While King Hu’s 1971 epic A Touch of Zen is his towering masterpiece, his earlier film Dragon Inn may be the best entry point into the director’s work. This 1967 adventure is one of the essential early martial arts films, both gorgeous to watch and highly influential in terms of its look and feel. It builds from Hu’s first wuxia movie, 1966’s Come Drink with Me, and signals a remarkable move forward in terms of ambition and the general derring-do of the wuxia film.
Both A Touch of Zen and Dragon Inn are now playing in select cities in beautiful 4K restorations. The theatrical run will be followed by a Criterion release later this year. For fans of the genre, both are essential viewing, because like A Touch of Zen, you would not have films like Hero, House of Flying Daggers, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon without Dragon Inn.
Dragon Inn (Long Men Ke Zhan, 龍門客棧)
Director: King Hu
Release Date: May 6, 2016 (limited)
An evil eunuch named Cao (Ying Bai) has seized power from one of his political enemies, putting him to death and exiling his children. Cao makes a power play to assassinate these exiles, which leads to a conflict with three heroes on a mission to prevent this from happening. There’s a dashing rogue who carries an umbrella (Shih Chun), and there’s a swashbuckling brother and sister duo consisting of a bullish hot-head (Hsieh Han) and a woman so skilled with a sword she causes gender confusion among her foes (Lingfeng Shangguan). There’s conflict between these warriors, which has to be set aside to save the day.
Sure, it’s a familiar dynamic that isn’t particularly complicated, but Dragon Inn is such an undeniable joy, like a grandparent’s cooking. Yet to call it high-end cinematic comfort food sells Hu’s craftsmanship short. He’s mastering the form with just his second film in the genre.
Like certain scenes of Come Drink with Me, much of the tension in Dragon Inn is the result of keeping heroes and villains in close quarters with one another. Cao’s goons overrun the eponymous inn, which is situated in the middle of a rocky wasteland–part sanctuary, part target; a little bit Motel 6, a little bit Alamo. The heroes are grossly outnumbered, and they’re always targets or under siege. When Chun’s dashing rogue appears, there’s a sense of calm about him, as if all is well while he tries to control the situation, eventually leading to a scruff. Lingfeng and Han have some comic moments, particularly during one scene where they dine with their enemies as a bit of subterfuge and do their darndest to avoid being poisoned.
I mentioned the gender confusion earlier, which is a common trope of martial stories of all kinds–women warriors mistaken for men given their prowess. In many of King Hu’s films, he has women as the front-and-center heroes. It’s Cheng Pei-pei in Come Drink with Me (who would later play Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Hsu Feng in A Touch of Zen. Though Chun’s mysterious rogue is the primary badass of the movie, Lingfeng’s young heroine in Dragon Inn gets a fine moment to shine against dozens of goons, and this gender confusion offers a great way of undercutting traditional gender roles and gender expectations with the draw of action, as if skewering sexism, the patriarchy, and machismo with an elegant jian.
The fights of Dragon Inn are staged like a movie musical, which may have a lot to do with the influence of Peking Opera. There’s also the feel of a samurai movie about the fights since the visual rhythms and vocabulary of the Chinese martial arts movie were still in development. There’s a major leap made between Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen in terms of the pacing, staging, movements, and editing of the fight scenes, which makes both films essential for action aficionados. There’s a softness to the fights here that hardens in Zen, as if Hu would ironically discover the visceral stuff of combat while making his meditative spiritual epic. A similar leap was made from Come Drink with Me to Dragon Inn. When the genre eventually turned away from swordsman pictures to the unarmed fighting genre, the vocabulary, grammar, and sheet forcefulness of the action would change again.
Beyond its history, Dragon Inn is so watchable because it’s a pure delight. The rousing Lan-ping Chow score is like some sonic representation of a dashing chilvaric code, all flight and blades and evasions. The height of the wuxia film in the late 1960s is still a glorious landmark nearly 50 years later.