Dragon Inn: Poised for Battle

<em>Dragon Inn:</em> Poised for Battle

A way station in the middle of an empty desert, the Dragon Gate Inn isn’t much to look at. Its thatched roof and mud-brick structure blend into the miles of rocky terrain surrounding it, and the chili peppers and corn husks hanging from its walls are the only meager gestures toward color. The interior is sparse but orderly, with a few wooden tables and a staircase leading up to rooms on the narrow second floor. Located at some unspecified remote point on the northern Chinese border, it’s a place where nothing much should ever happen. And yet, the first time it appears in King Hu’s 1967 Dragon Inn, a band of mysterious men are approaching its door, boding trouble. As with the taverns in westerns and the suburban houses in slasher movies, the inn’s very plainness provides the ideal backdrop for the impending struggle between good and evil, forces that its ramshackle walls and paper windows will be helpless to keep out.

If Hu’s most widely acclaimed film—the three-hour epic A Touch of Zen, which he made four years later—is a monument to the wild outer reaches of his imagination, Dragon Inn (the names of both the inn and the film were shortened for Western release) represents his artistry at its most disciplined and distilled. A massive commercial success throughout the Chinese diaspora, the movie was Hu’s first after leaving Hong Kong for Taiwan, where he hoped to enjoy more creative freedom at Union Film. Watching Dragon Inn, you get the sense that, in order to better exercise his control, he had to first pare away all distractions, keeping his setting and story as simple as possible. By the time he moved to Taiwan, Hu was coming into his own as an artist, having already enjoyed a nearly decade-long career as an actor, screenwriter, and set decorator at the famed Shaw Brothers studio. After assisting one of the key figures at the company, Li Han-hsiang, on a number of films—including The Love Eterne, the most sublime of the Huangmei opera blockbusters that captivated Chinese-speaking audiences in the early sixties—Hu had kicked off his solo directorial career in 1965 with the war epic Sons of the Good Earth, before making his critical and commercial breakthrough a year later with Come Drink with Me.

Along with his Shaw colleague Chang Cheh (the orchestrator of such bloodbaths as 1967’s The One-Armed Swordsman), Hu went on to change the face of the venerable wuxia genre, which centers on swordplay and ancient chivalric codes—moving it away from fantasy and old-world superstition and toward a focus on credible depictions of combat. But while Chang became known for the violent machismo of his films, Hu always managed to mix in a bit of the supernatural with his rough-and-tumble realism, as in the unforgettable sight in Come Drink with Me of the heroine catching coins with a chopstick. And despite Dragon Inn’s naturalism, Hu delights here in springing surprises on the eye. In one disarming shot early in the film, he shows us how a desolate patch of earth can be suddenly activated as if it were a stage: the camera glides across a hilly landscape as swordsmen unexpectedly emerge, one after another, into the frame, their bodies locking into place to the sound of brassy percussion.

More than any of his contemporaries, Hu had a gift for wringing moments of pure aesthetic pleasure from a basic premise. In Dragon Inn, he keeps the narrative lean, for the most part, allowing him to focus on nuances of mood and atmosphere—contrasts of interior and exterior, silence and sound, expansion and compression—that nudge the film toward abstraction. The inn is the point at which these dueling elements converge. And modest though it is, it also functions as an emblem of Chinese theatrical and literary tradition, evoking at once the splendors of Beijing opera and classic novels like The Water Margin, in which inns are depicted as chaotic public spaces where people from different social strata brush up against one another, as well as the ancient concept of the jianghu, a secrecy-shrouded underworld where outlaws, vagabonds, and martial artists do battle, often represented in wuxia stories as a far-off location out of the reach of mainstream society. 

Before settling in at the inn, the film dispenses with some narrative housekeeping. A voice-over in the prologue plunges us into a political backstory that’s almost too much to take in in a single viewing. Cao Shao-qin (Bai Ying), a sinister, white-haired eunuch we see being carted around on a palanquin, has ordered the execution of Yu Qian, a minister of defense accused of insurrection against the emperor’s secret service. A procession of officials files across a field of dirt toward a makeshift stage, and Yu kneels before them in stoic surrender. His killing is carried out anticlimactically, offscreen, suggesting how frequent and perhaps unremark­able such power plays were during this turbulent period of the Ming dynasty, when ruthless eunuchs seized control of multiple government agencies. Soon after the beheading, Cao dispatches troops to finish off the dead man’s three young children, who have been captured and are being taken in the direction of the Dragon Gate Inn. As assassins wait there for an ambush, a group of Yu loyalists trickles in to defend the innocents.

