Director/Screenwriter: King Hu
By Roderick Heath
King Hu was born Hu Jinquan in Beijing in 1932. Scion of a prominent and prosperous family, Hu nonetheless was borne along with a generation displaced by war and political upheaval, and washed up in Hong Kong when still a teenager in 1949. After working for a decade in a variety of odd jobs, Hu started working at Shaw Brothers Studio, where he worked in front of and behind the camera, eventually becoming an assistant to the respected Taiwanese director Li Han-Hsiang, a role that primed him to become a director himself. Hu made his debut with the 1965 war drama Sons of the Good Earth, but it was his second film, Come Drink With Me (1966), that proved a legendary moment of crystallisation for both his career and the movies in general. Hu melded together the traditions of Chinese historical genre writing, dubbed wuxia, with ideas borrowed from Japanese samurai movies and Hollywood westerns as well as his own feel for character and philosophical ideas, and reinvented it for a movie style that became the mainstay of Chinese-language cinema. One of Hu’s most distinctive and consistent motifs was his fondness for placing interesting action heroines at the centre of his films, giving the genre a new energy and accessibility for a broad audience. Come Drink With Me made a star of Pei-pei Cheng who, decades later, would appear in Ang Lee’s hugely successful tribute to Hu, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).
Although he had laid down a blueprint Shaw Brothers and other Hong Kong studios would follow and revise for years to come, the newly emboldened Hu decided to take up an offer to work in Taiwan for his next film, Dragon Inn. By shifting his filmmaking base, Hu left behind the stylised, set-bound approach of the Shaw Brothers production mode, which was exemplified the same year by Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman, and embraced a more realistic and expansive sense of landscape, and swapped the lush colour and cheery, musical-inflected naivety of Come Drink With Me for a tighter, sterner approach, albeit still with time for dashes of comedy and character interaction. Dragon Inn proved an instant, colossal hit across the South Asian film market, and became such a touchstone for later wuxia filmmakers that Tsui Hark remade it twice, in 1992 and 2011, whilst filmmakers not known for genre work like Lee, Zhang Yimou, and Tsai Ming-liang all made their tributes: the latter built his 2003 film Goodbye, Dragon Inn around a closing movie theatre screening Hu’s work, a nostalgic tip of the hat to a fading but legendary era of simple dreams and enterprise. As Hu struggled to escape the strictures of genre cinema, he would go on to make his ambitious and heralded epics A Touch of Zen (1971) and Raining on the Mountain (1979), works now regarded as the height of his aesthetic, but which failed commercially in comparison to his early hits. Tsui Hark’s attempts to shepherd him back into the hit-making fold in the early 1990s failed, and Hu died in 1997 just before his work began to be revived by his fans.
Dragon Inn is today regarded as something very like the Stagecoach (1939) of martial arts movies, the moment a genre known for innocent thrills and fun evolved into something more rigorous and mature. Both movies sport far-flung settings, action revolving around a social microcosm, and an outmatched, assailed cast of heroic characters, as well as a directorial eye keenly engaged by the interaction of human fluidity and the landscape’s unyielding stature. The plot, similarly, pits restless motion against immobility, rigidities of social power structures and political oppression tested by personal bravura and fortitude, the space and freedom of the land offering a way out. Hu’s prologue situates his tale in the 1400s when the Imperial Chinese government was strongly influenced by courtier eunuchs, divvying up power through various autocratic departments like the dreaded secret police service called the Eastern Agency. A high-ranking soldier, General Yu, is framed for crimes and executed by his political enemies, chief amongst them the head of the Eastern Agency, the malignant eunuch Zhao Shao Qin (Pai Ying). Yu’s family are sent in exile to a remote border area known as Dragon Gate.
Believing that Yu’s relatives and loyalists will stage an insurrection, Zhao decides to exterminate all of Yu’s family sends out his agents, known as the Fan Zin, commanded by Pi Shao-Ting (Miao Tian). The family are being escorted by a unit of Imperial soldiers, but are hunted all the way by Fan Zi sent out by Zhao. A swordsman, Chi Chu (Hsieh Han), intervenes as the Imperial soldiers try to fight off the killers, and gives them and their charges time to get away. Meanwhile Pi and his second-in-command Mao Zong-Zian (Han Ying-Chieh) arrive at an inn at Dragon Gate, a waystation the Yus will inevitably visit, with another cohort of Fan Zi. Pi rents out the whole inn and forbids accepting any more guests, and has his men pose as travellers in readiness. In order to not give away their presence, however, the Fan Zi are obliged to let the innkeepers keep serving food and drink to passing trade. Pi has a nearby outpost of army soldiers wiped out, as well as the hapless porters who helped bring the Fan Zi gear to the inn. But the Fan Zi don’t know that the Inn is own by Wu Ming (Cho Kin), one of General Yu’s noted subordinates, who, aware of what’s heading his way, has begun taking steps to save the Yus from their fate.
