By Tony Williams.
For those really interested in the art of cinema, the achievements of King Hu (1932-1997) are comparable to others such as Bela Tarr and Andrei Tarkovsky – to name but a few. Yet, the achievements of this great Chinese-born director who left us far too early are generally not as well-known as they should be, with the exception of those of us interested in Asian Cinema. With Hu earlier championed by critics such as Tony Rayns, several of Hu’s key films gained release in England such as Dragon Inn, The Fate of Lee Khan (which I saw in the late, lamented Electric Cinema Club in Portobello Road), and A Touch of Zen (1971) at the Curzon cinema in London. One had to travel to see these films and, as with Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970) and Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), the trip was well worth it in those pre-VHS and DVD days. Since then, much has been written in Chinese, French, and English about Hu’s great achievements, but the work needs better recognition outside the usual circles. As Joseph McBride has recently written in his collection of essays and his excellent Ernst Lubitsch biography, we are now in an era of artistic cultural amnesia that bears disturbing parallels to Gore Vidal’s accurate description of “the land of freedom” as “The United States of Amnesia.”
Dragon Inn (previously known as Dragon Gate Inn) has been available in VHS and DVD copies as well as a 35mm version donated by the director to the UCLA archives that I had the opportunity to see while on a visit in 1997. Successive versions have improved the quality enormously. In 2015 in the Eureka! Master of Cinema Series, the film was #129 in a dual Blu-Ray/DVD format edition that contained newsreel footage of the film’s premiere (also available in new version from Criterion), David Cairns’s essay “Hostel Forces,” a 36-page booklet featuring vintage writing about the film by Tony Rayns, Tsui Hark’s testimonial to the director, Edmond Wong’s analysis of the film’s style, archival images, and eight characteristics of the “inn” in Hu’s films. Dragon Inn is the second in Hu’s famous “Inn” trilogy beginning with Come Drink with Me and concluding with The Fate of Lee Khan. It has been remade several times, the most notable version being produced by Tsui Hark and co-directed by Raymond Lee and Ching Siu-tung (uncredited) starring Hong Kong’s greatest pre-1997 cinematic diva Brigitte Lin alongside Tony Leung Ka-fai, Maggie Cheung, and Donnie Yen succeeding in the challenging task of matching up to his predecessor Bai Ying playing the evil eunuch Tsao Siu-yan, a performance that Stephen Chow, one of Cantonese cinema’s greatest comedic talents, could not help satirizing in the opening to God of Gamblers III: Back to Shanghai (1996)! In 2003, Taiwanese New Wave director Tsai Ming-liang directed a melancholy tribute to the original, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, where a small band of enthusiasts bid farewell to this classic film that is showing on the last night of a historical picture palace. The location resembles my memories of the old Plaza Cinema in Swansea (UK) before its demolition in 1965 and a similar one set in a decaying area of Los Angeles where a film festival was running Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927), my second Lon Chaney film seen theatrically but in a much better copy than the previous one. The Plaza was where I first saw Robert Aldrich’s Apache (1954) and Vera Cruz (1955) as well as a Sunday screening of a re-run of William Wyler’s The Desperate Hours (1956) at a time when the puritanical ideology of the Sabbath still held sway in that cultural backwater. Goodbye Dragon Inn also featured cameo performances by two of the original film’s actors, Shih Chun and Tien Miao.
Far from superseding the Eureka! Version, Criterion has provided content that supplements the earlier material. One cannot have enough of a good King Hu film since he revolutionized martial arts (wuxia) cinema in the same way as other directors have taken established genres and reworked them artistically and memorably in other areas of world cinema. In addition to providing a new 4K digital restoration supervised by cinematographer Hua Hui-ying, Criterion’s release includes a new (2018) interview with Shankuan Ling-fung (who took over a role that Cheng Pei-pei could have played were she not contracted to Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers studio), a 2016 interview with Shih Chun, a new scene analysis by author and New York Asian Film Festival cofounder Grady Hendrix, newsreel footage of the film’s Taipei 1967 premiere, and an accompanying essay by critic Andrew Chan.