Within a few minutes, the contours of the conflict have been efficiently mapped, and Hu avoids the kind of drawn-out narrative knottiness found in such opaquely plotted modern wuxia landmarks as Tsui Hark’s The Blade, Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time, and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin. The characters’ motivations here are relatively uncomplicated and irrelevant. New faces are introduced throughout the film, their basis in stock theatrical types, accentuated by the music that accompanies their appearances, making their relative moral valences easy to discern. The brutality of the bad guys is depicted with a nonchalance that is almost comical—in one of the first scenes set at the inn, a servant is stabbed to death for daring to ask his employers for a tip. And as for the heroes, Hu underscores how little emotion motivates or destabilizes their mission by spending minimal screen time on the children they’ve set out to protect. The victims’ peril is less interesting to him than the steadfast professionalism of the xiake, sword-wielding knights-errant whose sense of honor is impervious to distraction. These fighters counteract the unpredictability of the human world with their own dependable natures, moving from battle to battle with a sense not so much of purpose as of inexorability, ceremoniously advancing toward a point of no return.

Bare-bones plots and hermetic settings have anchored no small number of action movies; it takes a true artist to transcend the monotony that can inhere in such a premise. Hu might have made his task easier by zeroing in on a charismatic star who could be relied on to sustain momentum and interest. But unlike Come Drink with Me, A Touch of Zen, and Raining in the Mountain (1979), three Hu films that get a lot of mileage out of the smoldering ferocity of their lone-wolf, protofeminist heroines, Dragon Inn is an ensemble piece that never coalesces completely around a leader’s fighting talent or irresistible persona. Because of this emphasis on the collective, the cast is one of the most varied in Hu’s oeuvre, and a key component of his ability to pull off abstract studies in motion with a light, almost ethereal touch. Like most action filmmakers, Hu gets little credit for his direction of actors, but he gathered some of the most electrifying genre performers in the Chinese world, and in each of his films he finds in his cast’s idiosyncratic expressions, their artful containment and deployment of energy, a beautiful counterpoint to his own stylistic flourishes—a mortal dimension to ground his metaphysical flights.

“In Hu’s films, the plasticity of the medium works in tandem with the puzzle-piece maneuverability of human figures.”

Dragon Inn’s earliest and most casually brilliant set piece is one of the few constructed for a single performer. Shih Chun, a regular Hu collaborator who would go on to star as the scholar-fool in A Touch of Zen, plays an enigmatic wandering swordsman named Xiao Shao-zi. In a movie built around dramatic entrances, he makes a particularly memorable one: crossing a stream with near-angelic poise, dressed in white, a green parasol on his shoulder. He sits down for lunch at the Dragon Gate Inn and proceeds to reveal his badassery in cunning little spurts of action. As will happen in subsequent fight sequences, featuring other newly arrived heroes, he finds himself surrounded by enemies but is obliged to see how long he can keep his identity under wraps, delaying all-out slaughter to the last possible second. This suspension of conflict results in one delightful sight gag after another. When one of the assassins demands that he hand over the noodle soup he has just ordered, Xiao flings the bowl across the room, where it lands on his enemy’s table without so much as a drop spilled. After someone slips poison into Xiao’s drink, he plays dead for several agonizingly long beats before spitting into his would-be killer’s face, and he later matter-of-factly orders another round of liquor midskirmish.

Clocking in at almost twenty minutes, this sequence unfolds within the confines of the inn, showcasing what the director can accomplish in such a stage-bound setting. Without sacrificing precision, Hu switches up his approach, alternating between stretches of languor and frantic motion, between long shots that map out zones of brewing tension and close-ups that relay the information being exchanged in the characters’ gazes. But it is Shih, with his spooky saucer eyes, who gives the section its steady pulse. His inner stillness is a blank slate onto which any mood can be projected, allowing a scene to pivot nimbly between levity and dread. Playing a character on whom nothing is lost, he’s the on-screen embodiment of what Hu sets out to create with the nuts and bolts of his film grammar: a heightened watchfulness operating underneath a tightly controlled surface.

