Dragon Inn

Studio: Criterion

Jul 10, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

One of the main reasons the Criterion Collection has become a go-to for the burgeoning film buff – in addition to seasoned vets – is the potential to discover auteurs that otherwise would not be nearly as accessible. We don’t all live in a metropolitan city with dozens (or even any) repertory theatres specializing in foreign or classic cinema. King Hu has been one of those auteurs who has been given extra reach by the collection over the past couple years, first with A Touch of Zen and now Dragon Inn.

Dragon Inn is lean and elegant. The set-up is basic. An emperor condemns his minister of defence to death after he’s been accused of betrayal. One execution is not enough, however, as the emperor orders the slain man’s family hunted down as well, only for them to fall under protection of mysterious swordsmen.

Much of the film transpires at the titular inn, and while there’s no snow on the ground, the bubbling tension is reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (and there’s no doubt that Tarantino is familiar with Hu’s work). As the emperor’s secret police set up shop at the inn, and throw their weight around with some casual, but deadly, violence a man in white appears and brushes off the requests (warnings) from the staff for him to leave. This doesn’t sit well with the secret police who try to get rid of him the hard way. Little do they know, but he’s a master swordsman.

This sequence is the strongest of the entire film. It’s wrenched taut, dragging out the ultimate confrontation for around 20 minutes as both sides play their little game of chess to see who is going to break or make a false move. It’s thrilling, not because it’s new … because it isn’t … but because it is just perfectly paced and executed. The swordsman clearly has the advantage despite being outnumbered because they don’t have any idea what to expect, while by simply knowing they’re together he’s able to decipher his angle. This is accomplished through tight, consistent edits and camerawork.

Another scene is the topic of one of the absolute best supplemental features to appear on a Criterion disc in recent memory. Grady Hendrix, cofounder of the New York Asian Film Festival, breaks down one of the many fight sequences shot by shot in an anatomy of a scene exercise. He explains that Hu cared so much about the look and feel of his films that he wanted to go to extra lengths to make sure the experience of watching it was as close to perfection as possible. And one of the methods he employed that was apparently rare in 60s Taiwanese films was jump cuts, which he employs liberally. The scene follows the one female character who, disguised as a man, re-approaches the inn to confront the emperor’s main henchman (and whomever else manages to be present). It’s another sequence that shares its atmosphere with the Western genre that those more familiar with American dusters will possibly imaging the sound of spurs on the rocky terrain with every step.

Hendrix, as well as essayist Andrew Chan in the accompanying booklet, explain that Dragon Inn’s primarily influence may actually be the Chinese Opera, which is far different from European opera and is kind of impossible to accurately define to the uninitiated. It’s an experience. Each of the main characters in this film has what serves essentially as his or her own theme music, which is a characteristic of the Chinese Opera serving to underline each’s importance to the story upon their appearance.

No, the fight scenes don’t evoke realism. It’s a much more highly choreographed, theatrical, and dramatic style that set the groundwork for later wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or House of Flying Daggers. Its fantastical elements are perhaps easier to digest because the plot is so threadbare. It’s a tale of good standing up to the corrupt and powerful ruler.

The villain, Emperor Cao Shao-qin, is pretty brutal, too. A eunuch, one punishment he inflicts on those who defy him is to make them like him via castration. This is, obviously, implied instead of explicitly shown, but it’s expressed with such sorrow and fear that it’s impossible not to squirm in sympathy.

The simplicity at the core does somewhat strip the film of its heft, but that’s not a major detraction. This is a pure action movie with very little fat at the edges. A Touch of Zen is the better film, but Hu may never have made it to that masterwork without first crafting Dragon Inn a few years earlier.



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July 11th 2018

There is no sort of “theme music” associated with characters in any of the dozens of styles of Chinese opera I’m familiar with.  Leitmotives associated with characters are usually attributed to Richard Wagner, though they can be found in European opera before him.