Review by Gordon Justesen
Chun, Shangkuan Ling-fung, Bai Ying, Miao Tien, Han Ying-chieh, Hsieh Han, Tsao
Director: King Hu
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 111 Minutes
Release Date: July 10, 2018
“You’re fond of meddling in others’ affairs.”
“Only when justice is at stake.”
Having just directed a movie for the Shaw brothers in the form of Come Drink With Me, King Hu set out to make a much more epic type of martial arts movie with his next release, 1967‘s Dragon Inn. In addition to doing away with studio sets and filming it entirely on Taiwanese terrain, Hu would also apply revolutionary fight choreography (in addition to editing) that had never been seen in any film prior. It was those unique touches that helped make it the international success it was.
The story template is simple and basic. Following his execution of the emperor’s minister of defense, Wu Chien, power hungry eunuch Tsao Shao-Chin (Bai Ying) compiles a strike team of assassins to hunt down the remaining members of the minister’s family. The emperor had ordered the family to live in exile, but Shao-Chin knows that revenge for his actions is inevitable and is simple seeking to prevent it.
It doesn’t go as planned, as they are intercepted by a band of warriors (consisting of Hsiao Shao-tzu (Shih Chun), Mr. Chu (Hsieh Han) and Ms. Chu (Polly Shang-kuan) who are loyal to the slain Wu Chien and intent on defending the innocent. So in turn, Shao-Chin hires two highly skilled swordsmen, Moa Tsung-hsien (Han Ying-chieh) and Pi Hsiao-tang (Miao Tien), to ensure the slaughter is finalized. It all leads up to a confrontation at the titular Dragon Inn.
And so we are treated to quite a number of lengthy fight sequences which were groundbreaking for its time. Again, it was director Hu’s unique application of choreography and editing that breathed life into the traditional martial arts fight scene in addition to enveloping the audience even further into the action. Basically, this film laid out the groundwork for the astonishing fights we would see in later works such as The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Among such techniques is watching characters leap from one area to another. Such a maneuver would eventually be perfected in Crouching Tiger by way of seamless wirework, but this was 1967...which meant the only way to achieve this trick was through simple editing. And though one would think that this would look cheap compared to today’s standards, it still is kind of remarkable to witness, especially when you place yourself in the mindset of an audience who had yet to see such tricks unfold on screen.
Dragon Inn is quite simply a grand example of epic martial arts filmmaking, in addition to one that would serve as an inspiration for so many films down the line. It illustrated that films like this could exist on a much grander scale, and deliver action sequences with a much more potent effect. King Hu was indeed a master who breathed a great deal of life into the genre with this release.
This film had apparently been difficult to find in a good quality release for the longest time. Thankfully, Criterion has rectified this issue with a most magnificent look Blu-ray edition. Complete with a grand 4K restoration, the picture is wonderfully detailed with a grand display of colors and rich textures. The Taiwanese mountain landscapes are indeed very breathtaking in how they’re captured. The English subtitles are also very well displayed on screen. A most splendid presentation all around!
The PCM mono mix serves this presentation quite well. The spoken words are balanced extremely well with the music score playback, as well as that of clanging of samurai swords and such. Criterion, as usual, provides a great deal of depth with a limited sound mix.
Included are several intriguing new interview segments, the first two of which features actors Shangkuan Ling-fung and Shih Chuh. Both engagingly reflect on working with King Hu, as well as what it was like to take part in the fight sequences and the film’s enduring legacy. The third interview features author Grady Hendrix, co-founder of the New York Asian Film Festival, who delves into Hu’s directing style and how he changed the course of martial arts movies. We also get some newsreel footage from the film’s premiere in Taiwan, a Trailer and an insert featuring an essay by film critic Andrew Chan.
Dragon Inn is an important moment for the martial arts film. If you’re a fan of modern fight choreography, then you absolutely owe it to yourself to go back and check this one out. Criterion’s Blu-ray presentation is one of a kind!