Those with a taste for history and a love of kung fu films are in for a treat as King Hu’s groundbreaking Dragon Inn has been newly restored and is coming to Minneapolis’ Lagoon Cinema this weekend. A gem of wuxia, the 1967 classic has inspired generations of filmmakers, including Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers). One of Hu’s masterworks, Dragon Inn is funny, fluid, lyrical, tense, chock-full of fight scenes and moments that are knock-out classic.
The film’s plot is laid out in the first few minutes, and, like most good martial arts films, it isn’t all that important. Just in case you’re wondering, here it is: A group evil kung fu eunuchs is sent to kill the children of a recently executed general. The kids are headed to China’s desert-like western frontier, where the Dragon Inn lies in the middle of nowhere. The eunuchs descend upon the inn waiting for the children, but four heroes show up and cause all sorts of problems for the assassins. What follows are multiple attempts at poisoning, sword fights and bodies flying through tables, doors and walls.
Dragon Inn has a wonderful western-like quality. Most of the action happens in the confines of the inn, and it plays out often like a kung fu version of a bandits-vs-cowboy bar fight. There’s even that heroic machismo of the lone warrior on display, with a wonderful wuxia edge. For example, when one of the heroes, a roaming kung fu master named Xiao, orders a bowl of noodles, he has the perfect response to the henchman who bullies the waiter into giving him the noodles instead. What does the master do? He doesn’t strike the henchman or pull some sleight of hand. Instead he gracefully tosses the steaming bowl like a Frisbee so that it lands perfectly intact before the bullying eunuch’s lap. Kung fu films are rarely so cool.
Another aspect of Dragon Inn feels quite modern. One of the four heroes, who all get ample time show off their fighting abilities, is a young woman who’s just as deadly as her male counterparts, and arguably more cunning. This is a hallmark of Hu’s work, as he had female leads in his most iconic films, such as Come Drink With Me and A Touch of Zen. Those looking to celebrate strong female characters in cinema should definitely consider this film, as well as Hu’s other work.
And, of course, there’s the fight scenes – the many rushing, dance-like and death-filled fight scenes. Hu’s lens is fluid, following the swordfighters and their opponents as they leap and dash, parry and thrust, fall and flail in and out of frame. While the battles are no-doubt lyrical, there’s still a Game of Thrones-like tension to the action. At any moment, it feels as though one of the heroes could be dealt a mortal wound. The stuff, for its age, is surprisingly fun to watch, even if some visuals, such as the dozens and dozens of arrows that languidly wash over the screen, look about as deadly as a sneeze from Legolas. But brutality and realism aren’t the point here. Hu, instead, is interested in the rhythm of action. When set against the gorgeous and sweeping mountain landscapes of the film’s final section, Hu’s work takes on the feel of ancient epic. It’s nothing other than poetry (and swords) in motion.
Dragon Inn is playing at the Lagoon Cinema.