Written and directed by King Hu
One of the distinct pleasures of a feast of film is the screening of vintage classics, restored and resurrected for a new generation of film lovers. This year the London Film Festival is screening glossy new prints of George Cukor’s airy comedy Born Yesterday, John Schlesinger’s 1967 Hardy adaptation Far from the Madding Crowd, and unveiling another collaboration with the Scorsese Foundation to bring Michael Powell’s The Tales of Hoffman to a new generation of cinephiles. Following a more international bend, the Thrill strand of the programme is also hosting a lavish 4K restoration of Dragon Inn, a Chinese world cinema classic which has been re-issued through the Chinese Taipei Film Archive at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna, culling a new digital dervish which has been colour-supervised by original director of photography Hui-ying Hua.
As the godfather of Chinese action cinema, King Hu’s has influenced such leading directors as varied as Tsi Hark, Wong Kar-wai, Ang Lee, Ching Siu-tung, and Jia Zhangke, establishing the infrastructural elegance of the wuxia (chivalrous swordplay) genre. While in the West the equivalent action films of the period were Leone’s Dollars westerns, Hu and his comrades were reaching for higher plateaus, implementing wire work and gravity-defying pyrotechnics which share the spaghetti westerns’ operatic dances of death.
Set during the Ming Dynasty, Dragon Inn is an intertwined tale of courtly intrigue, secretive assassins, and Machiavellian maneuvering, as the Emperor’s loyal Minister of Defence, Yu, is unjustly accused and executed by the nefarious master swordsman Cao Shaoqin. Seeking to sever all ties, Cao dispatches two of his loyal assassins to intercept two of Yu’s offspring whom are expected to stay at the titular Dragon Inn as they flee to exile. The inn serves as a microcosm of Chinese society of the period, enabling people from all walks of life – eunuchs, officers, swordsman, hawkers, hermits, and spies – to rub shoulders regardless of social standing or financial clout. Wandering warrior Xiao Shazoi and spectacular swords-woman Chu Hui also arrive at the inn and immediately recognise the incognito killers as plotting no good, joining forces to protect Yu’s honor and restore balance to the empire.
Shooting in lavish Cinemascope, King Hu’s influential epic is a sensational sortie, with devotion to period-accurate costumes and authentic production design, erecting a vigorous, kinetic backdrop to the dazzling acrobatic melees. It’s as fascinating for its mise-en-scene as it is for prefiguring a number of subsequent wuxia landmarks – Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon both coiling from its serpentine set-pieces. The film is also groundbreaking for one exhilarating factor: a female action protagonist, which was unheard of in Western cinema of the era. Lacerating the screen like a steel-wielding dervish, Chu Hui is the film’s genetic triumph, predating Western kick-ass X chromosomes by at least a couple of decades. Since the breakthrough box-office hits of the 2000’s (House of Flying Daggers, Hero, Red Cliff), Chinese historical action cinema continues its lavish scale of production and popularity. Dragon Inn offers a fine chance to see where the seeds of that movement begin, in a beguiling new pixelated print.
– John McEntee