Martial-arts filmmaking master bends light and arrows to his will

Martial-arts filmmaking master bends light and arrows to his will
Bai Ying as Cao in the movie "Dragon Inn." (Janus Films)

With a nod to Tsai Ming-liang, welcome back, "Dragon Inn."

The great Chinese filmmaker King Hu’s 1967 masterpiece of expressive, physical martial-arts storytelling has been given a beautiful 4K digital restoration by the Chinese Taipei Film Archive, and it couldn’t arrive at a better time as an artisanal contrast to today’s computer-generated, chaos-driven superhero cinema. To revisit (or introduce oneself to) this seminal, revered work — an influence on countless wuxia movies since, including Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers,” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” (even “The Hateful Eight”) — is to pay homage to a timeless art made thrillingly modern. Second Wave Taiwanese director Tsai’s 2004 elegiac ode to moviegoing, “Goodbye, Dragon Inn,” took place at a Taipei theater showing Hu’s movie on its last day.

After years of working for the Hong Kong film industry's dominant Shaw Brothers, where he made his first wuxia film, "Come Drink With Me," Hu broke away in the mid-1960s to finesse (and independently finance) his own movies. Foregoing the melodrama and trick visuals that often categorized the chivalric sorcery of the genre, he devised a uniquely pulsing blend of magnetic stoicism, Chinese Opera choreography and innovative fight sequence editing. "Dragon Inn" signaled a new technical virtuosity, and in showcasing a skilled, courageous female swordfighter — as "Come Drink With Me" did — a bracing gender inclusivity.


The story, set during the Ming Dynasty, is showdown gold. A ruthlessly powerful court eunuch named Cao (a memorable Bai Ying, blond and red-faced) has one of the emperor's key ministers framed and executed, after which he sends a secret military group to track down and kill the man's children. The path leads to the titular tavern, an isolated, rock-strewn outpost where Cao's murderous brigade fatefully converges with the movie's heroic trio, a nomadic swordsman named Xiao (the slyly smiling Shih Jun) hired to protect the hunted children, and a pair of secretive, combat-gifted siblings, one of whom (an electric Shang Kuan Ling-Feng) is passing herself off as male.

The domino-tipping scenes in the tavern are expertly coiled and funny as the various factions suss each other out over tense meals, stealth communication, and lethal maneuvers. (Arrow-catching!) Once the conflict is out in the open, though, and the fight migrates from the confined inn to beautiful tree-lined mountain passes, Hu goes to town squaring off his warriors — mythically set against the blue sky — and it's both meditative and miraculous. Even the fluttering of wardrobes perfectly complements the tautly percussive music.

Hu directs his fight sequences with a showman’s flair but also a pickpocket’s sleight of hand. He puts you inside the action. First you’re stirred by the face-off between such vividly realized archetypes, then dazzled by the dynamic framing and the performers’ weapon-wielding proficiency. But you’ll barely perceive the flash of quick-cut inserts that result in a swordfighter puzzling at his sliced robe or bloodied skin. As critic David Bordwell realized in dutifully studying Hu’s editing technique, the eccentric notion is that Hu’s combatants are too fast even for the camera. It’s a beautifully disorienting effect — how did that contact happen? — and one brought to even more glorious fruition in his follow-up feature, “A Touch of Zen,” in 1971.

A director in command of everything from the watchful eyes of his actors, to the beauty of a misty morning light, to the heart-stopping vectors of arrows and swords bursting across a widescreen frame, Hu creates cinema that's the definition of kineticism. "Dragon Inn," a wuxia mold-breaker to treasure, is truly soaring pulp, and its return is a treat for moviegoers.


'Dragon Inn'

In Mandarin with English subtitles

Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes

Not rated

Playing: Landmark NuArt, West Los Angeles