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Fate of Lee Khan, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Spies & swords in the Spring Inn."
4 stars

If ever two styles ever seemed to be a poor fit, it's the pressure-cooker thriller and the martial arts action movie: Fighters need room to move, after all, and fights tend to bring things between characters to a head rather than just move them along. Making action movies set in and around inns was sort of King Hu's thing, though, and he manages an impressive balance of intrigue and action in this one even while spending a lot of time in the same building.

It's 1366, and while the Mongols control much of China, there's an active resistance, though some of them are willing to turn traitor. One means to betray the rebels to Lee Khan (Tien Feng), Baron of Hunan. Since Lee Khan and his sister and most trusted ally Lee Wan (Hsu Feng) dislike staying in official residences, they decide to make their home base for this mission the Spring Inn - not knowing that proprietor "Wendy" Wan Hsiao (Li Li-hua) is with the rebels, and the four pretty young waitresses she's hired (Angela Mao Ying, Seung-goon Yin-ngai, Woo Gam & Helen Ma Hoi-lun) are also more than they seem. But what of the guests - a drunkard (Ngai Ping-ngo), a beggar (Han Ying-chieh), a pair of bandits (Ho Pak-kwong & Yi Fung), and a merchant (Bai Ying) - how many are spies, and for which side?

Hu doesn't exactly keep the audience in the dark about the various characters' allegiances; as his movies were seldom about the sudden revelation as opposed to the steady forward motion of a well-oiled machine. While there aren't necessarily a lot of chances for swordfights to break out in this movie, it often plays out like one - feints, parries, taking steps forward and back, finally ending as the combatants put all their strength into killing blows. It's a nice little dance, with the flow only occasionally interrupted toward the beginning as fights break out in the Spring Inn so that the audience can see what sort of skills the characters bring to that situation.

The answer, of course, is "plenty"; though much of the film takes place between the four walls of the inn's dining room, it's big enough for a few combatants to square off and for the girls, especially, to demonstrate their acrobatic skills. It's an impressive amount of action in a small space, and not just for fights - there's a nifty heist at a climactic moment as well. Hu and fight choreographer Sammo Hung do manage to give themselves a little more room to breathe for the final big action scene, though, throwing half a dozen people into a swordfight for all the marbles.

It's mostly a spy movie at heart, though, which means Li Li-hua can be different from many of Hu's swordswoman heroines - she's older, more calculating even when being charming. Li makes for a wonderfully flinty veteran here, giving Wendy the a steely personality that won't have anyone see her as a fool, although you can understand why the Mongols may see her as just pragmatic. Bai Ying almost can't help being in her shadow as a guest with a pivitol role to play. The main villains are fine antagonists, though - Tien Feng projects an assured casualness about Lee Khan's power while also leaving no doubt that he can be quite decisive, while Hsu Feng does what the best screen villains do, playing Lee Wan with the same intelligence and fierceness she'd bring to a heroine, just with the good intentions removed.

Of the four waitresses, Angela Mao (Peony the pickpocket) would later become one of the best-known martial arts heroines of the period, especially after appearing as Bruce Lee's sister in Enter the Dragon. She's got the biggest part of the quartet, and while two of whom didn't even get flower-based names in this print's subtitles, they're helpfully color-coded for the audience. They express their personalities just as well through action as words, and both go along with how Hu's tight script and smooth direction makes for an efficient little movie; you've got to pay reasonably close attention, but it rewards you for doing so right away.

That's just what you want from a movie that's basically a spy thriller at heart. That this movie manages to fit inside a limited space and still have room for good partial arts, well, that's quite the hefty bonus.

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originally posted: 03/28/13 15:41:48
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  N/A (PG)

Directed by
  King Hu

Written by
  King Hu
  Chung Wang

  Li Hua Li
  Roy Chiao
  Feng Hsu
  Ying Bai
  Feng Tien
  Angela Mao

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