Note: I am writing these as a fan of the genre. I am not a movie expert or an expert in asian cinema. These are my own observations based on what I have learned by watching wuxia and kung fu movies, and by reading about them through interviews and books. But my knowledge is quite limited and I am an English speaker. So understand that my commentary comes from this perspective.
Note: This review contains many spoilers. Also, a lot of the names in these movies and the actors' names are spelled differently depending on what romanization method is used (many actors also have several aliases). I usually go by the subtitles in the version I watched most recently.
DRAGON GATE INN
Dragon Gate Inn* was released in 1967 by Union Film and directed by King Hu. It stars Shih Jun (Brother Xiao), Polly Kuan** (Chu Huei), Sit Hon (Chu Chi), Cho Kin (Wu Ning), Bai Ying (Cao Shaoqin), Hsu Feng (Yu Qian's Daughter), Go Ming (Inn Bookeeper), Miao Tian (Captain Pi Shao-Tung), and Han Ying Chieh (Lt. Mao Tsun Hsien).
King Hu left Shaw Brothers hoping to find greater independence with Union Film, a Taiwanese production company. Dragon Gate Inn proved to be an enormous success and helped establish Union as a competitive player in the industry. However, because Shaw Brothers felt Hu was in violation of his contract with them, they were able to secure the oversees distribution contract, enabling them to profit from the venture.
This is an important movie and one that had a big influence on the genre. If you've seen any of the later Dragon Gate films, these all contain references to Hu's original film. They also had am influence on my design of Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. I reviewed the 1992 version HERE and will review the 2011 version in the coming weeks. This is my review of the original film.
The premise of the movie is fairly straight forward. Set during the Ming Dynasty, Eunuchs have effectively taken over the government through two powerful departments: Eastern Bureau and The Imperial Guards. The Eunuch leader of Eastern Bureau, Cai Shaoqin, executes the righteous Minister of War, Yu Qian, on trumped up charges. His children are then exiled to the Dragon Gate military outpost. However Yu Qian is not one to take chances and is determined to eliminate the 'grass roots'. He dispatches men to intercept and kill the children on their journey to Dragon gate.
|Xiao (middle) talks with the Captain (right)|
and Mr. Wu (left)
The rest of the film takes place at the Inn as different characters arrive. First the agents of Cai Shaoqin reach Dragon Gate to find the bookkeeper in charge while the proprietor (Mr. Wu) is away on business. They secure all the rooms and tell him not to accept any other guests while they are there.
A man dressed in white named Brother Xiao is the next to arrive, and his presence creates a complication for the agents. It soon becomes clear to their leader, Captain Pi Shao-Tung, that he is a great martial expert, who easily fends off initial attacks by would-be poisoners and assassins. There is an uneasy yet very polite conversation between the two men, in which Xaio says he is looking for Mr. Wu and Pi Shao-Tung suggests Brother Xiao should leave them to their business. He also expresses admiration for his skills and hints he may need his services. Much of the movie features this sort of conflict, a veneer of civility and cordiality concealing lethal intentions as occasional violence bubbles over. Eventually Xiao departs only to find Proprietor Wu (who clearly has hired him) outside, at which point the two men return to the inn.
|Chi (Orange) and Huei (Blue) arrive at|
Dragon Gate Inn
Later the hero in orange, Chu Chi, and his sister, Miss Chu Huei, arrive. Chu Huei is dressed as a man and seems to be treated as such. They are initially denied rooms, and Xiao even makes a point of attacking them, but soon they placate Pi Shao-Tung and are allowed to stay. This leads to one of the more memorable moments in the film, and a scene that is repeated in later versions. Everyone sits down to a shared meal, agents of the Eastern Bureau, staff, and the two new heroes. The agents are friendly and everyone is enjoying themselves, when they send one of their meant to retrieve poisoned wine. A waiter notices and informs Xiao, who walks to the heroes to apologize for his earlier behavior so he can slip a note to Chu Huei and alert them. Chu Huei, being the only one of the siblings who knows about the poison, prods her brother's elbow each time he tries to take a sip of wine, causing it to tumble and spill. She then reminds him their mother told him never to drink and he politely informs the agents he is not permitted to partake. They then shift their focus to Chu Huei who tries to get around the poisoned wine by demanding that one of the agents let her drink from his cup. When he refuses she becomes insistent and he stabs the cup over on the edge of a sword blade, which she pinches and stops. In an earlier instance she evades the problem by cheering her cup against an enemy agent's so her wine spills into his.
|Huei takes some wine|
That evening everyone retires and the Captain and Lieutenant discuss their suspicions that all four people (Wu, Xiao, Chu Huei and Chu Chi) are connected. They attempt to murder them in the night but fail due to Huei and Xaio's vigilance.
