The Fate of Lee Khan [迎春閣之風波] (1973)
Starring Li Li-Hua, Pai Ying, Tien Feng, Han Ying-Chieh, Hsu Feng, Roy Chiao, Angela Mao, Helen Ma Hoi-Lun, Wei Pin-Ao, Wu Chia-Hsiang, Ng Ming-Choi, Lee Man-Tai, Chiang Nan, Woo Gam, Gam Dai
Directed by King Hu
Expectations: Super high. I’ve been very eager to continue exploring King Hu’s filmography for a while now.
The Fate of Lee Khan is a fantastic film, hidden in the shadows of other, more well-known King Hu films. I’ve never heard anything about this movie, but yet it is an incredibly solid and effective piece of filmed martial intrigue. It’s similar in a lot of ways to Dragon Inn, but that is hardly a complaint. It is a true joy to watch as a world-class director returns to a smaller scale story after opening up the genre in ways previously unknown in A Touch of Zen. I need to re-watch Dragon Inn to confirm this, but it seems as if King Hu’s storytelling ability has matured a lot since that film, and the economy with which he delivers an intense, compelling story in The Fate of Lee Khan is a masterful achievement. The inn featured here is also a vibrant center of the region, as opposed to the desolate way station of Dragon Inn.
The film opens by setting itself in the context of history. Our story is set in the late 1300s, during the Yuan Dynasty established by the Mongolian leader Kublai Khan. The Chinese people, frustrated with political corruption and oppression, organized a revolt under the lead of Chu Yuan-Chang. But as we’re told in the intro, the war is not just fought on the battlefields, but also through the devious methods of espionage. Lee Khan is a powerful man in charge of the Yuan spy activity, and at the outset of the film his sister and trusted advisor manage to secure a war map detailing the movements of Chu’s forces. The rebel spies refuse to let the map go easily, so when word comes that Lee Khan is coming to the Spring Inn, forces from both sides gather there to decide his fate.
The Fate of Lee Khan is a very slow burn, methodically building tension with every moment and allowing us to sit with the characters and learn about them. It’s a fantastic example of the classic writing advice, “Show, don’t tell,” as King Hu largely leaves it up the audience to parse out who’s on which side in the inn during the first half of the film. There are also red herring characters, initially drawing our attention, only to be revealed as a minor part in the machinations of the spy game. Certain members of the audience definitely won’t have the patience for this film, but those that have enjoyed King Hu’s other films will definitely be rewarded greatly.
The action, choreographed by Sammo Hung, is relatively limited, but when it comes it’s in furious, explosive bursts. Sammo’s work here doesn’t feel all that close to his later achievements, but it’s effective at releasing the tension built by the characters’ situation. King Hu never fully unleashes the characters (or Sammo) until the finale, though, making for an ending that is incredibly satisfying and engaging. The methodical build of tension means nothing if you can’t deliver the pay off, and without going into too much detail, King Hu and Sammo pull off a barrage of action worthy of a place in the upper echelon of cathartic end battles. The actual choreography has since been left in the dust by the many films in its wake, but the power of a master filmmaker expertly bringing his intense martial arts drama to a close will never diminish.
Overall, though, I don’t know that strict kung fu junkies will thoroughly enjoy The Fate of Lee Khan. The limited action is executed perfectly and it’s well-structured, but it does feel somewhat more old school and dated compared to other 1973 films. I imagine that the power of the filmmaking will overcome these issues for many, though, especially if you’re already a King Hu devotee. It’s a real under-the-radar treasure, and at least for me, it’s well worth your time. It may not be as iconic or groundbreaking as Come Drink With Me, Dragon Inn, or A Touch of Zen, but it’s still a wonderful film that deserves to find an audience.
If you’re interested in checking it out, Shout Factory put it out in the US a few years ago in a 4-pack of martial arts films that also contains John Woo’s directorial debut, The Young Dragons! Plus two more films, all for the price of one DVD! Now that’s value!
Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is The Iron Bodyguard from directors Chang Cheh & Pao Hsueh Li! I think I’m in for another good one! See ya then!