Recently released by Eureka as part of the Master of Cinema series, Dragon’s Inn is a beautifully-restored, rediscovered gem. The Taiwanese film is full of wonderfully-choreographed sword fights that go some way to make up for the gaps in a flawed but entertaining film.
To enjoy the film, you’ll first need to navigate the opening sequence – a sternly narrated dry prologue giving information regarding the political background to the story. Set in China during the Ming Dynasty, the film eventually concerns the Wu family. General Wu Ning (Cho Kin), the Minister of Defence, has recently been executed by the Emperor on the false advice of chief eunuch Tsao (Pao Ying). The leader has also ordered that all of the remaining members of the Wu family must live in exile.
Tsao has other plans, plotting for them to be murdered. He has sent a small gang to find them, landing them at Dragon Inn where his landlord cousin is expecting Wu’s son and daughter to arrive soon. As the story stirs up it becomes a classic martial arts stand-off film. The resistance by the family to the gang serves as a perfect platform on which to build both intense psychological battles and huge fighting set pieces, with the action all set around a solitary inn – a frequent element in King Hu’s films (so much so that this film forms part of his ‘Inn Trilogy’).
Watching Dragon’s Inn today it is clear it has been a huge influence on modern martial arts films, particularly Ang Lee. More pertinent this month are the similarities to Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, though there have been elements of King Hu’s style woven into several of Tarantino’s films over the years (amongst dozens of other legendary filmmakers).
Our heroes possess powers bordering on that of superheroes. They can disarm their lower-level enemies by hitting them anywhere on their body. They can catch arrows or daggers in midair. It’s an invincibility that is now replicated from a distance in firearm combat by most modern Hollywood blockbusters but it is nonetheless quite a spectacle. It is a joy to watch.
The gore shown is way ahead of its time, with most of the lead characters getting sliced or diced at one time or another. King Tu is not afraid to show blood either, adding some much needed realism to the situation.
Where the film excels is actually in the intensity of the standoffs. The first really gripping scene involves an attempted poisoning of Xiao Shaozi (Chun Shih), the first of the Wu family to arrive on the scene. Not much fighting is required when the playoff between the two parties is like a game of chess.
A discussion of this film wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the lead female actress Lingfeng Shangguan. The standout standoff is a hard-fought battle between her character (Chu Huei) and main antagonist Tsao, which is given life by the screen time afforded to turn it into a serious struggle rather than just a formality. It is unusual to see such a prominent and headstrong female fighting character in a film released in 1967. It’s refreshing to see her fighting for the honour of her family and not get tangled up in a romantic distraction. She’s there to fight, and fight she does.
Dragon’s Inn is available on Masters of Cinema dual format Blu-ray and DVD now.