Sunday, 17 January 2021

Dragon Inn

Everybody Was
King Hu Fighting

Dragon Inn
aka Long men kezhan

Taiwan/Hong Kong 1967 Directed by King Hu
Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray Zone B

It’s been a good while since I last saw Dragon Inn and the Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray edition seemed an excellent way for me to catch up to it again. I find it strange though that I am only now finding out that it’s not an actual Shaw Brothers movie at all... I’m sure my old Region 3 Hong Kong DVD is actually branded to that company but, maybe they just distributed it in certain territories. This director’s previous film was definitely a Shaw Bros production though, the great Come Drink With Me (which I reviewed right here). Dragon Inn isn’t, for me, as engaging a film but it’s still pretty great and fans of Wuxia in general should really like this although... it’s reputation probably proceeds it these days and I’m sure most Wuxia enthusiasts have probably already seen it.

It’s actually interesting because one of the extras on this Blu Ray mentions that Dragon Inn dates from before the wire work era of martial arts cinema and, indeed, there doesn’t seem to be any on show in this film. However, I find myself having to take that claim with a pinch of salt because, frankly, there was some great wire work in Come Drink With Me so... yeah... I don’t know why the Eureka people are claiming that here. I’ll come back to something else they say in the same extras supplement in a little while.

So what we have here is a film which sets up a basic plot and has a sequence where an absolute load of characters are introduced in voice-over narrative, telling about a group of eunuch overlords running two main factions and... yeah, it all got a bit too complicated for me. People who know me well know I don’t understand political stuff and a lot of the plot set up was passing me by but, what this does do to an extent, is just set up that there are good guys and bad guys and roughly points you in the direction of... a good guy who gets executed has his children sentenced to exile but the bad guys change their mind and go after them anyway. However, various other good guys want to protect the kids but the evil ones pretty much know that they’ll have to pass by the Dragon Inn for a night to stay and pause for refreshment on their journey away from said bad guys. So a small bunch of military types take over the Dragon Inn, perhaps not knowing the absent owner was a General or some such in the good guy army. And, after a few lone maverick style ‘good guy and gal’ characters come to the inn and make themselves known, it becomes a battleground of intense stares, implied conflict and, of course, various bits of action business as the film progresses.

Pretty much the first two thirds of the film are set in the titular establishment before the last act, where various people are fighting outside the inn and in local environs. This film does have some of the action styles associated with the absent wirework such as leaping high via hidden trampolines and also leaping great distances, accomplished with jump cuts from fast moving camera pans from tree to tree, giving the specific character I’m thinking of the appearance of constantly teleporting... so, it’s a curious compromise and it rings truer, to my ears, that the director’s statement that he wanted to steer clear of a lot of trickery to concentrate on the innate skill of the performers is probably the more probable fact of the matter, rather than it actually pre-dating said wire work solutions in the genre.

Also, this movie once again shows the propensity with Chinese films of this period to just needle drop in soundtracks from other films. Although the film has a composer of its own, as credited to Lan-Ping Chow, there are several steals including a Morricone piece from A Fistful Of Dollars which gets tracked in a lot, to give the suspense scenes of ‘are they or aren’t they going to go at it hammer and tongs in a minute or not?’ style tension a bit of a lift. Interestingly, on the extra I mentioned earlier (and I’m really not knocking that extra, I learned a few things from it too), it says the music in these scenes is so close to A Fistful Of Dollars as to be ‘actionable’. Frankly, it sounds so close that, as I said, I think it’s just needle dropped in and I have to wonder if the way it’s expressed on the extra is just a way for the British distributors to avoid their own lawsuit? There are a few recent British Blu Ray releases that have some quite high profile score cuts tracked in now, as various boutique labels start issuing these kinds of films and, well, I’m just grateful that the music used on these films stand as a historical document ‘of their time’ rather than having been tampered with due to legal issues. Wait until they start issuing some of those Turkish films on UK Blu Ray though... it’s surely only a matter of time... and then you’ll really know it. Some of the ‘steals’ on those things are way less subtle than this movie.

Anyway, all in all it’s a rather enjoyable flick, full of action and machismo thrown into the mix equally. There are some lovely sequences where the roaming camera fluidly manages to take in the whole of the environment (such as following... or as I learned from the extras, providing contrary movement)... in respect to the characters in the inn and roaming between both levels of the building. There’s also a nice touch which I can’t help but think, in terms of the genre (if this is, indeed, a genre signature), signals the introduction of various characters in video games of the 1980s and onwards, as various villains in this are sometimes ushered onto the screen with multiple musical stings as each are paraded before the camera. It’s an unexpected but nice touch in places (although I suspect it could get a little irritating if this happens in a lot of movies in one sitting).

If it’s action coupled with great camerawork you’re looking for then Dragon Inn is definitely a good ‘go to’ movie. It’s even better if you like to hear characters constantly goading and criticising their opponents for being eunuchs but, honestly, that element is not really something which did much for me... maybe it’s a Chinese thing. A nicely made film though and with a couple of nice extras from Eureka... one being a short visual essay which I have commented on here and also some really nice newsreel footage from the time showing the Star Wars like queues of the people of Japan queuing up for what was obviously a very lucrative film at the box office. Lucrative enough to get a mention on their local news, at any rate. The Eureka Blu Ray edition is as good as I’ve seen the film looking and it’s definitely the one to go for if you are wanting to take a look at this martial arts gem. Wuxia on, Wuxia off.

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