Director: King Hu
Screenplay: King Hu, Chung Wang
Starring: Li Hua Li, Roy Chiao, Feng Hsu, Ying Bai, Feng Tien, Angela Mao
Country: Taiwan, Hong Kong
Running Time: 106 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
King Hu is one of the few directors that worked largely in the martial arts genre who is revered by Western critics. His 1971 epic A Touch of Zen even won the Technical Grand Prize at Cannes. As such, he’s often considered an ‘art-house’ director over here, but in Hong Kong and Taiwan he was part of the commercial film industry. Martial arts movies were box office bread and butter there back in the 60s and 70s, and Hu had kickstarted a new wave of wuxia films with Come Drink With Me in 1966 (alongside The One-Armed Swordsman, directed by Chang Cheh) before making Dragon Inn, which was a phenomenal success in Taiwan and Hong Kong. A Touch of Zen followed and was a financial disaster (despite its later critical success overseas), going way over budget (as Hu’s films often did) and underperforming at the box office. To try to get back on track then, Hu scaled down his ambitions and returned to a similar formula used in Come Drink With Me and Dragon Inn to make The Fate of Lee Khan (a.k.a. Ying chun ge zhi Fengbo). So closely related are these three films, that they have collectively been dubbed Hu’s “Inn Trilogy” in later years. Eureka have been releasing a slow trickle of Hu’s films as part of their Masters of Cinema series (including Dragon Inn, A Touch of Zen and Legend of the Mountain) and now are adding The Fate of Lee Khan to the collection. I loved the previous three Hu titles Eureka put out, so it didn’t take much asking to convince me to take up the offer of writing a review of Lee Khan.
The film opens with a voiceover explaining how the events to follow take place in China during the Yuan Dynasty. The Mongols rule with an iron fist and a particularly cruel official, the titular Lee Khan (Feng Tien), is known to be on his way to an isolated inn during a trip to procure a map revealing the battle plans of the Chinese rebel army. The innkeeper, Madame Wan (Li Hua Li), is in league with the rebels though, so hires four resistance fighters to pose as waitresses and awaits further undercover support, so they can stop Khan getting his hands on the map and possibly assassinate him along the way. With Mongol spies suspected to be staking out the inn, as well as Khan’s impending arrival, tensions mount and nobody knows who to trust. Once Khan does enter the scene, this only gets worse as our protagonists do their best to stay undercover whilst the wily official and his equally sharp henchmen, including his cold-hearted sister (Feng Hsu), do their best to wheedle out the spies.
I hadn’t heard much about this prior to watching and it doesn’t share the same reputation of Hu’s best known films, seeming like more of a commercial venture, but I loved it. I’ve long been a huge fan of Asian martial arts films, but even I will agree that a great many of them are only worth watching for the fight scenes. A good kung-fu film still needs enough drama to make you care about the conflict at hand, but if the action is good enough, the supporting substance only needs to be passable for genre fans to hold it in high regard. Lee Khan, however, manages to impress in both drama and action.
Like A Touch of Zen, Lee Khan is a film separated into clearly delineated segments. The first half of the film plays out like a loose, situational comedy, with a few fight scenes thrown in for good measure. In this section, we stay within the confines of the inn whilst the rebel staff try to figure out who could be their rebel contact and who could be an enemy spy. During this time they have to continue to serve the customers, leading to several successfully comic set-pieces largely involving male customers trying yet failing to take advantage of the tough and skilful female waitresses or gamblers trying to cheat at dice.
At the start of the second half, we finally see the arrival of Khan and the tone and mis-en-scene changes notably. The busy, lively frames of the first half make way for order and segregation. The rhythm and pace alters dramatically too, with drawn-out standoffs and long untrusting exchanges of glances leading to an incredibly tense mid-section with none of the humour from the first half.
The third and final section is the big showdown that takes place once everyone’s true identities and motives have been revealed. Here of course is where the action really kicks into gear, though there are some impressive fights in the earlier sections too. To try and fit into the more realistic hand-to-hand combat styles that were popular at the time (thanks to Bruce Lee), Hu swapped his regular choreographer Ying-Chieh Han for the young Sammo Hung. Due to this, the fights strike a nice balance between the exaggerated acrobatic leaps previously seen in Hu’s films (achieved through editing tricks and hidden trampolines) with the fast-paced, complex fight styles, influenced by real martial arts techniques, that Hung would hone in later years.
As with Hu’s other previous films, Lee Khan features strong female action heroines. In fact, here he has 6 tough ladies in major roles – the 4 waitresses, Madame Wan and Khan’s sister. They all get to prove their worth and none are there as a tacked-on love interest or similar ‘eye-candy’.
Also familiar from Hu’s previous films is his dynamic camerawork. He employs plenty of movement and careful framing without drawing too much attention to it. Although most of the film takes place inside the inn, Hu keeps it looking interesting and also makes good use of a desert location in the few scenes that break out of the confined setting.
All-in-all in then, it’s a wonderfully well-rounded martial arts classic. Finely crafted, gripping, sometimes quite funny and tremendously exciting when it needs to be, this is a real gem. King Hu’s reputation is truly justified, as this proves.
The Fate of Lee Khan is out on 21st October on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture looks stunning, clean and sharp without looking ‘doctored’. you get a nice selection of audio tracks too. I watched with the mono Mandarin track and it was solid.
Extra features include:
– 1080p transfer of the film on Blu-ray, with a progressive encode on the DVD
– Optional English subtitles
– Original Mandarin audio, available in original mono (uncompressed on Blu-ray) and restored 5.1
– Optional English audio, available in original mono (uncompressed on Blu-ray) and restored 5.1
– Brand new and exclusive commentary by critic and Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns
– A brand new and exclusive video essay by David Cairns
– Original Trailer
– PLUS: a collector’s booklet featuring new and archival writing on the film
Tony Rayns’ commentary is well-researched and fascinating as always, though it should really be classed and programmed on the disc as a ‘selected scene’ commentary as he pauses for a couple of very long periods. The video essay (which features a couple of other contributors on top of Cairns, it must be stated – unfortunately I don’t have their names to hand) is also very informative and helps you better appreciate the film. The booklet is excellent too, as always.