Dragon Gate Inn (a.k.a. Dragon Inn) is one of the best known and most influential wuxia films by the Chinese director known as King Hu. Both this film and the equally celebrated A Touch of Zen (1971) are currently streaming on MUBI. Dragon Gate Inn is also available on separate Blu-ray editions (Masters of Cinema in the UK and Criterion in the US) of the 2013 restoration of the film. I remember these films from the 1970s in the UK in cinemas and later on prints broadcast by Channel 4 and I think I must have seen at least extracts from then but it wasn’t until I bought a DVD of the 1992 remake that I really began to explore wuxia – more of that later.
King Hu was born in Peking in 1932 and attended art school before joining the flow of exiles to Hong Kong in 1949. He joined the Shaw Brothers Studio in 1958 a nd worked in various capacities on the studio’s Mandarin films and came under the influence of the Taiwanese director Li Han-hsiang. Hu directed his own films starting in 1965 and it was his second film, Come Drink With Me (1966) which introduced his update to the wuxia. Soon after this he left Shaw Brothers, moving to Taiwan where Dragon Inn was produced for the Union Film Company – a local producer giving Hu the chance to try out his own ideas.
Wuxia is an ancient Chinese form of fantasy literature that in the 20th century developed in new forms such as newspapers and magazines and, soon after, cinema. The term refers loosely to the idea of ‘martial chivalry’ and the idea that highly trained warriors would roam the country righting wrongs. After 1949 the nationalised Chinese film industry reduced its reliance on these kinds of action genre films and the development of the genre fell to the exilic directors in Hong Kong and Taiwan. There is a suggestion that wuxia began to be influenced by Japanese chanbara (swordplay) and Japanese cinema was accessible in HK and Taiwan. King Hu developed a particularly elegant and ‘open’ style of traditional wuxia in which he maintained roles for female martial artists and staged swordplay in spectacular natural environments, presented in CinemaScope formats and with traditional music scores.
The plot of the film is relatively straightforward. In 1457 AD, during the Ming Dynasty period, the Empire is being controlled by a group of eunuchs in the Imperial Palace who have already framed the Defence Minister Yu as a traitor and executed him. His two surviving children are to be sent to a remote destination in the desert but the Dong Chang ‘Eastern Agency’, in effect a military group controlled by the eunuch Ciao (Ying Bai), has been ordered to ambush and kill the children and their guards. Their first attempt to do so is thwarted by two sibling warriors (Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan and her brother played by Han Hsieh) and the eunuch’s men decide to descend on the Dragon Gate Inn which is the children’s ultimate destination. The Eastern Agency announce themselves as working for the Ministry of Justice, expecting to find some Imperial Guards at the Inn, but they are not expecting the presence of other independent warriors including master swordsman Xiao (Chun Shih) and the innkeeper Wu (Chien Tsao) who turns out to be one of Yu’s warriors. At the inn a series of encounters between the Eastern Agency troops and the four warriors loyal to Yu’s memory escalates and Ciao himself arrives to try to finish the job. The ending may be predictable in that ‘good’ triumphs over evil, but each contest is different and the narrative is gripping throughout.
There are several reasons why Dragon Gate Inn became a massive hit in Taiwan and later Hong Kong (where Shaw Brothers delayed the film’s release to help one of their own films. Whatever you might think of action films and ‘martial arts’ films in particular, watching this film for ten or twenty minutes will convince you that Hu was a master filmmaker. Hu was originally an actor and an art designer before becoming a writer-director. In wuxia the characters are individuated through action and the visual qualities of their performances, including facial gestures and body postures as well as their martial arts skills and athleticism. Hu handles his actors well and he makes excellent use of his resources. There is just one studio set in the film as far as I can see – the inn itself which offers many opportunities for imaginatively-staged action set pieces – overturned tables, staircases, roofs, balconies, balustrades, windows/doors etc. This is then contrasted with the vast open spaces of deserts, mountains and river-beds. The Taiwanese interior offered so much more than the limited spaces of Hong Kong and Hu presents them on screen using CinemaScope ratio (2.35:1) and often extreme long shot framing by Hua Hui-Ying. But what makes him a special director is the ease with which he shifts from extreme long shot to close-up and a whole range of framings. His staging in depth is equally impressive.
Hu’s knowledge of Peking Opera informs the staging of his swordfight sequences and these are presented without the later wire work. Much is achieved by the editing which suggests movement rather than presenting it directly. The final ingredient is the music score by Chow Lan-Ping which is evocative of Japanese as well as Chinese cinema. Put all these ingredients and Hu’s skills together and stand back. You can recognise now that Hu’s masterpieces comes at a particular time in the late 1960s and early 1970s when American, Japanese and European cinema are converging around the Japanese chanbara and Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns (these latter two directors equally drawing on Kurosawa’s work). We might look even further back to John Ford Westerns (which influenced Kurosawa). The isolated inn in the desert is in many ways similar to the Edwards homestead in The Searchers or the inn in Stagecoach, both set in the landscapes of Monument Valley.
Dragon Gate Inn was more than a major hit film, it raised expectations of what a wuxia film could be and without it the later global blockbusters by Ang Lee with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Zhang Yimou with Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) would not have had quite the impact they eventually achieved. But before that, Hu’s success encouraged the filmmakers of the Hong Kong New Waves with Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time (1994) and Ann Hui’s Romance of Book and Sword and Princess Fragrance (both 1987). I haven’t seen these last three titles but my own introduction to appreciation of wuxia came through films produced by Tsui Hark in Hong Kong and starring action heroes such as Brigitte Lin and Michelle Yeoh. In particular, I enjoyed the remake of Dragon Gate Inn (New Dragon Gate Inn, 1992) with Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Ka-fai and Maggie Cheung (as the inn-keeper) and Donnie Yen as the evil eunuch. The remake uses standard modern widescreen (1.85:1) and the exteriors are limited by comparison, but the performances and dialogue as well as action choreography make for an entertaining film.
In Taiwan, King Hu is still an important figure in Taiwanese film history and his status was confirmed by Goodbye Dragon Inn (Taiwan 2003) in which the auteurist direct Tsai Ming-liang constructs a narrative around the final screening at a major classic single screen cinema. Only a few fans are present and various encounters take place between them during a screening of Dragon Inn. I do struggle with Tsai’s films but I saw this one in Bradford with a small audience in Pictureville cinema if my memory serves. I wish I’d seen the whole of Dragon Inn at that point. I would have perhaps made even more sense of Tsai’s tribute.
I recommend the Blu-ray by Masters of Cinema (which also includes a DVD version of the film). The extras include a David Cairns visual essay and a newsreel of the films opening in Taipei plus a booklet with pieces by Tsui Hark, Tony Rayns and Edmond Wong. The Criterion release has similar material by different scholars/industry personnel/actors.
(My apologies about names for actors and crew in this posting. The various sources I’ve consulted don’t use either the Wade-Giles romanisation of Mandarin names (as in Taiwan at the time) or the Hanyu Pinyin which replaced it in the PRC in the 1950s consistently and I may have unintentionally mixed them up.
Trailer for the Criterion Blu-ray release: