Dragon Inn (1967)

Director:  King Hu
Cast:  Shangguan Lingfeng, Shih Chun, BaiYing
Plot:  The first eunuch of the emperor has managed to have a major opponent condemned to death and his family banished from the empire.  In order to avoid a revenge of his victims, the eunuch sends his secret police to assassinate the deportees. 

Genre:  Action / Adventure / Drama
Awards:  -
Runtime:  111min
Rating:  PG
Source:  Taiwan Film Institute

One of my favourite pieces of Chinese classical music is the “Dagger Society Suite”.  So to my surprise when the opening Overture was played over the starting credits of this movie, I let out a geek-gle and smiled to myself:  this is gonna be a good film.  And it is. 

One of director King Hu’s more well-known works, and a satisfying follow-up to his popular hit Come Drink with Me (1966), Dragon Inn has spawned similarly-titled movies with different treatments such as Raymond Lee’s New Dragon Inn (1992), the 3D spectacle Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011) by Tsui Hark, and a contemplative ode to cinema-going called Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) by Tsai Ming-liang.

While Come Drink with Me has its charms, Dragon Inn is the more accomplished film in both storytelling and spectacle.  It boasts a narrative, written by Hu himself, that builds up by layers.  The layering effect is provided by (new) characters who make their way into the “Dragon Inn”—I won't be surprised if Tarantino was inspired by this when he wrote The Hateful Eight (2015).  They bring their own stories and predicaments into a central location where most of the action take place. 

I enjoyed Dragon Inn because stripped of its swordfighting, which is stunning by the way, its narrative clings unto itself.  It is unique in a way that the location creates space for plot to function, yet the intersections of characters create another space, an invisible one that allows us to “see” the hidden tensions between them.

The final action sequence is set miles away from the Inn, a showdown between martial artists of different abilities.  It is thrilling though it may feel like it outstays its welcome, running longer than expected.  But like Come Drink with Me, Dragon Inn also ends on an abrupt high.  For better or worse, Hu doesn’t wrap with the traditional epilogue. 

In some way, it does feel incomplete.  But maybe the ‘episodic’ nature of the films is meant to evoke the fleeting existence of these swordsmen.  Their paths are like crossroads.  Some are good, some turn evil.  They meet, they fight;  they live, they die.  Always by their code; always by their sword. 

Verdict:  A narrative that builds up by layers, accompanied by stunning swordfighting that sets the template for the quintessential wuxia movie.


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