Criterion Prediction #82: Dragon Inn, by Alexander Miller
Title: Dragon Inn aka Dragon Gate Inn
Director: King Hu
Cast: Shih Chun, Pai Ying, Polly Kuan, Miao Tian, Sit Hon, Cho Kin, Go Ming, Got Siu-Bo, Ko Fei, Hsu Feng
Synopsis: Imperial intrigue ensues when a scheming eunuch, an agent for the Emperor, is on the trail of the expelled children of the Yu family, who narrowly escaped execution. The surviving children are escorted to a remote inn where East Chamber guards are dispatched at the behest of the scheming imperial eunuch Tsao to assassinate the remaining members of the Yu family. However, loyalist mercenaries congregate alongside the assassins in what becomes a close-knit game of cat and mouse.
Critique: Hu’s work is the gold standard for wuxia cinema and his breakout 1966 picture Come Drink with Me, a Shaw Brothers production, is still one of his best efforts.
The director’s perfectionism didn’t bode well with producer Run Run Shaw, whose studio embraced the assembly line style of the classic studio period. Once the union dissolved, Hu set up the short-lived Union Film Company and started shooting Dragon Inn.
The wuxia genre is a cultural touchstone in Chinese cinema and Hu’s films have been of immense influence over the years but the director’s archetypal style draws from the swift action of Japanese chambara films. The dominant execution in martial arts movies at this point was rooted in Chinese opera and Beijing theater; long takes and wide masters where blows are parried and exchanged. Japanese samurai films were flooding the Asian market by the mid-sixties, especially in Hong Kong. Along with Hu leading the charge in this innovative new type of wuxia-style (or wuxia pian) was Chang Cheh, whose 1967 The One-Armed Swordsman is another celebrated classic in the genre. Both embraced the kinetic short-burst stylized violence typified by directors like Kenji Misumi, who directed several of the strongest movies in the monumental Zatoichi series.
The samurai influence, paired with the balletic and lavish gravity-defying acrobatics of Chinese opera, is fused by kinetic editing. Pairing eye-line to action-fast cutting (not unlike Sergio Leone) is what broke the director’s visual flourish from other wuxia films of the period.
Hu’s augmentation of time and space extends beyond the fight choreography. Dragon Inn, of course, takes advantage of its interior action (after all, Dragon Inn, Come Drink With Me and The Fate of Lee Khan constitute the director’s informal “Inn Trilogy”), juxtaposing it with vast exteriors where landscapes, castles, and horizons evoke the cross-cultural literacy of Hu’s cinema. Kurosawa’s often cited as the most westerns of eastern directors, but King Hu’s work might share just as much DNA with the likes of John Ford and Sergio Leone as Kurosawa. Period detail is desolate, unflattering, and the titular Inn, an outpost on the rocky plateau of nowhere feels plucked from the pages of any western.
Dragon Inn charts a remarkable growth in the director and, in the spirit of transitional material, the evolution of Hu’s technique is taking place before our eyes. Comparing the likes of A Touch of Zen to the previous, comparatively compact Come Drink with Me is results in differences in scope and execution. Not to mention there’s no cutesy segues in Hu’s later film. As an ardent fan, I still can’t recommend lead character Drunken Cat’s singing and his entourage of children that join him in the first act of Come Drink with Me.
The expansion in Dragon Inn is marked in Hu’s fluidity (thanks in part to DP Hua Hui-Ying and fight choreographer Han Ying-Chieh, both of whom are recurring collaborators with the director). Through elegance in camera movements and technical staging Dragon Inn gracefully glides and settles on the action of its characters, and yet we can see the innovation of the director’s proclivity for editing time and space to suit his vision and realize his artistic substance.
Moving past Come Drink with Me, Hu was able to expand upon his vision of wuxia. At times, Dragon Inn is tough-minded and literal while weightless and almost dreamy. The real and surreal peacefully coexist through sword fighting, chivalry, and some sly political allegory. The hallmarks of the genre such as winding tales of imperial intrigue bind us to the film’s narrative praxis, and at times Dragon Inn might feel convoluted. But in the greater conversation of genre filmmaking, Dragon Inn sits above many with its originally conceived action sequences and superlative craftsmanship, a classic of the genre if there ever was one. Spawning two remakes (from Raymond Lee in 1992 and Tsui Hark as recently as 2011), not to mention Tsai Ming-Liang’s mournful 2003 tribute, Goodbye Dragon Inn, Hu’s film is celebrated by generations.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: Criterion succeeded in bringing Hu’s wuxia masterpiece A Touch of Zen to Blu-ray and the next viable step in the ascension of notable genre films in the collection is Dragon Inn. Already in the Masters of Cinema and with similar artwork from Gregg Ruth, who penned the cover for A Touch of Zen (among many), I’d say Dragon Inn is an inevitable candidate for a Criterion release. Aside from the Masters of Cinema series, there’s a handful of bootlegs and the Red Sun DVD (proudly owned by yours truly), and a side-by-side comparison of that with the Masters of Cinema restoration is astounding. As of now, Hu’s Come Drink with Me is a part of the Weinstein’s Dragon Dynasty, which has the brunt of Shaw Brothers’ titles in North America. Despite some wavering consistency in their releases since the advancement in streaming media, I doubt that will change. But two Hu movies in The Criterion Collection are two more than I ever expected; plus there’s still The Fate of Lee Khan.