“This concerns an exceptional individual.”
Following the success of “Come Drink With Me,” director King Hu had the option to stay with Shaw Brothers Studio in Hong Kong. However, he chose to leave the country and establish his own company in Taiwan. Over the years, Hu continued to create some of his best works. Despite facing changes in budget and conditions, he remained true to the themes explored in his previous film and produced “Dragon Inn,” which is arguably one of his most well-known movies alongside “A Touch of Zen.” As a highly referenced film in the wuxia genre, “Dragon Inn” not only captivates audiences with its impressive fight scenes and exceptional performances, but also showcases the inn itself as a standout feature. Moreover, it demonstrates how the genre seamlessly combines an entertaining formula with a thought-provoking social commentary on the dynamic between ruler and subject, which still remains relevant after all these years.
The events in this story occur in the Ming Dynasty, specifically in the year 1457. During this time, Cao (Bai Ying) leads the imperial eunuchs and seeks to eliminate any opposition in order to gain complete control. In addition to ordering the execution of a general, Cao also demands that the general’s two children be assassinated. However, the children manage to escape with the help of two soldiers and flee to the mountains. Cao plans to ambush them at the Dragon Gate Inn, located near the border of China. He sends some of his men to take over the inn and wait for the children and their newfound bodyguards to arrive.
But, when a traveling scholar named Xiao (also known as Shih Chun) comes looking for the innkeeper, along with two siblings seeking refuge for the night, the eunuch’s guards are forced to battle three skilled fighters. As they try to eliminate the newcomers, it becomes clear that the three have come to aid the children and are fierce enemies of the eunuch and his oppressive rule.
In the wuxia genre, the films directed by King Hu are known for their combination of captivating set pieces, well-developed characters, and intense fight scenes. In “Dragon Inn”, the inn itself plays a crucial role, similar to Hu’s previous work “Come Drink With Me”, in setting the stage for conflicts between characters and exploring larger themes. As the eunuch’s forces seize control of the inn, their oppressive rule is disrupted by outside forces, including Xiao and others who rebel against this new hierarchy built on violence and suppression. Although constrained in one sense, the inn’s multiple layers and two stories provide ample opportunity for intruders to strategize and launch their attack. Additionally, the set design serves as a nod to the theatrical roots of the genre and showcases the director’s background as a set decorator and artistic designer.
In addition, the film “Dragon Inn” showcases exceptional performances, particularly from Lingfeng Shangguan as Ms. Chu and Chun Shih as Xiao. These two actors have some of the most standout moments in the movie. While Shih’s character has several memorable scenes, such as outsmarting and defending against attackers with a sword and through psychology, Shangguan’s character also has impressive action sequences. Her approach to the inn while fighting off the eunuch’s soldiers is a prime example of her acting abilities. The cinematography by Hui-Ying Hua and editing by Hung-min Chen also contribute to the overall excellence of the film.
Ultimately, “Dragon Inn” is a highly enjoyable addition to the wuxia category, and truly stands out in its most recent restoration. Director King Hu’s expertise in the genre is evident through the outstanding performances of his actors, the captivating setting, and the overall artistic decisions, including editing and cinematography.