Learning From The Masters Of Cinema: King Hu's DRAGON INN
Considered by many to be the architect of wuxia cinema, King Hu was to martial arts was John Ford was to the western. Beginning with his 1966 Shaw Brothers adventure Come Drink With Me, Hu took a pulp genre associated with little more than cheap entertainment and period adventures, and fashioned from it some of the industry's most revered and enduring cinematic offerings.
Not just a director, Hu worked in the Hong Kong industry as an actor, screenwriter, costume designer and set designer, and as a result was able to get out of his contract with Shaw Brothers in 1966 and move to Taiwan. There he formed a partnership - and the short-lived Union Film Company - with Sha Rongfeng, and began work on Dragon Inn. Unshackled by the studio interiors of Shaw Brothers and relatively unglamorous locations of Hong Kong's New Territories, Hu made spectacular use of the deserts, mountains and hill-side vistas of Taiwan in his new wuxia epic.
Clearly influenced by Western Cinema, and certainly by the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, Dragon Inn is a simple story that is light on narrative and chock full of suspense, intrigue, innovative action, and strong, varied character archetypes that were almost entirely absent from the genre up to this point. Essentially, the plot of Dragon Inn boils down to a number of different, yet equally deadly parties converging on the eponymous isolated eatery in order to either murder or protect the children of General Yu, an opponent of the imperial eunuchs, who was murdered for his opposition to their tyrannical reign.
This simple setting has been employed numerous times in cinema, both before and after Dragon Inn. John Ford's Stagecoach and John Huston's Key Largo both centre around a group of disparate individuals forced to share a confined space, which would continue in everything from Sidney Lumet's adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder On The Orient Express, any number of Irvin Allen disaster movies, right up to - so it would appear from the trailers at least - Quentin Tarantino's upcoming western The Hateful Eight.
Even Hu's own work would return repeatedly to the inn, or similar single locations, for much of their action. Come Drink With Me, Dragon Inn and 1973's The Fate of Lee Khan form a loose "Inn Trilogy" for this very reason, while Raining In The Mountain (1979) takes place almost entirely within the confines of a Buddhist temple. Dragon Inn has also been remade twice in the decades since, as New Dragon Gate Inn in 1993, directed by Raymond Lee and (at least) produced by Tsui Hark, who then helmed 2011's epic 3D retelling, Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate.
While the use of wirework in wuxia action sequences was yet to be introduced, King Hu's direction of swordplay and martial arts proved equally innovative and influential in Dragon Inn. By using swift pans and fast editing to literally transport characters from one physical space to another, Hu also employed out-of-shot trampolines to launch his actors into the air to showcase superhuman feats of agility and strength.
Hu's characters display almost magical abilities, from catching knives and arrows in mid-flight, to leaping in and out of trees with incredible speed. When executed by skilled performers like Shih Chun, as the heroic scholar, Bai Ying as the villainous eunuch Cao, and fledgling actress Shangguan Lingfeng as the 17-year-old female warrior, the film cemented its position as a mould-breaking classic of the genre.
And so it was. Dragon Inn was a huge financial success in Taiwan and across South East Asia when it was released in 1967, breaking box office records in a number of territories. In an effort to spite his former hit maker, Run Run Shaw apparently delayed Dragon Inn's Hong Kong release for many months, also to make way for his unofficial sequel to Come Drink With Me, Golden Swallow. However, the film was eventually released in Hu's old stomping ground, where it also became a hit.
Numerous filmmakers from around the world have acknowledged the influence of King Hu and Dragon Inn specifically on their own work. Hong Kong filmmakers including Tsui Hark and Ann Hui are indebted to Hu, as is Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee, whose international smash hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon owes a particular debt to Hu's work. Not only is Zhang Ziyi's young heroine caught up in a pivotal brawl in an inn not dissimilar to that from Come Drink With Me, but that film's leading lady, Cheng Pei Pei also features. Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye Dragon Inn from 2003 centres around a cinema's final screening of Hu's film, and the film's abrupt ending after the final climactic stand off is clearly homaged in Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof (2007).
Unavailable for many years, certainly in an English-friendly version, Dragon Inn now arrives courtesy of an incredible 4K restoration, part of the "Taiwan Film Classics Restoration and Value-Adding Project" commissioned by the Ministry of Culture to Chinese Taipei Film Archive in 2013. It was in this gorgeous new version that I first saw the film in 2014, after having watched both official remakes beforehand, and it deserves to be held up as one of the finest works of film restoration currently available.
Eureka! Entertainment's dual-format release of the film, as part of their Masters of Cinema series, also includes some frankly fantastic extras, not least an incredibly entertaining, insightful and informative video essay from David Cairns that renders almost any attempt to throw fresh light on this film, especially my own trivial effort here, perfunctory and irrelevant. The disc also includes newsreel footage from the film's original release in Taiwan, while the accompanying booklet features writing from Tsui Hark, Tony Rayns and Edmond Wong.
Dragon Inn is regularly cited as one of the greatest wuxia adventures ever committed to screen, and a hugely influential piece of martial arts cinema. That it stands up as well as it does close to 50 years on, and remains so beautiful, exciting and downright entertaining is a testament to King Hu's craft as a master filmmaker. Now, not only can we all enjoy the film for ourselves, it is available to own in an incredible restored edition that deserves pride of place in any discerning cinephile's collection. This is an absolutely essential release of a true classic of Asian Cinema, and the news that it is soon to be joined by Hu's follow-up - the even more ambitious and spectacular A Touch Of Zen - is nothing short of miraculous.
Dragon Inn is available on dual-format Blu-ray/DVD in the UK from Eureka! Entertainment now.