Dragon Inn was the first time Hu perfected the interplay of widescreen compositions, fluid camera work, and rhythmic editing that would make him one of the most extraordinary formal innovators of his era—an auteur with an instantly recognizable signature, at a time when Chinese cinema had barely any to claim. Evincing the lasting influence of his earlier work as a set decorator at Shaw Brothers, a Hu scene can feel storyboarded to within an inch of its life, the product of an obsessive mind imposing order on chaos. He’s nothing if not a neat freak, and he makes a running joke out of the fact that his heroes are too: in the heat of battle, Xiao takes the time to tidy things up, cleaning blood off the tip of his parasol or ripping a loose piece of fabric from his clothing. Hu handled the conventions of wuxia as though they offered a kind of security, a framework so familiar and time-tested that it freed him to tackle more exciting challenges. In his films, the plasticity of the medium works in tandem with the puzzle-piece maneuverability of human figures, making for a subtle kind of rhyming effect.

“Hu had the curiosity of a scholar and the taste of a connoisseur, and he was known for the exhaustive research that went into his period re-creations.”

While the martial-arts movie is sometimes viewed as the Asian counterpart to the western, Dragon Inn is so packed with choreographed movement (courtesy of Hu’s great collaborator Han Ying-chieh, who also stars in the film) that a more appropriate comparison might be the musical, a genre in which the physicality of a performer can seem in the same instant to be both the narrative force driving a scene and just another element in a director’s grand visual design. With no preexisting interest or expertise in martial arts, Hu conceived his fight sequences as spectacles akin to the dancing and acrobatics he would have seen in the Beijing opera productions he frequented as a child. Dragon Inn establishes its kinship with the musical right out of the gate­—in that dazzling sequence with Shih Chun, which is performed primarily (remarkably) from behind a table—but the association becomes all the more inescapable as the film approaches its final act and begins to open back out into the world beyond the inn.

In the scene that marks that shift, the movie’s one female knight-errant (Shangkuan Ling-fung), disguised as a man, gets to crouch behind walls and somersault over obstacles. Flanked by assassins, she annihilates them one by one, in a tracking shot that situates her against a vast expanse of sky. The soundtrack is a marvel of musique concrète, all scurrying feet, clanging metal, and heart-stopping caesuras, sometimes augmented by the nervous clacking of luogu percussion. After building the film’s opening hour primarily out of interior shots, Hu finally embraces the delirium of the sun-drenched outdoors, and it is thrilling to watch the fighters occupy the sprawl of the desert, no longer hemmed in by the inn’s claustrophobic spaces. While the characters relish their new range of motion, the film’s style indulges in intermittent moments of rupture. Rugged landscapes, with twisted trees and craggy mountains, cut into the elegant compositions. Where before Hu was content to watch the action mostly from a cool remove, he now uses just enough quick zooms, pans, and cuts to make us unsure of how to piece together what we’re seeing.

The last-minute reappearance of Cao Shao-qin brings the film to a decisive showdown, culminating in a spasm of psychedelic mania. But for all the dizzying technique on display in its finale, Dragon Inn never completely loses its sense of refinement and restraint. Hu had the curiosity of a scholar and the taste of a connoisseur, and he was known for the exhaustive research that went into his period re-creations—a meticulousness that would threaten to drive Union Film to financial ruin when taken to its extreme during the elaborate, drawn-out production of A Touch of Zen. Such devotion to the accuracy of physical details speaks to the director’s nostalgia for a dynastic history that had been deemed counterrevolutionary and was being destroyed in Mao’s campaign to wipe out the “Four Olds”—ideas, customs, culture, and habits. It also hints at Hu’s experience as a Beijing native whose career had taken him away from the mainland, to southern capitals where the memories of his northern culture could be rekindled only through art.

Perhaps it is this sense of alienation that led Hu to his great, improbable achievement: the reenvisioning of commercial Chinese cinema as an arena for contemplation. At a time when audiences in his birth country were being force-fed a steady diet of Cultural Revolution propaganda, Hu not only celebrated the pleasures of the screen for their own sake, he also demonstrated how beauty survives against a backdrop of routine savagery. At the end of Dragon Inn, the foe has been vanquished and the heroes walk off into the sunset, backs to the camera, anonymous again. It’s the kind of cinematic coup de grâce only an artist truly invested in the power of the reconciliation of opposing impulses could deliver, radiating pride and humility, toughness and serenity, in equal measure.

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