dragon Gate, where Zhao has plans to murder them far from the watchful eyes of civilization. He sends a delegation of his most powerful soldiers to await the family’s arrival at the inn, but thankfully there’s a few people at Dragon Gate still loyal to General Yu and his resilient spirit.
This is the basic of the film’s plot, but to see it unfold on the screen is much more thrilling. Like King Hu’s previous film Come Drink With Me, there is a focus on tension, so when the various parties come face-to-face at the inn even something as innocuous as drinking wine becomes a nail-biting experience. It would be easy for a film set primarily in a single location to get boring, but King Hu does wonders with the limited resources to provide a film that never relaxes. Dragon Inn seems to have been shot primarily on location, so it immediately feels more realistic and grounded than the Shaw films of the era, while also weaving in many wuxia elements to allow the film to be equally fantastical and filled with characters possessing supernatural martial abilities.
The fights themselves are also surprisingly engaging for this era of martial arts film, with the editing doing whatever the choreography can’t to craft tense struggles of martial power. The final battle especially shines, both in its length and its thick tension. Instead of the protracted battles of flying fists and weapons we are now used to, Dragon Inn takes a more metered, realistic approach. There is a distinct Japanese influence running through King Hu’s films, and the fights here feel more reminiscent of classic samurai battles where every sword stroke carries weight. I’m finding it a bit hard to explain, but the fights feel both influential to later Hong Kong work, as well as referential of previous Japanese work. With the exception of the final fight, the altercations are brief and careful, but with an unmistakable power brimming just below the surface.
King Hu’s Dragon Inn is a true classic in every sense of the word, exhibiting a beauty and a depth rarely seen in martial arts film of the time. This is exactly the type of film I’d love to see Criterion pick up so more people might be able to see and appreciate the genre that I love so much (Update: They did! Buy it on Blu-ray, DVD, or iTunes!). Whether you’re a stalwart fan or a newcomer, Dragon Inn is a fantastic film that deserves to be seen and appreciated.
And a fun side note: Pai Ying, who memorably plays the eunuch in this film, would later go on to play the eunuch in Teddy Yip’s entertaining Shaw Bros. film The Eunuch!
Dragon Inn is part of my 2014 Blind Spot Series where I see one movie a month that I feel I should’ve seen a long time ago. It’s all the brainchild of Ryan McNeil over at The Matinee, one of the web’s premiere film blogs. Head over there tomorrow where he’ll have a post of his own for the series, as well as links to all the other people taking part in the series. And feel free to participate on your own blog as well!