Releases like this are like manna from heaven to me. I'm an ardent follower of the Masters of Cinema series as my reviews will attest, as well as classic cinema in general. However, I'm also a huge martial arts movie fan, so when a film crosses the usually distinct boundaries between esteemed classic and action movie, I jump for joy. Needless to say, I snapped up the opportunity to review King Hu's wuxia classic Dragon Inn (a.k.a. Dragon Gate Inn) as soon as it was offered.
King Hu was responsible for a handful of the most influential and revered martial arts films of all time. After the hugely popular Come Drink With Me, made for the famous Shaw Brothers studios, he helped set up a new studio in Taiwan called Union Film Company. His first film under this banner was Dragon Inn and this was followed up a couple of years later with A Touch of Zen. These three titles helped define martial arts movies in the East for decades to come. Hu's influence can still clearly be seen in modern examples of the genre, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, so it was no surprise to me to discover that 1967's Dragon Inn still holds up very well today.
Dragon Inn opens with some narration explaining that the tyrannical first eunuch of the Emperor of China has framed and condemned the Minister of Defence (an opponent to his rule) to death and sent his family into exile. Fearing a vengeful attack, the eunuch sends his secret police to assassinate the banished family members on their way out of the country. The ambush is to take place at the titular Dragon Inn, which lies close to the border. However, as they wait, a couple more parties join them at the inn and the waters get ever more murky, leading to much treachery and numerous fight scenes.
This was everything I hoped for. I'd seen A Touch of Zen many years ago, but nothing else from Hu and Dragon Inn clearly displays his talents as an action director. Making glorious use of the widescreen frame and adding a fair amount of movement too, he adds a level of class rarely seen in more modern action movies.
The fight choreography isn't as strong as in more recent genre offerings, with hits often clearly missing and some of the camera trickery used to suggest superhuman feats showing their age. However, the action is still very fast and fluid and effectively exhilarating. The ridiculous skills of our heroes and villains are a joy to behold too as they catch arrows and fire them back through sake flasks or leap from wall to wall to evade capture. It's these feats that have endured through decades of wuxia classics.
Most impressive here is Hu's handling of tension though. If his fights are a little dated, the build up to them remains unparalleled. Through the controlled cinematography and superbly building and shifting editing rhythms, the audience is drawn ever closer to the edge of their seats before all hell breaks loose on screen. Hu's style occasionally reflects that of the great Western directors in this respect and the setting and story also mirrors that genre from time to time.
There are flaws here and there keeping me from giving it full marks; alongside the slightly dated elements mentioned before, the plotting at the start is a little much to take in, particularly through the information dump of the opening narration. Overall though, Dragon Inn is a thrilling action adventure. The technical standard of the choreography may have improved over the years, but even now few martial arts films have as strong a drive, as well built tension or as assured direction. There are no clumsy elements that have to be ignored in the name of the genre, just solid filmmaking. It's hugely influential too of course, something that must be appreciated. So the film comes highly recommended.
Dragon Inn is out now on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the picture quality is superb. The audio is a little flat and tinny, but most Chinese/Taiwanese titles from this era sound like this, so I'm guessing it's down to the source material.
Special features include Hostel Forces, a new video essay by critic David Cairns and some archival newsreel footage from the film's première. The latter is pretty throwaway, although it's interesting to see rare footage of a classic premiere away from Hollywood. The video essay is great though. It may be quite short at 15 minutes, but it's hugely informative, breaking down in great detail how Hu uses various film techniques to his advantage. It really makes you appreciate the film more and got me itching for a re-watch, which are both signs of a great extra feature.
As with all Masters of Cinema releases, you get a booklet in with the package too, which is particularly strong in this instance. There's a loving tribute to Hu from fellow Chinese director Tsui Hark, a look at Hu's characteristic use of Inns and essays from Tony Rayns and Edmond Wong.