By Tony Williams.
Hu recognizes that victory is not just the end but also rather another tedious part of a successive number of moves leading to the same circular pattern.”
King Hu’s “Inn Trilogy” began with Come Drink with Me (1966), shot in Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers’ studio, and continued in Taiwan with Dragon Gate Inn (1967). Eureka’s recent release of The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) forms a fitting complement to the excellent restorations of Dragon Gate Inn, A Touch of Zen (1970), Raining in the Mountain (1979), and Legend of the Mountain (1979) that this company has already released. It is sufficient to say here that King Hu (1931-1997) is regarded as the great talent in the Hong Kong/Taiwanese Cinema of his era having expertly merged unique artistry with genre in the same way Sergio Leone (1929-1989) did with Once Upon A Time in the West (1968). The Fate of Lee Khan saw his return to Hong Kong but this time under the aegis of Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest rather than Shaw Brothers.
Like fellow commentator Anne Billson on the feature accompanying this film (transferred rather than digitally restored unlike the 35mm theatrical release print circulating last year), I first saw it at the now defunct Electric Cinema Club on Portobello Road, London, during 1975 and later on the excellent UK Made in Hong Kong VHS widescreen edition. It was my first introduction to a cinematic genius whose A Touch of Zen, Dragon Gate Inn (first viewed at the UCLA Film archive during 1997), Raining in the Mountain, Legend of the Mountain and The Valiant Ones (1974) represented future creative pleasures testifying to the richness of Hong Kong and Taiwan Cinema that would flourish in future decades.
Following problems concerning the distribution of A Touch of Zen, Hu returned to Hong Kong to direct a film that was a transitional milestone in his cinematic career. It contained references to past films especially Dragon Gate Inn, as well as recognizing that the style of Eastern cinematic combat was moving away from the Beijing Opera influences of Come Drink with Me and Dragon Gate Inn towards a much more developed form of personal combat that would lend itself to a unique form of cinematic editorial exploration. Sammo Hung (1952- ) was more familiar with the newer forms of cinematic combat than Hu’s previous collaborator Han Ying-chieh (1927-1991). Like his predecessor, Hung had appeared in A Touch of Zen but in a minor role. In The Valiant Ones, he would both choreograph and act in the role of the Japanese pirate chief. For The Fate of Lee Khan, Hu operates exclusively behind the camera while Han Ying-chien both acts and performs a musical number like Yueh Hua (1924-2018) in Come Drink with Me.
The Fate of Lee Khan combines familiar faces from Hu’s cinematic repertory company. These include Bai Ying (1940- ), Hsu Feng (1950- ), Han Ying-chieh, Roy Chiao (1927-1999) and others from his Taiwan films. Veteran actress Li Li-Hua (1924 -2017), known for melodramas and romances as well as appearing in Frank Borzage’s last film China Doll (1958), performs her only role for the director. Shaw Brothers veteran Tien Feng (1928-2015) also acted in Sons of the Good Earth. A familiar group of female actresses, who were well known for their cinematic martial arts expertise, could readily compensate for Li-li-Hua’s lack of knowledge in an area now becoming central again for Hong Kong cinema. These include the well-known faces of Angela Mao Ying (1952- ), Helen Ma (1947- ) who played the title role in Wu Ma’s superb Deaf and Mute Heroine (1971), and lesser-known figures such as Hu Chin (1947- ), and Shangguan Yen Er.
Rather than his favorite Ming Dynasty period (1368-1644), Hu sets The Fate of Lee Khan in the last two decades of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), specifically in the year of 1366, a dynasty established by Kubla Khan (1260-1294) ruled by a Mongolian Dynasty. High official Lee Khan (Tien Feng) obtains a secret map of the Chinese rebel army. Han Chinese patriots plan to retrieve it from him as well as seal his fate in the type of inn he chooses to stay spontaneously rather than any official residence where he would be an easy target for assassination. So far, this appears familiar territory involving the Chinese checkers (chess) strategies seen in the other two Inn films as well as heroes against villains from the directors’ previous films where we know who to root for.
However, like all good directors, Hu chooses to vary the formula by introducing new ingredients of complexity he will employ in later films. Lee Khan is no malevolent villain like Bai Ying’s eunuch in Dragon Gate Inn but an adversary with a charm and presence of his own. The real danger is from his ruthless sister, Wan-Erh, who is the most dangerous of the siblings. Played expertly by Hsu Feng, she is far from being the strategic heroine of A Touch of Zen but someone far more threatening in a film where appearances can be deceptive. In one scene, Mongol brother and sister respond humanistically to a rendition of Guan Hanquing’s Valediction performed by Han Ying-Chieh before a sound upstairs alerts Wan Erh to the presence of an interloper in her brother’s room leading her to immediately ascend upstairs, interrogate the culprit, and ruthlessly execute her. Even artistic appreciation is not far from sudden violence, since before the deadly act it is a “scene of surface elegance that pulses with hidden intimations of death.” (1) Lee Khan plays a genial version of “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” but as he reveals later, he is fully aware of the environment he has entered and the danger he faces from the occupants. Such is the manner of the strategic and sudden unexpected moves inherent in King Hu’s use of the chess motif that he develops from his previous films. It is not just confined to wuxia combat but now to characterization. Despite Khan’s menace, he appears more honorable than his betrayer Tsao Yu-Kun (Roy Chaio) whose actions resembles that of Han ying-Chien towards Chiao’s dignified Abbot character in A Touch of Zen.