Into their midst comes first the polite but cagey Xiao Shao Zi (Shih Chun), a white-clad traveller who, provoked by the disguised Fan Zi, reveals startling gifts as a martial artist. Deciding to dispose of this potential problem, one assassin poisons Xiao’s wine, but the inn’s waiter (Ko Xiao-Pao) warns the warrior, who chases away his tormentors, leaving one with a bloody x scratched into his cheek. Pi decides not to antagonise Xiao anymore and instead brings him partially into his confidence. Xiao seems satisfied and takes a room at the inn. Next to arrive is Chi Chu and his sister Huei Chu (Polly Shangguan Lingfeng). The siblings contend with an ambush by two gangly men on the road to the inn, Tuo La and his brother (Wan Chung-Shan and Wen Tian). Xiao warns them with a note about the poisoned wine when they arrive at the inn, but they remain distrustful of Xiao, especially as Pi experimentally sets them at odds by having one of his men make it look like Xiao is trying to kill the siblings and vice versa. But Xiao proves to be a mercenary fighter hired by Wu Ming. Wu also meets with the Chu siblings who knew him as children, although they don’t recognise him at first, and the two camps join forces. Eventually, their number is augmented by the Tou brothers, who prove to be Tatars who came south to China to find action but were impressed into Fan Zi service and forcibly castrated for their pains, and very understandably want some payback.
Dragon Inn is a film in two defined sections: after introductory scenes that swiftly and essentially set up the plot and moral imperatives, the drama shifts to the Inn itself, a ready-made amphitheatre for Hu’s characters to interact in a succession of charged exchanges with incipient violence in the offing, blended with a skittish comedy of manners. Hu was essentially revising the first part of Come Drink With Me here, refining his use of a far-flung socialising situation, the remote Inn, as a stage to suggest titanic forces slowly building in a gyre under the surface of petty human interaction. The second half heads outdoors for eruptive battles and flight to freedom. Hu’s innate mastery of this kind of narrative is immediately announced as he sets up the entire storyline in a pre-credit sequence, a voiceover explaining the basic plot, identifying the villains, their methods and aims, whilst the visuals depict the execution of General Yu on screen. The clean geometries within Hu’s framings see the precisely ordered columns of regime heavies and the ritualistic act of political homicide unfolding as a succession of cleanly geometric priorities, precursor to a film where the heroes shattered the illusion of order.
The Fan Zi assassins try to provoke and kill the threatening interlopers who come to the Inn, stoking instead various displays of pithy attitude and extraordinary ability, displays that seem to suddenly light up a dingy and depressing corner of the world with the hope of something extraordinary in the offing. Another director might have filmed this segment from the viewpoint of one of the heroes as a mystery, arriving in an ambiguous situation where nothing seems quite right. Hu instead depicts his villains’ arrival and arts of stage management, and instead the thrill of these scenes comes from the disquiet of the Fan Zi as they’re confronted with such evidence of prowess as when Xiao hurls a bowlful of noodles from table to table without spilling it, and dispenses a pocketful of coins into a box, landing in perfectly arranged forms. Hu’s theme becomes, then, not the hidden nature of menace but the unexpected and often clandestine nature of goodness in a time of general corruption. This proves a quandary that vexes the heroes as much as their foes, as Xiao and the Chus, although working towards the same end, trip over each-other’s toes and are almost tricked into clashing.
The film’s first half sees these different camps try to fulfil their digressive missions without entirely giving their games away or violating the rules of the charade. This starts to become nearly as hyperbolic and self-willed as the mirror scene from Duck Soup (1933), particularly as the heroes are obliged to find ways to avoid drinking poison and the waiter is expected to serve it up with a smile. Xiao takes the play-act to a logical conclusion by pretending to drink the poison and scream in pain, only to then spit out the wine in an assassin’s face. Thanks to Xiao’s warning, Huei demands a drink from one of the assassins’ cups under the cover of having spilt her own, starting an argument. The assassin, infuriated, proffers his cup balanced upon the blade of his sword, but Huei keeps his weapon firmly pinched between two shuddering fingers, wicked steel held at bay by raw will and discipline of flesh, before cooly taking up the cup and swigging it down, and continuing to act is if a day’s pleasant luncheon has become unnecessarily offensive. There’s an aspect of character joke to this moment as well as a display of Huei’s startling skill, as she also serves as the canny and careful counterweight to her brother’s bluster and lack of smarts and often has to move quickly to repair his blunders, always keeping raw force at bay with elegantly contrived but concerted arts.
