Sunday, July 31, 2011

HK at BAM: Dragon Inn

It was a dark time in Chinese history, when blood thirsty eunuchs terrorized the land. No, seriously. Operating from his power base in the so-called East Chamber bureaucracy (responsible for intelligence gathering and warfare development), Tsao Siu-yan usurped the Emperor, in terms of practical power if not in official title. Naturally, this did not sit well with the warrior class. Tsao and his fellow eunuchs attempt to entrap one of their more resourceful military rivals using the children of his mentor as bait in Raymond Lee’s wild wuxia epic Dragon Inn, (produced by Tsui Hark, trailer here), which screens as part of BAM mini-retrospective Hong Kong Favorites, co-presented by Subway Cinema.

In the unforgiving desert, only the remote Dragon Inn offers shelter from the baking heat and flash thunderstorms. Like a Ming Dynasty Mos Eisley, an uneasy truce is enforced in the roadhouse by Jade, its sexpot proprietor, whose meat pies are made with Sweeney Todd’s special recipe. Disguised as a man, the Xena-like Yau Mo-yan rescues the children, taking them to the dodgy inn to await Chow Wai-on, their father’s former lieutenant and her prospective lover. However, when the warrior arrives, he turns the jaded Jade’s head. Entering into the intrigue as a wildcard, she devises ways to keep Chow’s party in her inn and get him into her chambers, all while maintaining her Swedish neutrality.

Boasting an all-star cast, Dragon Inn presents Donnie Yen as you have never seen him before: evil and emasculated. Frankly, it is hard to believe it is him pimped out as Tsao. However, it is a familiar role for Brigitte Lin, kicking male butt in Yau’s male garb. Neither is Maggie Cheung (Olivier Assayas’s ex) unaccustomed to playing the sultry femme fatales, vamping it up something fierce as Jade. Indeed, when Lin and Leung square off, it is definitely worth the price of admission (though more of a suggestive ice-breaker than a bone crusher). However, Tony Leung Ka-fai (not to be confused with Tony Leung Chiu-wai who scorched up the screen with Maggie Cheung in 2046 and In the Mood for Love) is a bit bland as Chow. It is hard to see how he could inspire such romantic rival, beyond his willingness to stand up to the eunuchs.

Known as New Dragon Gate Inn throughout Asia, Lee’s film is considered a liberty-taking reboot of King Hu’s 1966 Dragon Gate Inn. It definitely makes use of the Flying Dagger style technological advances, sailing its combatants through the air, every which way. Yet, it is all rendered in the gritty washed out color spectrum of Sergio Leone westerns. The blood is still deep crimson though. In fact, the final showdown is decidedly gory, in a way that is surprisingly macabre. (It also defies logic, but that is neither here nor there.)

New Dragon Inn is more a film for established fans (capable of rolling with its sub-Shaw Brothers visual quality) than a wuxia introductory calling card for the uninitiated. However, for those who want to watch Lin kill people in the air and Leung steam things up on the ground, it definitely all that. Good clean eunuch killing fun, Dragon Inn screens tomorrow (8/1) at BAM as part of the too-short Hong Kong Favorites series.