English Title: Dragon Inn
Original Title: Long men kezhan 龙门客栈
Genre: Action, Adventure
Director/Writer: King Hu 胡金铨
Chow Lan-Ping 周蓝萍
Wu Ta-Chiang 吴大江
Cinematography: Hua Hui-Ying 华慧英
Shih Chun 石隽
Shangguan Lingfeng 上官灵凤
Miao Tian 苗天
Bai Ying 白鹰
Hseih Han 薛汉
Han Ying-Chieh 韩英杰
Cao Jian 曹健
Wan Chungshan 万重山
Kao Ming 高鸣
Ko Hsiao-Pao 葛小宝
Hsu Feng 徐枫
King Hu’s DRAGON INN has been remade twice so far, in 1992, produced by Hark Tsui, Raymond Lee’s NEW DRAGON GATE INN is the apotheosis of wuxia romanticism and one of this reviewer’s all-time guilty pleasure (Maggie Cheung, Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Ka-fai and Donnie Yen rounds up the dream cast), which leaves Tsui’s own remake FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE (2011) groaningly pales in comparison.
Now, here comes King Hu’s original cinematic urtext, revitalized to pristine clarity and chromatic authenticity, the storyline pitches a Manichaean good vs. evil characterization against its exotic locale, where a stream of kung fu combats is grimly orchestrated pertaining to the pecking order of villain’s ranking (immutably consonant with their chopsocky mastery as well), from expendable and reckless minions, to more sinister and competent swords-wielding henchmen, until the ultimate boss, the eunuch Tsao (a white-haired Bai Ying), who governs both the Embroidered Uniform Guard and his own Eastern Deport, an infamous spy and secret police agency.
The through-line of the plot pivots around protecting the young offspring of a beheaded general, the opponent of Tsao’s eunuch autocracy. That is a very oriental school of thought, bloodline survives, hope survives (naively disregarding the fact that “like father like son” more often than not, doesn’t apply in reality), which leads to the parochial mindset of manhood, which is to beget progeny, it is not even above our hero Hsiao (Shih Chun, radiant with acumen and lethality) to triumphantly jeer Tsao’s castrated fate in order to needle him, now sounds jarring against his character’s virtuous facet, (spoilers alert!) not to mention the casualty of the final showdown is exclusively among those testicle-less, including two plucky Tartars, a ghost of xenophobia, anyone?
As the vanguard of wuxia genre, of course, it is the nimble choreography of the fight scenes puts King’s name on the map, years before the genre would be swamped with wire-fu and more often than not, slipshod special effects, here the action pieces are conscientiously rehearsed to minute detail, and substantially imbues a with-an-inch-of-one’s-life danger with every single movement, never let down your guard otherwise you are done in, that is exactly what is lacking in most of today’s computer-generated razzmatazz, which can be grandiloquent prima facie, but never reach that kind of immediacy and vicariousness. Jazzed up with Peking opera against a background of an awe-inspiring mountainous landscape, the final 5-to-1 face-off comes off as valorous and brutally entrancing.
The script lends a sharp repartee in-between the swordplay rotations, especially between Hsiao and Pi Shaotang (Miao Tian, a rare purveyor of subtlety here), the right-hand man of Tsao, it is all about the menacing undertow and sudden about-face, jianghu, is not a place for feeble-minded and flat-footed.
Apart from several abrupt editing choices which create some narrative elisions, it is enlightening to find this half-a-century oldie retains its dynamic vigor and sublime luster, although its outdated acting style, wavering between po-faced (Cao Jian as Wu Ning, the innkeeper), operatic (Hseih Han as the pesky Zhu Ji, visibly too old to pass off as an early 30-something) and slightly stilted (an 18-year-old Shangguan Lingfeng in her debut), irrevocably belies its time and age, and if you are a fan of King’s A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971), you might slightly disappointed to find his poetic flair hasn’t been fully crystallised at this stage.
reference points: King Hu’s A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971) 8.1/10; Raymond Lee’s NEW DRAGON GATE INN (1992), 8.8/10; Hark Tsui’s FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE (2011), 3.3/10.