Hu’s story isn’t merely one of determined heroes coming together to fight a common foe, but a drama of reunions and recognition and bonds of family, with the two teams of related heroes setting out to save their victimised fellows, themselves condemned for their ties of blood and loyalty. The Chus recognise Wu under the disguise of time and age and hazy memory as the man they once called Uncle who served in their father’s old unit. Only Xiao remains something of an outsider, a man without apparent identity, but is included as the heroes slowly composite into a small tribe, the only way for them to become strong enough to take on the ultimate villain, Shao, at the climax. This last aspect was an idea soon to become pretty familiar in martial arts movies and even echoes through to contemporary, infinitely more expensive fare like Avengers: Infinity War (2018), but was at the time a risky deflation of familiar heroic modes. Zhao is talked about in anxious murmurs by all, feared not just for running an all-powerful repressive state but for his personal talents as a martial artist, skills he has honed to their height, liberated from all familiar weakness in his forced asexuality, but also impeded by one, specific vulnerability: asthma.
Part of the mystique Hu invested in wuxia cinema through his example lay in the evocation of perpetual exile and nomadic instability, articulated through his characters’ restless and rootless lives and search for the right stage to prove themselves upon. A equivalent to the figure of the knight errant was as common in wuxia as in western courtly romances and their descendants in westerns and superhero tales, but Hu used the concept to for his own ends, as an authentic way to channel the political, geographical, and cultural schisms that opened up for the Chinese community in the late 1940s into the iconography of the genre, pitting talented but freewheeling, displaced protagonists at odds with monolithic power blocs. Where in westerns the heroes usually contribute to the slow knitting together of community and order through their adventures, wuxia heroes very often battle against the abuses of government and law, and find themselves caught between communities. Dragon Inn explicitly invokes exile and separation, individuality versus mass conformity and terrible power, with a setting where the landscape has been colonised by representatives of implacable state terror and entire families must be exterminated to suit the ends of unaccountable potentates. The outsider heroes of Come Drink With Me, the intense and serious heroine Golden Swallow and the happy-go-lucky Smiling Tiger, loaned two different faces to this theme of footloose solitude.
Dragon Inn, whilst hardly humourless, nonetheless signals a new paradigm for both onscreen women and genre cinema at large as Huei calmly allows her back to be stitched up: she is Hu’s perfect hero figure, cool and stoic but driven by a powerful need to reforge moral order and protect people she owes allegiance to. Hu sets up a tension of motivation for his heroes, the Chus driven by family and political loyalty to help the Yus, whilst Xiao is a fighter for pay, which Pi tries to exploit be offering him a better deal. But Xiao’s own ethic – once he commits to a side he sticks to it – proves unshakeable. It’s an interestingly similar note to one Howard Hawks had sounded a year before in El Dorado (1966) in considering the fine line between villain and hero in a situation where both sides have a hired gun. In a touch perhaps slightly influenced by the Japanese cinema hero Zatoichi, whose favoured weapon was hidden in his walking cane, Xiao carries his sword concealed in an umbrella, and does not unsheathe the weapon until he intends lethal violence: he fends off most of the Fan Zi with blade still disguised. Chun amusingly plays his lone wolf hero not as a gruff Eastwood or Mifune type but as a man who acts always with calculated politeness, smiling amicably with just a hint of forced tension around his mouth, eyes locked still in his face as he does so. He contrasts the fiery Huei and reactive, slightly dim but stalwart Chi, as well as the initially timorous Tuo, who nonetheless give an impressive demonstration of their own skills as swordsmen.
We’re in archetype land here, of course, even as some of the archetypes are being invented, and Hu’s singular realisation here is the notion that in an action movie, action is character. Apart from hints in lingering gazes from Huei and Xiao of interest, there’s no sideways distraction by romance, and whilst character relationships are stated, they’re not vitally important. Hu’s paring down the dramatic landscape in this fashion still feels radical to a certain degree even as it’s become a virtual norm in genre film. Hu’s emphasis on his heroes as implacable exponents of their own gifts has a certain similarity to American films of the same period like The Professionals (1967) and Bullitt (1968), as well as the James Bond films, where the heroes are celebrated for their ability to function a little like sharks in deadly and often dirty situations, and professionalism was its own virtue. That’s not to say these heroes are detached from what they’re trying to accomplish, but that they’re dignified by their skill and agency. After the comically flavoured early scenes, the climactic battles are totally free of swashbuckling jauntiness or slapstick humour: the business of fighting evil is a tough, mean business where the outcome is decided by a quicksilver blend of mental and physical agility.
