King Hu’s Dragon Inn displays an economy of action-oriented storytelling that’s rare today. Its story exhilarates because of its deceptive complexity, with a remarkable ensemble of characters, names, and stated allegiances that, while enriching the plot’s steady march toward conflict and action, nevertheless proves less essential than basking in Hu’s visual acumen.
The pre-credits sequence lays out the basis for film’s plot. Cao Shin-qin (Bai Yang), a powerful eunuch, orders the execution of a minister of defense, then sends troops to track and kill the minister’s three children. From there, Dragon Inn revolves around a conflict between two camps: Cao’s soldiers and the minister’s loyalists, who make it their duty to protect the three children from harm. The rebellion includes Xiao (Shih Chun), a master swordsman, and Zhu (Shangkuan Ling-fung), a female rebel passing inside the inn as a young boy. From there, Hu and action choreographer Han Ying-chieh stage numerous showdowns between members of each side, progressing from the rebels taking on various loyal henchmen to, finally, Cao himself. It’s this structure that has defined both the wuxia and much of martial-arts cinema since.
Hu’s vision works through a fusion of filmmaking styles, and it’s easy to spot the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy in some of the characterizations and staging. But unlike those films, Dragon Inn’s pace seldom lessens or detours away from the titular setting: a centripetal force that seems to pull characters toward it even as they attempt to escape its clutches. In that sense, there’s also some of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel to Hu’s sense of humor, as supernatural elements appear to be at work in the film without ever quite announcing themselves as such.
In a particularly amusing fight scene, Xiao does battle with some 20 combatants shortly after his arrival at the inn, first using the poisoned wine meant for him as a weapon against his opponents, then appropriating chopsticks and a tokkuri-sized wine bottle to fend off an onslaught of sword-wielding men. Herein lies the central charm of Hu’s filmmaking. Throughout, the set and spacing of any scene determines the actions characters take within it, with tables all sorts of items consistently brought into play during a fight rather than remaining backdrops for extended clashes.
Though geared around action, Dragon Inn is by no means apolitical or merely a procession of impressively choreographed razzle-dazzle. Implicit in Hu’s combination of natural lighting, realistic mano-a-mano combat, and flights of fantasy is a dogged demand that art be freed from a propagandistic basis without needing to become completely separate from a recognizable reality. Under Mao Zedong, Chinese cinema was subject to the edicts of the Cultural Revolution, which sought to promote Mao’s communist propaganda and suppress any other form of radical politics. Hu frees the film of such demands by conceiving of an ensemble of rebels working to dispose of Cao’s autocratic violence. As such, there’s a subtext of anti-Mao resentment in Dragon Inn, though like Sergei Eisenstein’s anti-Stalinist Ivan the Terrible, the political parallels are subtle and without explicit invocation.
Viewers unfamiliar with Hu’s work, especially fans of Kill Bill, will see in Dragon Inn some of the DNA that Quentin Tarantino’s two-volume opus splices to form itself. But unlike Tarantino’s cinephilic genre play, Hu’s artistry emanates from a point of necessity, the mother of invention, to reformulate the action genre around an underlying political quandary.
Exterior wide shots are immaculate, with image detail so proliferate that viewers are liable to find themselves inching forward in their seats, trying to absorb every piece of visual information. Grain is visible throughout and focus, whether in close-ups or wide shots, is perfectly maintained. The monaural audio track is rockier terrain, with distortion and minor feedback cropping up at times when action or dialogue rises to a certain decibel. In fact, the entire soundtrack has a secondhand quality, as if the track had been recorded from within a theater projecting the film. While that seems unlikely given Criterion’s claim that this transfer draws from the "35mm sound negative," it doesn’t negate the track’s rougher tones.
The supplements offer a respectable assortment of interviews and reflections. The highlight is a scene analysis by author Grady Hendrix, who describes Dragon Inn as the "ground zero" of the martial-arts film. Hendrix breaks down several scenes, both for their historical contexts and composition, explaining in detail the attributes that distinguish the film from the wuxia that preceded it. While by no means an exhaustive study, it’s a great primer for those hoping to better understand Hu’s filmmaking. Two interviews with Shangkuan Ling-fung and Shih Chun, respectively, afford each actor the space to recall their experience working on the film. Shangkuan’s is by far the more animated of the two, as she explains how she transformed from ballet dancer into sword-wielding warrior under Hu and crew’s tutelage, thus making her into a martial-arts star for years to come. Rounding out the disc are a trailer and fascinating newsreel footage from the film’s 1967 premiere in Taipei. Finally, a booklet includes a great essay by critic Andrew Chan, who among other things situates the film within the wuxia tradition, making mention of Tsui Hark’s The Blade and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin in the process.
King Hu’s Dragon Inn gets an excellent Blu-ray release courtesy of Criterion, which should cement the film’s reputation among North American audiences as a watershed work of martial-arts cinema.