These notes on King Hu’s Dragon Inn were written by Tim Brayton, PhD candidate in UW Madison's Department of Communication Arts. A 35mm print of Dragon Inn, courtesy of the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research, will screen in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue, on Sunday, February 13, at 2 p.m. On the same screen on week later, the Cinematheque will present Tsai Ming-Liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn. Both screenings are co-presented by our friends at WUD Film. Admission is free for both screenings.
By Tim Brayton
Over the past few years, Cinematheque has showcased several of the wuxia epics of the great action director King Hu. But now we bring to you a truly special example of Hu’s art, the proverbial “one he’ll be remembered for”: Dragon Inn, a 1967 historical adventure that was a massive hit in its native Taiwan, and has gone on to become one of the most beloved examples of its cult-favorite genre. Its legacy extends beyond the legions of action epics mixing costume drama and violent exploitation cinema, to reach the arthouse: the film has been released on home video as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection, in addition to inspiring the great slow cinema director Tsai Ming-Liang in the creation of his 2003 masterpiece Goodbye Dragon Inn (which is showing next week at Cinematheque).
Even King Hu himself ended up living in the film’s shadow: six years later, he’d direct The Fate of Lee Khan, which in some ways plays as an uncredited remake of Dragon Inn. But that’s perfectly understandable. Dragon Inn is a consummate work of action filmmaking, political storytelling, and good old-fashioned cinematic spectacle, parading its large cast in a rainbow of bright costumes across the great expanse of an anamorphic widescreen frame. It has a cast full of memorably larger-than-life characters, and a story that’s simultaneously a complicated web of political intrigue, and a pretty straightforward Wild West-style narrative about the need to defend a base of operations from an encroaching army.
Many of these elements are central to the wuxia film. If you’re not familiar with the genre by that name, wuxia is an exceedingly broad term that basically refers to any story built around gifted warriors in ancient China following a chivalric notion of heroism and defending the weak. Fantasy may be involved, as might swords, along with trampolines and wirework, or camera trickery designed to make the heroes and villains alike seem to possess superhero fighting abilities. You’ll see some of these elements in Dragon Inn and not others; wuxia is a generous genre, and as long as the basic setting and ethos are in place, it can withstand a great many different tones, plots, and styles.
In this case, the setting is an inn on the edge of an unfathomable desert. Here, a group of heroes come together to prevent a treacherous warlord-eunuch from killing the surviving children of his dead political enemy. And there’s not much more to it than that, though in the moment of watching Dragon Inn, it can easily seem like the film is full to bursting with factional intrigues and the ever-present threat of ambush or betrayal. The eunuch himself, Cao Shao-qin (Pai Ying) barely appears until late in the film, and most of what happens before then is that we’re introduced to our band of heroes, more or less one at a time, the better to appreciate their skills. Hu refrains from making any of of them a clear-cut lead, though by virtue of being the first one to show off his talents, the lone swordsman Xiao, played by Chun Shih (a mainstay of Hu’s subsequent films, working with the director for the first time) perhaps makes the strongest impression. And one must also give a nod to Miss Zhu (Lingfeng Shangguan), an excellent swordswoman disguised as a man when we meet her; she’s the archetype for all of the highly competent, self-sufficient female warriors who would become a particular strength of Hu’s going forward.
The insistence on treating the protagonists as a collaborative group rather than individual fighters leads to one of Dragon Inn’s most celebrated elements, its extraordinary fight choreography captured within unusually elegant widescreen compositions. In treating his protagonists collectively, Hu is able to introduce some bold ideas into the action scenes, which unfold according to some very different rhythms than anything else out there in ‘67. This is most apparent in the film’s climax, when the heroes have greatly tired themselves out over a long stretch of fighting, and throw themselves into a five-against-one boss battle. Between the feeling of exhaustion that the film generates from the performers (not to mention the sheer momentum of how action-packed the second hour is; the viewer is likely to be more than a little worn out themselves), and the possibilities for choreography brought in by the arrangement of combatants, this brutal and abrupt final fight proves to be remarkably fresh and surprising, even with the film having spawned so many copycats through the years.
Of course, there’s still room for taciturn warriors showing off their individual skills in bravura setpieces. Xiao’s arrival at the inn is a particularly great example of this, with clever angles and some basic filmmaking trickery (running film backwards, speeding it up) setting him up as pragmatic and startlingly good at flinging around bowls full of food without spilling a drop. It’s a real virtuoso sequence, using some of the film’s most striking compositions to work through some of its most delightfully showy fight choreography.
Dragon Inn balances this spectacle with more grounded, muted human feelings: everybody might be an archetype, some of them pretty garish at that, but they also feel like distinctly worked-out people. The evocation of a fraught political struggle is tempered and cynical just enough to give the film a feeling of grown-up bite. It’s not a serious historical document, and it’s not trying to be, but there’s a perfect amount of depth in the characters and large-scale stakes in the conflict for Dragon Inn to feel like a more fully-realized story than a great many action scenes on either side of the Pacific. It has popcorn movie gravity, deep enough for it to feel consequential even while its main goal is to keep knocking you out with one creative fight scene, punchy joke (the play has an admirable amount of drily dark humor), or gorgeous tableau of human soldiers arranged against an undulating environment in crisp lines. It’s a truly special, ambitious film, in other words, more than worthy of being considered, even now, one of the defining examples of wuxia.