Not Rated Dir: King Hu | Criterion | 1h 51min
Plot: What’s it about?
In the midst of the Ming Dynasty, a lot of power is within reach to many men, but rebellion within smaller clans prevents the power from being taken, at least most of the time. Tsao Siu Yan (Donnie Yen) is a man who wants more power than he can handle, but unlike most of those seeking their own kingdoms, this leader has a plan that just might work. He assembles a band of underhanded rebels to form his East Chamber, which is the center of his plan for massive power attainment. But even with these warriors, his path to ruling China will not be unopposed, as another group of rebels is also on the scene, but these guys want to shut down Tsao before he even gets close. As time passes and the two factions clash time and again, it is certain that at some point, there will be a final showdown, but that time is soon, sooner than either side expects. The epic battle to the close takes place in the desert at the Dragon Inn, but which side will prevail when the dust clears and the fighters pick themselves off the ground?
I love a good martial arts flick and even with some flaws, Dragon Inn proves to be a terrific movie and a lot of fun to watch. This one was produced by Tsui Hark and stars such workers as Donnie Yen, Maggie Cheung, and Tony Leung, all of whom seem in fine form here. Of course, you’ll see some very cool fight sequences, but it also offers some stunning visuals, from location work to costumes to shot composition. This is due to a skilled crew and also to a good budget, which allows for elaborate set pieces that the crew can use to effective ends. The adequate budget is obvious here, as the production values look excellent and really allow for a wider scope, which is needed in a flick like this one. But the real focus will be on the action, which is in full force here, although sometimes too many fighters lessen the impressions. I like fights with a lot of people, but the massive brawls here sometimes seem confusing, as the cameras never seem to cover enough of the battles. But most of the fights are well done and pack a mean punch, so I think action fans will be pleased here. This disc is as good as region one is gonna see, but I do want to mention that region two has a Hong Kong Legends release that tops this one in all respects. Even so, this release is very recommended to fans of martial arts action flicks, so if you’re interested, be sure to give Dragon Inn a spin.
I liked all the performances, so I can’t narrow down my focus to one turn, which leaves me to discuss three of them here. First up is Tony Leung (Island of Fire, A Better Tomorrow III), who turns in a solid effort here and adds a lot to the film as a whole. Leung’s experience shows in Dragon Inn, as he seems to surface as the anchor or center of the cast, very impressive work. Even with a lot of other gifted workers around him, Leung more than gets himself noticed and does so without taking away from the other actors. Also in fine form is Maggie Cheung (In The Mood For Love, The Heroic Trio), who brings a powerful female presence to Dragon Inn and often commands the screen. I hold Cheung among the better female workers in Asian cinema, as she really works both dialogue and action driven scenes to superb ends. The third performance I wanted to mention comes from Donnie Yen (Highlander: Endgame, Iron Monkey), who continues to impress me with his work. The cast of Dragon Inn also includes Lawrence Ng (The Peace Hotel, Evil Black Magic), Yuen Cheung-Yan (Fist of Legend, Once Upon A Time In China), and Brigitte Lin (Chungking Express, Peking Opera Blues).
Video: How does it look?
Admittedly asian action films from the 1960’s aren’t exactly my bread and butter, but I did make a deal with myself that I’d try to expand my horizons. That and if Criterion has had their hand in it, I have to assume that it’s worth watching at least once. It goes without saying that I’d never seen this movie before, is what I’m driving at. That being said, the newly-remastered 4K image looks nothing short of perfect. There is a fine layer of grain evident, but I feel that’s by choice and not a fault of this new restoration. Colors are bold and pop and detail seems to have gotten a nice boost as well. Having seen what Criterion is capable of and watching this, I have to assume that this is perhaps the best the film has ever looked. A job well done.
Audio: How does it sound?
The included LPCM Mono track is about as good as a mono track can sound. None of the tracks have much range or punch, but I suppose given the format limits involve, it all turns out decent enough in the end. So don’t expect an over the top audio experience, but these tracks sound good enough, so I won’t knock the score much. Some of the action-oriented scenes sound a bit harsh, but it gave Quentin Tarantino something to go off of for some of his fight scenes in Kill Bill. So there you have it.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- The Phoenix Rises – A new interview with actor Shangkuan Ling-Fung recalls her work on the film with director King Hu. This is a nice inclusion and worth watching…once.
- Making History – Similar to the above feature is a ten minute interview with actor Shih Chun as the actor’s experiences on the film are detailed. The interview was recorded in 2016.
- Art in Action – New to this disc is a scene analysis by author and New York Asian Film Festival co-founder Grady Hendrix. She discusses director King Hu’s aesthetic sensibility via analysis of a scene from Dragon Inn.
- Premiere Newsreel – Some footage of the film’s 1967 premiere in Taipei, Taiwan which shows the cultural impact of the film upon its release.
- Theatrical Trailer
- Illustrated Booklet – Andrew Chan, a film critic, also contributes an essay in the included booklet.
The Bottom Line
There’s no denying the cultural impact of this film and fans of the genre (and there are legions of them out there) will rejoice. The movie has been given the “Criterion treatment” which is to say that it looks and sounds as good as humanly possible. This film might not have not been my particular cup of tea, but for those wishing and wanting this to become part of the collection – the wait is over.