Again, even though violence occasionally erupts to the surface, up to this point and even after this point, things remain cordial. There is always just enough plausible deniability for the agents to act as if nothing is amiss. This serves the film well and helps produce a series of entertaining scenarios.
Over the course of the movie we learn that Mr. Wu was a former General in Yu Qian's army and has remained loyal, now seeking to protect the minister's children. Xiao, Chu Chi and Chu Huei are all present to protect the children as well (though the siblings seem unaware of Xaio's involvement initially).
The polite niceties largely come to an end on the day the Yu Children arrive. Most of the agents and the heroes depart from the Inn to find them. The children reach the Inn and nearly fall into imperial hands when Chu Chi returns and rescues them. A battle breaks out , reaching its zenith with a duel between Chu Huei and Lieutenant Mao Tsun Hsien. This is one of the best instances of swordplay in the film and encapsulate's Dragon Gate's rhythmic style. The Lieutenant manages to make an escape, leaving Heui and Xiao pinned at the inn.
Xiao remains behind as Captain Pi Shao-Tung closes in, telling her to leave and join the others at the grain storage while he holds the enemy off. Huei seems to hesitate but finally agrees to go.
When the captain comes to the inn, he calls out Xiao and the two talk politely once again. This is another striking scene, where it is clear there is a mutual respect between the two men. Captain Pi Shao-Tung tries to negotiate with Xiao,who tells him he was hired to protect the children. The Captain offers him 100 taels of gold and keeps raising his offer with each refusal, but Xiao continues to refuse, and pushes him by demanding immediate payment (it is clear he has no intention to take the money and is just goading the man). This proves too much for Pi Shao-Tung, who attacks and the long build-up of all their polite parlay finally pays off. However, the captain allows his men to step in and fight Xiao so he can chase the children. He easily deflects the soldier's sword blows and skewers Lieutenant Mao by staying him through a door.
Captain Pi-Shao catches up to Wu, Chu Chi and Huei, who are trying to escort the children to safety and fights them all, with Xiao also arriving to help them team against him. After a duel with Xiao, the Captain faces off against Chi and Huei. He manages to escape by throwing his sword at Huei and wounding her back.
The heroes go back to the inn so Wu can treat her wounds. Wu also treats the soldiers of Eastern Bureau wounded in the fight. He allows two to leave once they are better and two others (a couple of Tartars) agree to join his side, saying they were always admirers of Minister Yu.
While they are at the Inn and Cao's men are regrouping Lieutenant Gui comes to assist them and claims the case under his own jurisdiction. The agents fire an arrow at the door of the inn carrying a message that the Yu Children will be executed and all who help them will die. The Lieutenant goes to Cao's camp and demands to see the imperial order, at which point the Eunuch executes him.
Huei (Blue), Chi (Orange), Xiao (White)
Cao and his men surround the inn, but the heroes have departed for the mountains and leave a maze of traps in their wake. The film culminates with a series of battles as they to escort the Yu children to safety through the passes and are harried along the why by Eastern Bureau soldiers. In a series of stand-offs they take out the leaders of eastern bureau. After Huei and the Tartars kill Captain Pi Shao-Tung, the group battles Cao in the final confrontation.
The climax is fitting and one of Hu's best. Cao is nearly invincible and embodies the ferocity and aggression of war. However his weakness is asthma that prevents him from over-exerting himself. The heroes, who can't really match his skill, use the tactic of tiring him out, hoping to wear him down slowly. They provoke him with taunts and this proves effective. HIs asthma is conveyed largely through strange sound effects which, though now somewhat dated, remain effective. Here we see displays of incredible Lightness Kung Fu as both Cao and Xiao fly and leap at one another. In the end they defeat him but at tremendous cost as each hero is seriously wounded delivering their lethal blows to Cao.
