It was with some expectation that I sat down to watch this movie, not least because it shares its name with a particularly fine restaurant and take-away that’s a mere ten minute walk from my front door. But before we digress and start discussing the merits of spicy king prawns in salt and chilli, let’s take a look at what this tasty but ultimately unsatisfying serving of Taiwanese cinema has to offer.
Set in the middle of the Ming Dynasty (which by my expert calculations is around the beginning of the sixteenth century), it’s essentially a premise that is familiar if you’ve watched Far Eastern cinema in the past; a much-loved pillar of the community is slain and the good guys take it upon themselves to stop the baddie wreaking more havoc. This, along with countless gravity-defying displays of martial artistry, set it as a precursor for later ‘wuxia’ films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and for that alone it must be applauded.
The story centres around the titular ‘Dragon Inn’, where the henchmen and two agents of the evil Cao Shaoqin (Bai Ying) wind up in their pursuit of the children of the executed Minister of Defence, Yu Qian. Cao has ordered them to be killed even though they have been exiled and are close to crossing the Chinese border where the inn is situated. The aforementioned good guys, Xiao Shaozi (Shi Jun), the Zhu ‘brothers’ (one is actually a sister) and the keeper of the inn, eventually find themselves joining forces in order to stop this merciless mission, slay Cao and save the children.
The cast, which also includes the talented and decorated actresses Shang Kuan Ling-Feng and Hsu Feng, do well to add tongue-in-cheek humour to proceedings in amongst all the chaos, and there’s some more than credible acting going on, but the real star is writer and director King Hu. This was his first blockbuster, taking the lead from his previous effort, 1966’s Come Drink with Me, that was heavily influenced by the settings and martial arts choreography that were the hallmarks of Peking opera. Hu was the first to properly incorporate these into film, something to which names such as Ang Lee and John Woo owe a huge debt of gratitude.
That said, as slick as the direction is for the day, the film does lose its way a little in the final third and the fast pace does make it difficult to tell who’s on whose side at times. The finale could have been executed with more style and panache but let’s remember that Eastern filmmaking was still very much finding its feet in 1967. The choreography is, as you would expect, immensely watchable and the technicalities are pulled off with consummate ease. Digitally restored in 2013, it was one of 22 pictures that were part of the classics selection at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. It was also released theatrically in the UK and Ireland in July of this year.
Like many a good Chinese meal, Dragon Inn will fill you up for the first hour but later on you may find yourself yearning for something else.