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Dragon Inn (1967)
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by Jay Seaver

"Hello, Dragon Inn."
5 stars

1967's "Dragon Inn" ("Long men kezhan" in Mandarin, also known as "Dragon Gate Inn") is kind of a big deal. It's the first film that director King Hu did in Taiwan after leaving Shaw Brothers, in many ways jump-starting that country's film industry. It's been remade and referenced, and its DNA shows up in many movies beyond Hu's "inn films". And most importantly, it's a terrific wuxia film in it's own right.

Minister of Defense Wu Chien has just been executed, thanks in part to lies spread by eunuch Tsao Shao-chin (Bai Ying), who controls both the secretive Eastern Agency and Palace Guards. The Emperor has allowed Wu's family to live in exile, but Tsao figures this will just lead to revenge, and when the first attempt to assassinate them fails, he dispatches the agencies' top swordsmen, Pi Hsiao-tang (Miao Tien) and Mao Tsung-hsien (Han Ying-chieh) to Dragon Gate, when the Wus will cross into Mongolia. They commandeer the local inn, but others also arrive ahead of the Wus: Hsiao Shao-tzu (Shih Chun), a friend of innkeeper Wu Ning (Cho Kin) is first, and then travelers Mr. Chu (Hsieh Han) and Ms. Chu (Polly Shang-kuan) - and the more justice-minded new arrivals have considerable skills with the sword themselves.

That's a lot of information being dumped on the audience for a relatively simple story, especially for Westerners who don't know the sort of politics that went on in Ming Dynasty China, but King Hu lays things out quite clearly after the initial narration. Yes, there are a lot of characters running around and some things are not going to be obvious (Ms. Chu is dressed as a man and this apparently fools most of the characters), but there aren't as many betrayals and double-crosses as later entries in the genre would pile on as twists, and the sides line up as a pretty straightforward good-versus-evil fight rather than a load of competing factions.

And the fights wind up pretty good. Hu builds the scale of these things nicely, first letting us see that someone is pretty quick, and otherwise serving up little teases and skirmishes that let the audience get the measure of the cast without actually taking anybody off the board (except for the odd murder that shows us our villains mean business), and then letting the combat get more fierce as the characters become more certain of each other's skill and opposition. Then the final battle comes and fulfills all this promise, with the heroes taking on an army of foes in a landscape that Hu lets us see with his widescreen shots. It's not always the sort of slick action that audiences might expect after forty-five years of refining the art form - sometimes the shooting/cutting around the action is obvious, or an dramatic strike is chosen over something speedy - but it's fierce and athletic and devoid of wires (which lets Hu use the widescreen composition without zooming too far out; swordfighters can move back and forth).

A lot of the cast is relative newcomers, but their enthusiasm is a real boon. Shih Chun introduces Hsiao Shao-tzu as a comic relief character before the movie reveals that he's pretty good with his short sword, and he keeps on being cheerful and funny as things escalate while also letting the audience seem him as honorable and capable. Polly Shang-kuan leaps onto the screen as an athletic 17-year-old with enough confidence and charisma to grab the spotlight from her older co-stars and fight off more than her share of villains. The pair also have a nifty unspoken chemistry once Hsiao discovers he's dealing with the Chu siblings rather than Chu brothers. Miao Tien and Han Ying-chieh carve out different personalities while both being as formidable for their cunning and ruthlessness as their swordsmanship. Bai Ying is used sparingly but makes a fine alpha villain, just flamboyant enough to obviously be something more than Pi and Mao but not so much that things swerve into comedy.

"Dragon Inn" is the prototype for a certain type of film that still gets made today (heck, look at last year's "Flying Swords of Dragon Gate" for what a clear debt modern wuxia still owes it), and while there's clearly still a little evolution to come, it became important not because of technique that only movie obsessives can spot, but because it's a darn effective action movie that's as worth seeing forty-five years later as it is imitating.

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originally posted: 03/21/13 10:48:25
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User Comments

8/22/15 Patrick Wong Awesome background music 5 stars
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Directed by
  King Hu

Written by
  King Hu

  Chun Shih
  Polly Lingfeng Shangguan
  Ying Bai
  Chien Tsao
  Han Hsieh

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