GRACE AND BRUTALITY
If you are coming to King Hu through Come Drink With Me, this movie may look different than you expect it to, largely because it isn't a Shaw Brother's film. It doesn't feel like it was filmed on a set but out in the real world. One downside of this is the image quality hasn't held up over the years (I know nothing about film and if there is a line of direct causation here, but one thing I've observed from watching older movies is those made on sets tend to look better preserved decades later). If you can get past the the lower quality image, or if you can wait until this September when a restored version will be available on blueray it is well worth the viewing.
The movie does feel traditional in lots of ways and it takes its time to move from one scene to the next. One needs to relax a bit and be drawn in. Like A Touch of Zen, it isn't a film that rewards impatient viewing.
Despite the degradation of the film quality, one can still tell that each frame is composed with an eye for detail and a vision. Nothing appears to be random in Dragon Gate Inn, all actors and objects seem placed for a purpose.
Dragon Gate Inn is operatic in its presentation. Villains enter scenes with all the drama of a stage procession and fights are set against the uncertain rhythms of wooden drums. Characters don't just trade sword blows, they stand-off, their dramatic pauses giving weight to their purpose and granting the viewer a moment to absorb it all. It is very similar to the choreography of Come Drink With Me, in that many of the strikes and stances are mirrored, yet it feels different, maybe a bit less whimsical. The pauses are more pronounced, and simply more frequent.
|Cao proves quite formidable|
Stances and footwork are important. So vital that the sound of each step features prominently on the audio. Not only does it matter as opponents circle one another and strike, but King Hu delights in having his heroes dash into position as they seek advantage from the terrain (something that you really see in his later film, A Touch of Zen).
Hu manages to balance both grace and brutality in his swordplay. The films features plenty of lightness Kung Fu and flying swordsman (particularly in the final battle) but the blades feel heavy, the strikes impact with density that shoves the actors and suggests pain. I think this works well because Hu understands the beauty of the violence while not forgetting its consequences (something that again you see on full display in his other film A Touch of Zen).
In Hu's films, women and men are martial equals and this is clearly the case in Dragon Gate Inn. There is only one female hero of note (as Yu's daughter doesn't do any fighting) and that is Huei played by Polly Kuan. However she is basically the number two hero in the film, right behind Xiao. In fact her body count may exceed his (I'd have to check, but she certainly comes close to dropping as many foes as him). What is interesting about his female characters is they are also treated as equals to the men in many other respects as well. While there is a brief hint of the possibility of love between Xiao and Huei emerging, this is only a glimmer and could easily be explained by other things. If the possibility of love is there, the are on a mission and there isn't time for romance. Huei is not a love interest and she isn't presented as eye candy. She is another great fighter among many in the film. In this role she is quite effective and manages to convey a measured ferocity that is convincing.
The hero of the movie is Xiao, played by Shih Jun. He would go on to star in Hu's A Touch of Zen (the contrast between his characters in the two films is striking and reflects his talent as an actor). Here he plays a gracious and calm wandering swordsman who can easily fend off hordes of men on his own. His parasol sword sheath is an elegant touch to the character.
Bai Ying as the villainous eunuch is impressive. He looks dangerous and strikes a fierce pose when provoked, but like Captain Pi Shao-Tung he is capable of deceptively convincing civility when it suits him. He mainly relies on power and cruelty to get what he wants though. Watching him ready a strike you believe he is the most powerful martial expert on the screen.
In terms of gaming I think there is a lot here. Obviously it had a big influence on my own projects so I find it very inspirational. The inn as a focal point for the action just works, and the simmering conflict lurking behind mannered dialogue is a solid demonstration of how things might unfold when Player Characters choose to talk with the enemy instead of strike. The situation as well is quite gamble, having to escort the children of a righteous official to safety.
I definitely recommend Dragon Gate Inn to anyone with an interest in Wuxia. I also recommend it to gamers. It takes a little more buy in from the viewer I think than some other films I've reviewed here but it is absolutely worth it if you give it a chance.
*It is also sometimes called Dragon Inn, which is a more accurate translation of the title. However I use Dragon Gate Inn because that is how I first encountered the name and it influences the name we chose for our wuxia RPG, Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate.
**Also goes by Shengguang Lingfeng