Myth, history and action-adventure coalesce in King Hu’s classic wuxia film which soars in its beautiful restoration…

After Come Drink With Me, Hu abandoned Shaw Brothers and moved to the greener pastures of Taiwan to gain more directorial freedom. Many of Hu’s motifs and unique contributions to the genre originated in his 1967 box-office smash Dragon Inn. Hu utilised the creative autonomy he had at Union Film Company to create a wuxia film like no other up to that point, and still with no real precedent, although one can clearly see the influence the film had on much later films like Ashes of Time, The Blade, and Hero. Studio sets were replaced with vast vistas, misty mountains and dusty deserts. The atmosphere imbued with a kind of historical authenticity is matchless in the genre. Starting from Dragon Inn, Hu’s characters (a small group made up of commoners and upright officials/generals) consistently meet the challenge of an advancing peril (a large, generally corrupted group), against which their heroism and strength are tested. Hu found the wuxia genre accommodating because it allowed him to use historical periods and real-life characters, and take the basic premise of good versus evil to weave in his ideas on notions of power. Dragon Inn takes this formation, lays it out on a glorious CineScope canvas upon which its colourful band of loyalists and villains (the female sword fighter and evil eunuch especially would become staples of the genre) engage in beautifully choreographed swordplay and tactical warfare.

The just Minister Yu Qian (based on a real-life historical Minister of War) is executed by Eunuch Cao (Bai Ying, A Touch of Zen, Valiant Ones) for opposing the corrupt eunuchs. His children are banished to the frontier and are ordered by Cao to be executed, to wipe out any future threat. A group of fighters loyal to the executed minster attempt to rescue and protect the children, whilst keeping the dongchang (The Ming dynasty’s secret service who had unconditional authority when it came to the law) members at bay in the titular Dragon Gate Inn. The Inn turns out to be run by a Wu Ning (Cho Kin), the executed Minister Qian’s famed chief of staff. The rest of the side fighting for justice are made up of a wandering swordsman Xiao Shaozi (Jun Shi, A Touch of Zen, Raining in the Mountain) who is friends with Wu and happy to fight for a man of honour, a sword-fighting brother (Hsieh Han) and sister (Polly Shang-kuan, Back Alley Princess, The Red Phoenix), and later, two defecting members of the dongchang.

Dragon Inn opens in typical Hu fashion with a brief voice-over combined with various visual elements. Here, the opening narration outlines the notorious cruelty of the Dongchang and the terror they instilled in the people. Eunuch Cao is introduced along with his two top heavies played by Miao Tian (Half of a Loaf of Kung-Fu, What Time is it There?) and Han Ying-chieh (also the film’s action choreographer, A Touch of Zen, The Big Boss), all of whom exude villainy from every inch of their glowering performances. The narrator’s voice is explicit in his denouncement of this organisation; as we are given the information that Cao rules his government officials with fear, we see a shot of his ministers bowing obsequiously towards him making explicit the overwhelming corruption inherent in this government. Although Hu’s films may not be faithful to historical fact, his films from Dragon Inn onwards always contain a sort of solemn atmosphere of ancient history and the characters in his films are always implicated in history. Here, by using the Ming dynasty and real characters from this period, Hu uses the past as a mirror to the present, and the political allegory is strengthened. Made just after the start the Cultural Revolution, if one were looking for an allegory, the film’s storyline of an innocent man and his family being persecuted, certainly parallels events happening en masse during the Cultural Revolution. Setting his films in real historical periods puts his allegory into clearer relief and makes the plight of the common people and upright officials resonate even more with contemporary events.

Indispensable to Hu’s depiction of these situations was the belief in the need for a group approach to tackle the enemy. Unlike most wuxia films in which the leader faces the arch enemy one-on-one, Hu’s battles are consistently fought through the teamwork of typically around five or six heroes. This is a political concept, because the group often consists of a mix of common people and upright officials/generals, marking out solidarity in times of social turmoil.Hu’s heroes are fighting for a cause rather than for a personal vendetta or to seek prestige. Chinese history was rife with corruption, but in Hu’s idealistic vision, bands of heroes unite to make a stand. The group who battle against tyranny are fighting for justice and out of loyalty to each other. They realise that their chances of survival, and of effecting positive change, are negligible, but they cannot passively standby.  This, uniquely I would say in martial arts cinema, outlines not a single tragic hero, but the essence of heroism and valour and of making a moral choice.

In Dragon Inn, Eunuch Cao and his “private army” are portrayed as wielding extraordinary amounts of power. Cao wields his power ruthlessly and mercilessly, and abuses it in order to retain it.  Hu’s exploration of power struggles culminate in Legend and Raining in the Mountain, in which they spread to the netherworld of the ghosts and a buddhist temple. Here, they are inextricably linked with the palace itself.

In the first shots of the inn when the Dongchang members first arrive and security check the place, the camera pans around ninety degrees at ground level and then cranes up from the ground level to the first floor. In a matter of seconds the space of this inn is clearly delineated. The fluid camera movement within the confines of the inn, and the idiosyncratic editing, serve to build the drama up as the confrontations between the loyalists and the villains ratchet up. As an example, when the scholar-warrior Xiao Shaozi (who is on the side of the loyalists) wanders into the inn he exemplifies the wandering knight types. The tension in the scene is palpable yet he calmly sits down opposite the villains and coolly orders food and wine, whilst the many members of the Dongchang all stare at him. When his noodles come, one of the villains demands Xiao’s bowl. Xiao skilfully tosses it to land on the villain’s table, almost mocking him. In an incredibly innovative action scene, an archer is signalled to shoot Xiao through the window. Xiao catches the arrow in-between two chopsticks, puts it into a wine bottle, and hits it out so that it flies towards the window, and takes down the archer. The sequence lasts a matter of seconds, but is so rapidly cut that it appears to transcend the normal barriers of time.