The film itself is a breathtaking accomplishment by a director who relocated to Taiwan due to Shaw Brothers studio restrictions on Sons of the Good Earth (1965) and Come Drink with Me that foreshadowed his best work although the latter film is an accomplishment in its own right featuring Cheng Pei-pei. Wishing greater artistic freedom, Hu relocated to Taiwan and developed many of the techniques he acquired while collaborating with one of Chinese cinema’s greatest stylists, Li Han-hsiang. (1) Hu also worked as an actor throughout his career playing roles in Li Han-hsiang’s The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959) opposite Lin Dai, his own Sons of the Good Earth and assisting Li on one of his most successful film’s, Love Eterne (1963). During his time at Shaw Brothers, Hu worked also as assistant director, set decorator, and scriptwriter. Extremely knowledgeable about Chinese art and history, King Hu continued his “hands on” approach during his career as the two interviews on the DVD attest since he never confined himself exclusively to any “director’s chair” but actively coached his actors in gesture, movement, and collaborating in the importance of costume, props, and set design.
Dragon Inn continued the artistic innovations and experiments that King Hu began in Come Drink with Me in merging the techniques of Beijing Opera with cinema and developing martial-arts choreography until it became an artistic form in its own right, leading to the role of future practitioners such as Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo-ping who would become experts in this indispensable feature of Hong Kong cinema. Stylized sound, music, balletic action, camera movement, facial gesture, and physical posture all became integral units in Hu’s strategy to make cinema develop in a special way according to Chinese traditions but in an independent fashion. When Bai Ying’s evil eunuch appears he is introduced by a Beijing Opera version of a leitmotif heralding his ominous appearance and used to creative discordant effect. To understand King Hu’s work always means going beyond genre and seeing the influence of other art forms in his work that he appropriates and then creatively transforms into his own unique conceptions. Therein lies the artistry and majesty of King Hu in his most successful achievements. Dragon Inn may have been inspired by the director’s disdain towards the popular James Bond spy films of his era and his desire to show the viciousness of this group as demonstrated by the Eastern Group of eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but it transcends this initial motivation by moving into the realms of high cinematic art.
In her ten-minute 2018 “The Phoenix Rises” interview, Shangkuan Ling-fung appears attired in a Korean martial arts costume complete with head band illustrating both her devotion to wuxia and also her recognition of the different forms of Japanese and Korean martial arts that she continues to practice today. Like Cheng Pei-pei, this Taiwanese-born actress mentions that she had no previous martial arts training when hired for her first starring role in this film but had instead worked in ballet and dance before beginning an intensive training in martial arts before and during the film. A true professional, she testifies to the activity of King Hu on the set and his meticulous attention to every important detail within the film itself. She continued her stardom but also saw the importance of learning other styles such as White Tiger and Shaolin as well as Japanese karate and Korean Taekwondo.
Holder of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Taiwan 49th Golden Horse Festival, veteran actor Shih Chun also testifies to King Hu’s “hands-on approach” on set due to his constant desire for perfection. Fully knowledgeable about the Ming Dynasty era in which most of his films were set, the director could have taught a course on the subject, according to this actor who views the late director with well-deserved respect. King Hu based Chun’s character on a real life character Xia Zi from that period and understood the demands of acting since the director had also been an actor himself. The director was constantly looking for appropriate period costumes often engaging in research visits to a museum in The Forbidden City for inspiration. He also designed the umbrella carried by Chun’s character that concealed his sword. Knowledgeable about Beijing Opera, Hu developed its influence in collaboration with martial arts director (and former Beijing Opera performer) Han Ying-chieh (1927-1991) best known for playing the title role in Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss (1971) and who became a regular player in other Hu films such as A Touch of Zen, The Fate of Lee Khan (1973), and The Valiant Ones (1975). King Hu would think of a movement from Beijing Opera, develop it in his own way, and collaborate with Han in working out its effectiveness before incorporating it into the film. The inn itself was constructed in a studio using real wood and not plywood. The set was not movable so the director worked on moving shots that incorporated views of both floors during the action while the exterior was constructed beneath a well-known Taiwanese mountain. King Hu was also knowledgeable about landscape as the rocky terrain, reminiscent of an Anthony Mann film used for the final battle in The Valiant Ones. His familiarity with Chinese traditional calligraphy appears in the mist shrouded landscape towards the end which promises salvation for the fugitives before the appearance of the Eastern Group. These painterly traditions would also occur more prominently in the director’s other masterpiece Raining in the Mountain (1979).