It’s also bound together with Hu’s politically-tinged core theme as he explores a democratic ideal where his heroes, for all their talents, need each-other, and they and the villains are utterly human and vulnerable. As implacable as state power as embodied by Zhao seems to be, it’s still accountable on a human scale and beset by human failings. The protagonists, whilst great fighters alone, still must band together and work in coordination to bring down the monolith. The woman is just as good a fighter as the men because she’s disciplined herself with the same dedication. When the Yus and their escort finally do arrive at the Inn, the Fan Zi assault them, but our heroes intervene in a tag-team campaign to distract, divide, and foil the killers, starting with Chi, and then Huei, who fights Mao and manages to beat away a flock of assassins. Xiao sends her to join her brother in defending the Yus and when Pi and Mao return with their full force, Xiao goes out and takes them on. The heroes chase Pi, who manages to badly gash Huei in the back by throwing his sword at her. The heroes hole up for the night in the Inn, where Wu insists on treating both friendly and enemy wounded. The commander of the local Imperial troops who guard the border arrives at the Inn and learns what’s been happening and that the Fan Zi have murdered some of his men. He confronts the newly-arrived Zhao, only for the eunuch to skewer him with a sword: Zhao has become a law unto himself.
Hu might well have been picking up ideas from Sergio Leone, whose The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was released a year earlier. Hu’s exterior compositions betray a similar sense of design, and his long, comedic yet charged sequences depicting characters testing and revealing each-other’s abilities and probing their motivations also have a Leone-esque flavour. But Hu’s action staging is all his own, and when the film’s action-packed second half arrives, his technique is unleashed. The start of the second half realises Hu’s theme of meeting and unity in coincidence with a new dawn, his heroes setting out with a new sense of understanding and purpose, dispersing from the inn in a crescendo of imagery and swelling music that signals changing gears. Meanwhile the villains arise from their beds on the stony plain, silhouetted against the rising sun. This moment sets the scene rhythmically and visually for what follows, a long battle around the inn, beginning as Huei marches alone across the rocky plain and quickly churns the Fan Zi into confusion, battling Mao in a series of deftly athletic movements.
The early action sequence where Chi intervenes to save the Yus on the road is a potent example of the way Hu situates his actors in relationship to the landscape, in diagonals ranging from large figures to small, humans planted upon the flat stretches of the plains with mountains soaring high above. The final shot of the sequence sees the gang of assassins Chi has just sliced through falling dead like skittles as the Yus and their escort flee across the plain. Hu succeeds in a fine balancing act, framing his shots with the care and precision of classical artists, the essence of rigidity and inflexibility, but then agitating them, turning the film into a quietly dazzling dialogue of motion and stillness. The fight scenes around the Inn see Hu unleashing a a formidable string of delicate yet muscular tracking shots, constantly situating his heroes at the centre of spiralling teams of bad guys, swords brandished, trying to cage their foes but failing, Hu’s camera gliding in and out of the rolling scrums and duels. There’s a rhythm to Hu’s presentation of his heroes and villains within shots: Huei’s initial advance on the Inn sees her as a stark and solitary splash of colour in an otherwise harsh landscape, a lonely hero.
As the number of enemies increases, they surround the heroes, but by the end, in a moment that anticipates The Wild Bunch (1969), Xiao, Chi, and the Tuos advance abreast together as a unified force for the great showdown, and it’s now they who surround the enormously talented but isolated Zhao. The tyranny of space down on the flatlands, experience here and later around the Inn with the stony plain surrounding it, is correlated with the dismal regime the heroes give battle to, and balanced by the sight of soaring mountains in the distance, beckoning with elusive promise. That promise is eventually fulfilled in the climax as the heroes flee for the border and make their great stand against the villains in altitudes where Hu’s visuals are at once rigorous in their shot-for-shot depiction of physical conflict but also, with cloud rolling down mountain flanks, evoking classical scroll paintings where transcendental longings are evoked, tethering Hu’s narrative together on political, character, and spiritual planes at apotheosis.
The beauty of the backdrop nonetheless still fades before the immediate context of the fight on dusty mountain trails, where the rarefied air and dust kicked up by the fights immediately start to impede Zhao. But he’s still strong enough to fend off all his massed opponents, leaving them bloodied and battered, trying to give them the slip and chase down the Yus, with only Huei managing to hold him long enough for her comrades to regather. Defeating Zhao, however, demands a completely selfless dedication, and it’s the Tuos who both die in the act of first skewering the villain with a blade and then lopping his head off. Whereupon Hu simply and tersely brings up The End on screen, spurning all further unnecessary business: the bad guy is dead, the heroes have won. Dragon Inn swiftly became a victim of its own great influence, as Hu’s straightforward, witty dance of skilled characters was endlessly imitated and remixed. But it still wields a stark, architectural authority, like many progenitors, that keeps it both vital and perfectly entertaining.