Wu Ning, the owner of the inn, and the executed Minister Yu Qian’s former chief of staff, is a compassionate, scholarly gentleman who releases enemy prisoners later on in the film, and inspires two Dongchang members who are brothers to defect. The two brothers tell an understanding Wu they are sick of “committing evil deeds everyday and killing innocent people”.  Wu tells them “you won’t have a bright future with us” stating what Hu’s films always reveal; the force of evil outweighs the force of good. The older brother is a Tartar who marched to China to join Yu Qian’s army, but was transferred to the Imperial Guards. After Yu’s execution he honoured Yu’s grave and upon hearing this, Cao had him transferred to the Dongchang. He was coerced and had no choice in the matter, revealing the common man’s fate under tyrannical rule.  He reveals to Wu that Cao had himself and his brother castrated. It is a quietly moving scene, which cuts to Cao being carried up a mountainside in a palanquin, scores of his followers in front and behind, Peking Opera trumpets blaring out. The sudden cut from this poignant scene to Cao speaks volumes about the oppression that the ordinary people faced. After these two brothers join the loyalists side, they prove to be major characters in the final battle.

The fights in the film are characterised by their attention to the visual grace of movement, aided by his editing style in which movements are matched to the rhythm and beat of Peking Opera scores. Hu picked Han Ying-chieh, a Peking Opera performer, to choreograph his first three wuxia films. As well as the dance-like movements, Hu has stated that the character types, stage entrances, stage props, and costumes in his films all have a relationship to Peking Opera.

Hu was already experimenting with his particular brand of action sequences, showing the otherworldly powers of a sword fighter by showing a cut of one of them soaring through the air, followed by a cut of them perhaps already in a different position. Momentary fragments of flight and fight are stitched together to create the feeling of boundless flight and visually represent otherworldly martial prowess, which don’t have the artificial feeling of a long shot of an actor being pulled along by wires. The culmination of Dragon Inn as in the sequence where Eunuch Cao positively cascades down a mountaintop side in a flurry of cuts, especially shows this unique editing style off.

It is interesting to compare the ways both sides choose to fight. Here Cao’s corruption makes him feel like he is invincible as when in the final battle as he faces the small group of loyalists, he signals for his two underlings to stay back and not help him (this action is repeated by a similar character in A Touch of Zen during a forest fight scene). The heroes on the other hand work together in unison to attempt to take down the enemy.

In the character of Eunuch Cao we see Hu’s astonishing way of creating emotional resonance through action scenes; Xiao taunts Cao about his castration in the final battle. The anger that wells up in his face shows this is a deeply sensitive point causing his asthma to start up and weakening him in battle. This paints a dense portrait of this eunuch in a matter of seconds and his character becomes much more than the one-dimensional evil, scheming eunuchs who often populate martial art films. There seems to be so much at stake in the finale too that it is a truly dramatic action sequence, a reminder of how Hu has so precisely built up the momentum up to this point.

Shots of characters relentlessly trekking through beautiful yet potentially treacherous landscapes to get to their desired destinations – valleys, mountains, deserts etc – is also fairly unique in the genre and Hu started this recurring motif here. Characters in the wuxia genre are generally depicted traversing through space vertically rather than horizontally, flying rather than trekking. Such trekking scenes highlight the immensity of China and the store of resolve and dedication needed to traverse such treacherous territory, bringing to the fore the devotion and loyalty required, and the possibility of a tangible freedom which lays in wait at the end of these long marches, however tenuous those threads may be.

In a majestic widescreen shot just over halfway through, the sun peaks out through the clouds at dawn, bathing this remote frontier in a warm, golden glow, smoke piping out of the inn’s chimney, and guards sat around outside. This Ford-esque shot reveals a peaceful beauty hidden in the contours. This, along with other painterly shots of vast mountainous or desert landscapes seem to suggest a clash; within a vast, unmoved nature, men engage in petty squabbles over power. This dawn shot is the quiet before the storm, the morning before the Dongchang wage all out war on the loyalists who are trying to protect the innocent Minister’s children. Scenes like this, the azure blue skies of the desert landscape and the final battle on a cloudy mountaintop really do serve to give the film an epic feeling, however overused that word is! The new restoration helps the vibrant colours in the film really shine, looking similar to the beautiful stills of the film, which no previous version I’d seen of the film ever did. Hopefully this is only the start of things to come, and more restorations of Hu’s films will follow.

Hu here makes the form and rhythm of opera intensely cinematic (the film’s remarkable soundtrack also helps) and he manages to create his own world through a combination of historical detail, his pioneering editing style and unique action sequences. He integrates his own personal vision with the unpredictable space he achieves cinematically and uses this space to play out a dramatic tale of heroism coming up against evil. The ending, as with all his wuxia films from here onward, is somewhat muted in tone, and a vein of melancholy runs through the film; making a moral choice to combat conformism in the face of terror tactics virtually guarantees sacrifice or failure but making the stand is the whole point and requires great heroism. Dragon Inn is as fresh and exciting today as it must have been when it was originally released.

Dragon Inn screens in the newly restored version at the 58th London Film Festival 2014, and will be released by Eureka Entertainment on their Masters Of Cinema label next year.

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