ASIAN FILM - Article
11:00 - 17th January 2016, by NEO Staff

The Master Of Dragon Inn

Swordsmen and swordswomen have been leaping, flying and slashing across the screens of Chinese cinema for almost a century now. Ren Pengnian’s Li Feifei, The Heroine, from 1925, brought Peking Opera style martial arts and acrobatics to the screen for the first time, but it fell to King Hu to introduce the rest of the world to this distinctive school of action filmmaking.

Born in Beijing, Hu moved to Hong Kong in 1949 and started working at the famous Shaw Brothers studios in 1958 as an actor and writer. He moved to directing with the wartime drama Sons Of The Good Earth in 1965, but really made a splash the following year with Come Drink With Me.

The blend of exquisite costumes and sets, colourful characters with amazing martial arts powers and the Peking Opera-influenced choreography made the film a smash hit. Emboldened by his success, Hu left Shaw’s and went to Taiwan to set up the Union Film Company with producer Sha Rongfeng. Their first collaboration was Dragon Inn, which broke box office records in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea. That was followed by A Touch Of Zen, which won the Grand Technical Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, The Fate Of Lee Khan and The Valiant Ones, classics one and all. But only Dragon Inn has spawned so many imitations and remakes. The first reinterpretation, New Dragon Gate Inn, came from director Raymond Lee and producer Tsui Hark in 1992, followed by the 3D film The Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate, directed by Tsui Hark, in 2011.

The story of Hu’s film takes place in 1457. Yu Qian, the Minister For War, dared to cross the powerful imperial eunuch Cao (Pai Ying) and is executed for his temerity. Yu’s children are ordered into exile, but Cao is determined to exterminate Yu’s bloodline and sends his lethal secret police to intercept the party escorting the youngsters, with orders to kill them all. At Dragon Inn, on the edge of the desert, Cao’s killers run into unexpected opposition when a group of martial artists, all loyal to the late Yu Qian, face off against the eunuch’s assassins.

Fighting And Dancing

Dragon Inn had a smaller budget than Come Drink With Me, and lacked the beautiful sets and costumes of Hu’s previous hit, but instead had the mountains of Taiwan to lend grandeur to the production, something no Shaw Brothers backlot could match.

Hu brought actor and action choreographer Han Ying-Chieh with him from Come Drink With Me. Han attended the Fulian-Cheng Peking Opera School as a youngster before joining the film business. After moving to Hong Kong, he found work as a martial arts actor and, beginning with 1964’s Lady General Hua Mulan, as an action choreographer. He was a pioneer in using wirework and trampolines on the Young Swordsman Lung Kim-Fei series to create the illusion of flight and spectacular leaps. His opera background made him a good match for Hu.

In an interview quoted in A Study Of The Hong Kong Martial Arts Film, published in 1980, Hu said, “I’ve always taken the action part of my films as dancing rather than fighting.” And there is a rhythm and flow to the fight scenes created by Hu and Han, particularly in the graceful spins of the character Golden Swallow in Come Drink With Me, but still apparent in Dragon Inn.

Hu’s use of long takes, with the camera panning to follow the combatants, became the standard adopted by the likes of Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-Leung, while the presentation of the swordsman as superhero, able to leap to great heights or fly, informed the aerial style of Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung. However, in the late ‘60s, Hu’s influence was short-lived.

In And Out Of Fashion

When Bruce Lee burst onto screens in 1971, he transformed the presentation of martial arts with a more realistic approach based on Lee’s personal, extensive study of martial arts, boxing and fencing. Lee’s enormous popularity meant that Hu’s style fell out of favour and would only really return to vogue in the 1990s during the second boom in swordplay movies.

1992’s New Dragon Gate Inn goes further than Hu’s original with the action choreography, featuring extensive wirework and outlandish scenes including having all the flesh flayed from one character’s limbs. Even that is eclipsed by the flights of fancy in Tsui Hark’s Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate, which changes the plot to concern a city of treasure buried beneath Dragon Inn. The action choreography relies entirely on special effects for execution and, thanks to the 3D production, often involves star Jet Li frantically waving his sword at the camera. Using the camera as the point of view of one of the combatants was a technique that Hu used in his 1967 film, albeit only briefly. Bruce Lee would expand upon that idea to great effect in his iconic duel with Chuck Norris in Way Of The Dragon.

Even Hu and Han had to adapt to match the changing times. The Valiant Ones, from 1975, moves their style much closer to Lee’s, removing the superpowers and flight, although Han’s love of acrobatics remains undiminished. Following The Valiant Ones, Hu moved away from martial arts films for a time. His 1979 film Legend Of The Mountains is a ghost story, but he eventually returned to the swordplay genre for Swordsman in 1990, although ill health meant that he was unable to complete the production and several other directors, including Hu’s aesthetic heirs Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-Tung, finished the movie.

Hu died in 1997 but his influence on the martial arts film was a profound one, and every filmmaker to subsequently tackle the Chinese swordplay film, from Zhang Yimou’s Hero to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin, is walking – or flying – in his footsteps. But if you want to experience one of the pivotal films in the entire genre, check in to Dragon Inn, out now from Eureka.

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