It is the mid-Fifteenth Century, and in China the Ming Dynasty are holding sway over the land, but the eunuchs in service of the Emperor have instigated a reign of terror which sees the Minister of Defence executed on the orders of Eunuch Shao (Bai Ying) who takes great pleasure in watching the man’s head leave his shoulders. However, there is still a threat to the power he and his associates wield, as the Yu family the Minster belonged to can fight back if Shao is not careful, therefore he has the children exiled out of the country. But there is an ulterior motive for this, as the plan is to execute the two offspring when they are out on the road, far away from anyone who could report the crime. That is until the time to do the deed arrives, and an unexpected development…
Dragon Inn, also known as Dragon Gate Inn or originally Long men kezhan in its native Taiwan, went down in history as a classic almost from the moment it was released to great acclaim and perhaps more importantly, great takings at the box office in the Far East. It was director King Hu’s next film to follow his breakout hit Come Drink with Me, and as that was a success he was offered a bigger budget to play with, with a more lavish look as a result. More than many of its contemporaries, this was the Eastern equivalent of a Western, as it owed something to Howard Hawks’ cult favourite and indeed financial success Rio Bravo once its characters are stuck out in the middle of nowhere in the inn of the title.
The bad guys arrive there and order the innkeeper and his staff not to allow anyone else to stay in any of the rooms for the next few days, not sharing with them their reasons, though we know it is to destroy what remains of the Yu family, those two siblings having escaped the blade thanks to the intervention of some kindly souls. So far, this has been very involved as you feel you must keep up with the connections and motives of every character, which can make it appear like hard work in those early stages, but once a certain fellow arrives you recognise we were in the basic goodies versus baddies territory of many a genre movie, from Westerns to gangster thrillers to Asian swordplay movies, which this essentially was once it had sorted its plot out.
That significant chap was Xiao Shazi, played by Shi Chun, not maybe the highest profile of the Chinese movie stars in the West, but one with a cult following at the very least in the East. Here his rather cadaverous, Ivan Lendl-esque visage belied the fact that you might expect him to play the villain, for we already had plenty of those, no, Xiao was a good guy through and through who decides to step in when he sees a massive injustice being carried out. Or attempted to, as there’s a snag for the evildoers when they try to poison wandering swordsman Xiao when he sups his repast at the inn; he outfoxes them and has soon demonstrated in spite of his morbidly cheerful countenance he is not a man to be messed with, and has the skills to send them all packing with their tails between their legs.
Presently we were in the premise familiar from many a genre flick, from Rio Bravo to Night of the Living Dead to Assault on Precinct 13, all equally as culty as Dragon Inn, which like the Hawks movie had the advantage of respectability thanks to being widely lauded. What we were here for was a selection of action sequences as the swords flash and clang, Xiao bringing together the defenders of the Yu family to clash with their would-be assassins, and you would not be disappointed in that regard, though the choreography was superseded in its athleticism by the films that were inspired by King Hu’s groundbreaking efforts here, which may leave modern viewers feeling the pace was a little off in light of what came after. Nevertheless, it all built up to a bloody battle as Xiao and his team (notably Shangguan Lingfeng as a woman warrior on as impressive form as Shi Jun) take on the big boss man Eunuch Shao, Bai Ying delineated as a threat by dint of his bleached blonde locks, not that this stops Xiao taking the mickey out of him and his lack of manhood. Overall, for a film that set so many conventions in the style, Dragon Inn held up very well once you had who was doing what to whom worked out. Music by Chow Lang-Ping (including electronic effects!).
[Eureka's Masters of Cinema Blu-ray has a detailed booklet and featurettes (including footage of the premiere) as extras, and boasts the fully restored transfer which leaves the film looking as good as it ever did.]