Monday, May 02, 2016

King Hu’s Dragon Inn

It is one of the most famous lodging house in motion picture history—and also one of the most remote. It was not a particularly comfortable place to stay, but not due to any shortcomings of the staff. Rather, it is the large party of Eastern Chamber agents loyal to the tyrannical Eunuch Cao Shaoqin quartered there that makes the place feel so inhospitable. When a handful of principled adventurers check in there is bound to be conflict in King Hu’s digitally-restored wuxia smash hit Dragon Inn (trailer here), which re-releases this Friday in New York.

Having consolidated his power behind the throne, in a virtual coup d’état, Cao executed the honorable defense minister Yu Qian and banished his children to the hinterlands. Belatedly realizing the long term potential danger they represent, Cao dispatches agents to assassinate the Yu children. After one attempt fails, Cao sends his top commander Miao Tian to head them off at the pass—or more accurately the inn at the pass.

However, unbeknownst to Cao, Dragon Inn is owned by Wu Ning, Gen. Yu’s former aide-de-camp. As luck would have it, Wu’s insouciant swordsman friend Hsiao Shao-tzu choses to pay a visit at precisely this time. He takes an instant dislike to Miao’s men, possibly because one of them tries to poison him. When Miss Chu Huei, a lethal swordswoman traveling in the guise of a man with her slightly oafish brother shows up, it further complicates matters. Hsiao does not get on well with the brother, but he has instant rapport with the sister. Together, the ad-hoc band of virtuous swashbucklers will face the full force of the of the Eastern Chamber. Yes, it is definitely on.

The broad strokes of Dragon Inn will sound familiar to those who have seen Raymond Lee’s Tsui Hark-produced remake [New] Dragon Inn or Tsui’s own sequel/remake/reboot/riff The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. Yet as soon as Hu’s Dragon Inn starts viewers can immediately tell it has the air of a classic. Action director Han Ying-chieh (who also appears as Miao’s lieutenant) stages some massive melees, but also integrates humor into the earlier fight sequences in ways that are clever rather than slapsticky.

If you watch Hu’s freshly restored Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen in relatively short succession, Shih Chun is likely to become your new favorite actor. He has been choosy about movie projects over the last three or four decades, but he remains a revered figure in Taiwanese cinema. As Hsiao, he is wildly cool and roguishly charismatic. Some consider his portrayal a deliberate attempt to create an Asian alternative to James Bond, which seems like a bit of a stretch.

Regardless, he certainly inspires confidence and forges some relatively subtle but undeniably potent chemistry with Polly Shang-kuan Ling-feng’s Chu. Although still just a teenager, Shang-kuan exhibits impressive action chops that she would further refine as a martial art star in her own right. To counterbalance them, Bai Ying gives a suitably ostentatious yet weirdly twitchy performance as the villainous Cao.

Dragon Inn features the tragic sweep and striking natural vistas that became hallmarks of Hu’s later films, but it is also loads and loads of fun. With it and A Touch of Zen, Hu created the templates for a whole lot of Wuxia to come. It is definitely a masterwork bordering on outright masterpiece status. Very highly recommended, Dragon Inn opens this Friday (5/6) in New York, at the Walter Reade.