In the 25-minute featurette “Art in Action,” Grady Hendrix engages in analyzing one scene from the film by providing a context for understanding the then innovatory work of the director in developing the wuxia film from its rudimentary beginnings. He not only refers to the director’s innovative editing techniques that David Bordwell has expertly analyzed elsewhere (2) but also the role of the set as a proscenium stage and the theatrically influenced “entrance” for each important actor in the drama. In many ways, Hu’s special editing techniques may represent his appropriation of those within the European New Wave. Hendrix also notes how the director merges music with movement in his unique integration of Chinese Opera into cinema.
The accompanying essay “Posed for Battle” by Andrew Chan opens like a pamphlet with an artistic illustration of Bai Ying’s evil eunuch dominating the heroic fighters battling his minions. The hair is white rather than the misleading yellow in the film’s restoration since the character is supposedly an “old man.” Perhaps a Chinese calligraphic representation like those in the credits for The Fate of Lee Khan could have been more appropriate for a painting resembling those washed out stills reproduced by one publisher who will remain nameless? The actual article is informative dealing not only with the director’s background but also the significance of the inn itself
evoking at once the splendors of Beijing, opera, and classic novels like The Water Margin, in which inns are depicted as chaotic public places 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.
Chan also mentions the ensemble structure of the film and it is one that anticipates The Fate of Lee Khan, the final film of the “inn trilogy” and one that Criterion should consider as worthy of restoration in addition to Raining in the Mountain.
This good restoration is a fitting companion to the Eureka version, and one that should stimulate those to rediscover further the director’s work and its significance. (3)
- In Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions (London: BFI, 1997), Stephen Teo has criticized how King Hu’s reputation eclipsed those of his contemporaries such as Li Han-hsiang, Zhang Che, Chor Yuen and others but this derives from a time when good copies of these films were unavailable. This has since been rectified and we can now achieve Teo’s desire of Western critics gaining “a comprehensive understanding of Hong Kong cinema, particularly the period of the 50s and 60s when Hu was developing his career in Mandarin cinema.” (87). Today’s parallel is the difficulty of getting access to the full version of John Woo’s The Crossing (2014, 2015), the first part which I’ve seen and find parallels with the equally underrated Windtalkers (2002).
- See 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: Hong Kong Urban Council, 1998, 25-39.
- See, for example, Tony Rayns, “Director: King Hu.” Sight and Sound 45.1 (1975/76): 8-13; Hubert Niogret, Introduction to King Hu,” Positif 169 (1975): 24-27; Michel Ciment, “Entretien avec King Hu,” Positif 169 (1975): 28-35; Vicki 0oi, “Jacobean Drama and the Martials Arts Films of King Hu: A Study in Power and Corruption.” Australian Journal of Film Theory 1 (1980): 103-123; Olivier Assayas.” King Hu: Geant Exile.” Cahiers du Cinema 360-361 (1984): 15-30; Peggy Chiao Hsiung-ping, “The Master of Swordplays,” Cinemaya 39-40 (1998): 72-76; Tony Rayns, “Laying the Foundations: Dragon Gate Inn” Cinemaya 39-40: 80-83; the indispensable chapter in Stephen Teo, Hong Kong: The Extra Dimensions, 87-96; Transcending the Times; Hector Rodriguez, “Questions of Chinese Aesthetics: Film Form and Narrative Space in the Cinema of King Hu.” Cinema Journal 38.1 (1998): 73-97; Lisa Stokes and Michael Hoover, City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema. London: Verso, 1999, 90-91; David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2000, 254-260; Teo, “King Hu”, http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/hu/ ; Teo, King Hu’s A Touch of Zen. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2007; Tony Williams, “Dragon Gate Inn,” Directory of World Cinema: China. Ed. Garry Bettinson, Bristol, UK. Intellect, 2012, 168-170;
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and a Contributing Editor to Film international.