Starring: Shih Jun, Pai Ying, Lingfeng Shangguan
Director: King Hu
A highpoint of the wuxia martial arts genre, Dragon Inn is basically a western in eastern garb, but what garb it is. In Imperial China, a high-ranking minister’s death is plotted by the head of the secret service, Cao (Pai Ying), an asthmatic albino eunuch in a hairnet (how’s that for a villain?). But not content to leave it there, he dispatches his goons to murder the dead man’s fleeing children. Intending to ambush them, the baddies lay in wait at the remote inn of the title, only to find their plans foiled by a mysterious stranger (Shih Jun) who stops by for the lamb noodle soup. A cool customer who can catch a flying dagger in a pair of chopsticks, he’s soon joined on the side of righteousness by a couple of other colourful characters, including a sword-wielding female who’s about as gorgeously feisty as a girl can be while wearing a bee-keeper’s hat.
If Dragon Inn is obviously indebted to westerns for its iconography of glaring desert, lonely homesteads and gurning bandits, it’s also influenced in a less obvious way by mysteries such as The Maltese Falcon and Key Largo. Before hostilities properly break out, there is some entertaining intrigue as the opposing parties cohabit uneasily under the same roof and break bread together, culminating in a flurry enjoyable night-time shenanigans. But the film’s true raison d’etre is its action set-pieces, many of which involve one side or the other laying siege the inn and then trying to hold it once taken. There are widescreen face-offs in the grand tradition, with some outstanding location cinematography of rocky plains and lush mountains; pleasing little touches, like the look of weary disgust on a goon’s face when he gets slyly stabbed through a door; and a memorably quirky boss fight to wrap things up.
True, some of its gambits and action choreography have grown a little creaky over the years, but the same passage of time has endowed Dragon Inn with a mellow vintage charm which makes it enormously likeable and engaging. And it has a real ace up its sleeve in the shape of Lingfeng Shangguan, one of the best action heroines the ’60s had to offer. Don’t expect the depths of a Kurosawa action movie – Dragon Inn was never intended to deliver them. It’s simply good swashbuckling fun. With a hairnet. 8/10
The nature of the film stock means that the interiors don’t hold a whole lot of detail for the 4K transfer to bring out, but the exteriors are a different matter. All pale skies and yellow earth, the widescreen colour compositions have strong, burnished hues with a pleasing vintage tint. The colourful Imperial pageantry comes up well, as do minute details of the terrain. The shot of dawn breaking over the inn has particular depth and realism, and there’s also a vivid intensity to the scene where the hero has a tete-a-tete outdoors with one of the head goons, while the mountain backdrop to the final showdown is stunning. 8/10
Sharp, humorous 15-min video essay by David Cairns, in which he comments on the film’s mixture of action and suspense, its camera techniques and its use of hidden trampolines for high-leaping swordplay. ~ Blurry 2-min reel of the film’s original opening in Taiwan. 6/10