As Stephen Teo and others point out, the film divides into two parts: the busy activity of the Inn before Khan’s arrival that changes activities into a static arena of an empty space devoid of the earlier cluttered mise-en-scene. There opponents previously moved quickly in a confusing environment in which strangers may be either allies or spies where the female waitresses handle their own against grasping customers with quick moves reminiscent of the best traditions of Cantonese and Mandarin comedy.
In Hu’s most typical films, the inn is a recurrent setting signifying transience, with tableaux and design flexible enough to provide a stage for life-and-death struggles and thus to compel movement and action which, because of the very restrictedness of the spaces, become even more emphatic, It is significant that the inn is not seen as a microcosm, but as a stage for sheer movement, a kind of mythical environment where the rules of gravity and the world are suspended in favour of a protean mobility, Hu’s consciousness of space is, however, a liberating experience as his camera tries to transcend the limitations of the set.” (2)
Eventually, the camera does move outside, as it does in Dragon Gate Inn A Touch of Zen, and will do in The Valiant Ones to depict both the heavy cost and the superhuman level of combat that moves beyond normal spatial and temporal dimensions. The Fate of Lee Khan also employs the disjunctive use of editing to represent wuxia in terms of “glimpses,” as David Bordwell states in a manner that the next film will polish up. (3) As other critics have noted, the final scenes appear perfunctory and rushed, a condition that may perhaps be due less to Golden Harvest’s editorial demands but perhaps more to the fact that Hu recognizes that victory is not just the end but also rather another tedious part of a successive number of moves leading to the same circular pattern. The end of the Yuan Dynasty will lead to the Ming Dynasty represented negatively in Dragon Gate Inn, A Touch of Zen, and The Valiant Ones with Han Chinese patriots continually recognizing that their heroic efforts always lead to an even worse regime taking the place of the one they have helped to change.
As Wan Jen-mi (Li li-Hua) tells an ally, all the girls have dubious pasts and she herself sleeps with the enemy to conceal her espionage activities, something inconceivable in the former familiar Romantic Mandarin cinema roles of Queens and Concubines she was then most well known for. Teo also notes a certain change in the role of the female knight-errant in this film.
The Fate of Lee Khan is a highly entertaining variation of the female knight-errant movie in that it presents a variety of female warriors each one utilizing different skills (including pick-pocketing) in fighting for a nationalistic cause – the establishment of the Ming state in the dying days of the Mongol Yuan dynasty. Xu Feng, the lead in A Touch of Zen, is given a villainous role, thus subverting the perception of the female knight-errant as a primarily beneficent role model or prototype. In fact, the female warriors in The Fate of Lee Khan are highly subversive since they scheme, steal, seduce, manipulate, and kill. They are therefore, a less idealistic vision of the female knight-errant figure, which in the final analysis makes her more human.” (4)
DVD features include a selected scene commentary by Hong Kong film expert Tony Rayns. He begins by mentioning the contemporary historical background as well as the distinctive credits written in King Hu’s expert calligraphic style with larger letters reserved for the bigger stars. He mentions that Tien Feng played a Mongol King in the Shaw Brothers The 14 Amazons (1972) and encourages his listeners to exercise caution over the supposed accuracy of the IMDb concerning several discrepancies. Rayns also notes the different atmosphere that emerges in the Inn with the arrival of Lee Khan and his entourage as well as the strategic interplay of gazes that become central with these new changed circumstances. However, there are times when the acute analysis he displays becomes overwhelmed by unnecessary biographical details concerning particular players, since a booklet could have been used for this purpose. Yet, many good observations occur concerning mise-en-scene, the teamwork displayed by the patriots when the battle finally erupts, and the wider spaces between characters once the mental “cat and mouse” games begin inside the Inn by the very aware Khan. Rayns also notes the real-life martial arts background of Bai Ying and other actors and how the teamwork of various experts compensate for Li li-Hua’s lack of knowledge of martial arts. The selected commentary runs a generous 63:07 minutes.
A video essay by Anne Billson and David Cairns follows: “The Name of the game is Go,” which runs 19 minutes. Cairns proves himself the most expert seeing the film as an attempt to capture the success of Dragon Gate Inn, while Billson tends to bring in irrelevant comparisons such as the incestuous brother-sister motifs of Scarface (1932) and The Sweet Smell of Success (1956) that play no part in the film. The British comedy Fawlty Towers (1975-79) especially appears unusual in this context. References occur to the later “hangout movie” exemplified by Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and The Hateful Eight (2015). However, an interesting predecessor is perhaps Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion (1967). There the first part presents quiet moments of dialogue before the action erupts that parallels the second part of Hu’s film. It is a shame that the unworthy name of Tarantino should be mentioned alongside the much more artistic and creative figure of King Hu.
Accompanying this DVD is an informative booklet containing a mine of important information such as David West’s “Beyond Swordplay: King Hu and the New Wuxia Movement,” Stephen Teo’s essays on The Fate of Lee Khan and The Valiant Ones reprinted from Senses of Cinema. Tony Rayns also kindly supplies the original film brochure as well as many stills and imagery appearing throughout this booklet.
1. “Programme Notes: The Fate of Lee Khan.” A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film. Hong Kong: The Urban Council, 1980, p. 208.
2. Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions. London: BFI Publishing, 1997, p.89.
3. David Bordwell, “Richness through Imperfection: King Hu and the Glimpse.” Transcending the Times: King Hu and Eileen Chang. The 22nd Hong Kong International Film Festival. Ed. Law Kar, Hong Kong: Urban Council, 1998, pp. 32-39.
4. Teo, Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. p. 144.
Tony Williams is an independent writer and a Contributing Editor to Film International.