Wednesday, June 11, 2014

King Hu at BAM: The Fate of Lee Khan

The Spring Inn is a lot like Rick’s in Casablanca. Nobody is shocked to find gambling there, while the resistance rubs shoulders with the occupiers. King Hu appreciated the dramatic possibilities of a nice isolated inn, setting three of his classic films within such seedy establishments. Fittingly, The Fate of Lee Khan, the third and least widely seen of his so-called “Inn Trilogy,” screens during the BAM Cinématek’s retrospective, All Hail the King: the Films of King Hu.

Ever since she set up a dice table, “Wendy” Wan Jen-mi’s Spring Inn has crushed the business of her closest competitor. He does not mind, though, because he is her superior in the underground opposition to the Mongols. From him she receives advance warning the dreaded warlord Lee Khan will soon be staying at her inn. The ruthless prince has intercepted a strategically important map from their compatriots, so Wan must steal it back. She has just the right staff for the job: four reformed criminals now working as waitresses. Additional back-up arrives in the form of lowly scholar Wang Shih-cheng and troubadour Sha Yuan-shan, who masquerade as Wan’s bookkeeper cousin and his servant.

After a fair amount of carousing with the rustic locals, the scene is sufficiently set for Lee Khan’s arrival and the fighting chops of former pickpocket Hai Mu-tan are thoroughly established. With the inn closed to all except the staff and the Mongol entourage, the sneaking around begins in earnest.

Frankly, Fate leans more towards intrigue than adrenaline-charged smack-downs, but action director Sammo Hung still blocked out some nice sequences to showcase his good friend Angela Mao. Even though it is a supporting part, nobody can miss the star power she brings to bear as Hai. As Wendy, Li Hua-li is hardly anyone’s push over either. In fact, the five women of Spring Inn vividly demonstrate Hu’s facility for strong “nuxia” swordswomen characters.

One of the strangest aspects of Fate is Lee Khan himself. Feng Tien’s portrayal is not so very far removed from Conrad Veidt’s Maj. Strasser in Casablanca, oozing cunning and malevolence. Yet, everything he says, such as officials should live close to the citizens they govern and should hire the most qualified scholars regardless of ethnicity, makes a good deal of sense. In fact, it sounds downright progressive for the era. Nonetheless, he is still the bad guy.

Featuring characters as colorful as their costumes, The Fate of Lee Khan is a fast-paced comedic-tragedy that should fully satisfy wuxia connoisseurs. It is important both as part of Hu’s thematic trilogy and a relatively early turn from Mao (shortly following Enter the Dragon and Hapkido), but because life is not fair, it is hard to find a watchable print with English subtitles and the original Mandarin dialogue. Since BAM will screen it this Sunday (6/15) as it should be seen, it ought to be a high priority for Hu and Mao fans during the All Hail the King retrospective, now underway in Brooklyn.