“You still want noodles?”
When I told a friend I was going to be watching King Hu‘s 龍門客棧 [Long men kezhan] [Dragon Inn], she surprisingly told me she’d already seen it. I wondered where considering the Janus Films restoration had just released this year and her response was, “El Rey.” Yes, Robert Rodriguez‘s television channel known for grindhouse content. I was taken aback. I had seen A Touch of Zen last month and found myself mesmerized by the artistry and scope, it’s epic tale the type of austere cinema for scholars to dissect rather than fodder for gross over-dubbing so audiences could laugh in mocking glee. What was I walking into? I had no clue what to expect. Maybe it wouldn’t prove as awe-inspiring as Zen, but I hoped it would come close.
It does—especially the first half’s dialog e-heavy tête-à-tête populated by unique characters within a blueprint bearing enough resemblance to Quentin Tarantino‘s The Hateful Eight for talk about him ripping Hu off to make perfect sense. The opening prologue is dense and fast in introducing Ming dynasty-era China’s infrastructure of power-hungry eunuchs over-stepping their authority to silence the opposition. We glean enough to know the Eastern Depot are the bad guys operating under royal banners but out for personal gain, their pursuit of the since executed General Yu’s family leading them towards the titular inn for confrontation. A quartet of strangers fatefully stopping by for respite becomes our heroes with Kung fu skills bordering on magic and unwavering honor to fulfill their newfound mission stopping the Depot’s corruption.
On the side of evil are Commander Pi Hsiao-tang (Tien Miao) and his right-hand Mao Tsung-hsien (Ying-Chieh Han). They will stop at nothing to kill the Yus, dispatching of the inn’s employees to take it over under the guise of criminal investigators so their targets will run straight into their arms. Fighting for good is Brother Xiao (Chun Shih), a drifter with a sunny disposition and no fear. He refuses to take “No” for an answer when the few inn workers left alive tell him to leave. He’s a friend of owner Wu Ning (Chien Tsao) so he’ll wait. Pi’s men try scaring him off with threats and poison to no avail, Xiao’s calm always getting the best of their brute force to keep them on their heels.
The hour or so spent indoors becomes a chess match of sorts with Mao and his foot soldiers ready to be made fools of by this enigma of a man while Pi seeks to recruit him to their side. This makes it so we’re never quite sure whose side anyone truly is on besides the fact that Xiao and Wu know each other. So we must pause and take stock when brother/sister duo Ji Zhu (Han Hsieh) and Hui Zhu (Lingfeng Shangguan) arrive with enough spitfire to earn our apparent good guy’s ire. Revelations from the past are soon uncovered and allegiances bound as we assumed they would. Eastern Depot head Cao Shaoqin’s (Ying Bai) army of men suddenly proves little match against four “nobodies” with expert swordsmanship.
It’s a glorious Act One infused with effective comedy to ratchet up the tension more. Xiao and his compatriots ooze confidence as they make the grown men pursuing them look like lost, scared children unsure whether they should throw another ill-fated tantrum until Pi gives the go-ahead. They’re catching daggers, spilling liquor, and adjusting their positions to receive the upper hand. No matter how good they are, though, it will never be enough just yet. When Xiao’s team are pushed to stop toying with their opponents and actually take lives, Pi’s dwindling force along with his personal failures guarantee Cao Shaoqin will have to come and finish the job himself. An infamous master warrior, he’ll soon spar against all five heroes at once with but one weakness: asthma.
You read that correctly. Asthma. The debilitating kind where he shakes and stumbles like a frail old man after each stunning display of aggression sending his foes simultaneously to the ground. This is where the knowledge that El Rey plays a ratty, dubbed version to entertain the masses looking for chop suey comedy gains clarity. Between his melodramatic spells of fatigue and the fact that no one but Xiao can tell Hui Zhu is a woman—I’m guessing this is due to cultural wardrobe, something age has rendered moot—it was hard not to laugh at the film instead of with it at certain scenes. Act Two’s dialogue becomes silly with some fights seeming to have intentionally wide sword thrusts so opponents can block them with ease.
It’s crazy to think how advanced Hu’s choreography gets in the four years from Inn to Zen. There are glimpses of the carefully framed endurance tests to come, but most battles utilize editing to infer the action instead and can become repetitive as a result. But this is hyper-real cinema at its finest. You accept that one man raising his arms can force ten into jumping back as though struck with a giant’s force. It’s action adventure escapism with intentionally positioned white hats versus black to be as much western as the prototypical wuxia the genre has built upon ever since. Contextually it’s also Hu’s proof of concept for the style he gravitated towards (and the Shaw Brothers rejected) to move from Hong Kong to Taiwan.
And there are a ton of memorable moments too whether Xiao throwing a bowl of noodles from one table to the next without spilling a drop of soup to two defectors from Cao’s regime slicing a candle in mid-air before catching both halves on their sword blades with wick still lit. Some ham-fisted moments will have you rolling your eyes—Xiao and Hui Zhu’s looks of silent, cheesy longing as the enemy advances—but they’re part of the charm. Even the asthmatic villain conjures as many glorious exchanges (the dizzying Ring Around the Rosie attack) as laughable feigns of weakness. Perhaps the melodrama just reveals Hu’s obvious affinity with opera and theatricality, their over-the-top tone here merely a result of him working the kinks out for future endeavors.
courtesy of Janus Films