Dragon Inn aka New Dragon Gate Inn

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Unsurprisingly, 1992’s Dragon Inn (aka New Dragon Gate Inn) is a remake of 1967’s Dragon Inn. One of the pivotal movies of the wuxia genre, the 1967 original paved the way for the martial arts explosion of the 1970s. If the remake is opportunistic, it also a showcase for the sort of production that Tsui Hark was masterminding in the early 1990s – movies of scale, with high production values, starring big names, made in impressive locations.

And it showcases his love of eclecticism. Dragon Inn owes quite a bit to Sergio Leone’s westerns – the spectacular vista, the extreme close-up. Its soundtrack, by Chan Fei-Lit (aka Philip Chan) and Chow Gam-Wing, regularly borrows from Ennio Morricone – twangs, big choirs, galloping rhythms. It’s a spaghetti wuxia.

It isn’t in all honesty much of a story, but director Raymond Lee plays it out at what feels like luxurious length, though the film is only 88 minutes long. There are really only two locations – when the film opens we’re out on the wide glorious plains where we meet the cruel eunuchs responsible for the day-today running of the Ming dynasty. Here, Lee gives us an opening epic of horses and stuntmen, and a glut of death and disarray as chief eunuch Tsao (Donnie Yen, though it’s not much of a role) purges rebel elements from his Eastern Depot. Later, at the Dragon Inn, the consequences of this purge play out, as survivors of the massacre, including two very important children (who have no dramatic consequence at all), take refuge en route to breaking for the border, though the eunuch’s emissaries are in hot pursuit.

There will ultimately be a showdown. It’s what the film is about. But director Lee (with Tsui Hark also taking a hand) takes us there by the scenic route, introducing all the various heroes and villains of the piece. Tony Leung as Chow, the good guy of this story, protector of the children, upholder of virtue, the beating heart of China. His true love, Yau Mo-yan (Brigitte Lin), who’s disguised as a male warrior (the eye make-up is a bit of a giveaway). Maggie Cheung (the real star of the show), as Jade, the wily operator who runs the Dragon Inn, sleeps with whoever she fancies and then often repurposes them as the meat in the steamed buns she sells to the rabble who frequent her establishment.

Mo-yan (Brigitte Lin) disguised as a male warrior
Mo-yan (Brigitte Lin) disguised as a male warrior

Cheung is highly plausible as the sort of woman desired by every man. It’s Yau’s failure to go weak at the knees when “he” first sees the innkeeper that tips Jade off that there’s more to this warrior than meets the eye. While we’re waiting for the bad guys to show up from Eunuch Central, Lee has cruel Jade and noble Mo-yan circle Chow, handsomest man in the place, until, eventually he gives the audience what it wants with a girl-on-girl martial-arts face-off in the buff, with artfully placed items ensuring the audience doesn’t really get what it wants.

Eunuchs, incidentally, really were a force in China at the time. The emperors gave them enormous power, reasoning that men who cannot have children cannot create dynastic challenges to the imperial power. The eunuchs built self-perpetuating dynasties by other means – patronage. A case of the best laid plans of mice and Mings, if you like, but also a handy metaphor for the deep state, or the entrenched power of bureaucracies.

But back to the movie, where every swish of the sword and almost every wave of the hand is accompanied by a sound effect. People fly through the airs on wires. The outlay on trampettes must have been huge. The action isn’t always easy to follow but it is exhilarating, with the disorienting effect increased by the Hong Kong “late in, early out” editing style and the occasional tendency to edit so as to repeat action from a different point of view.

So, an action opener, a long central section of intrigue and powerplay and, eventually, the money shot of a finale that’s spectacular and frenzied and so gruesome at times that it’s funny.

Great stuff. And it looks so great too – crystalline imagery courtesy of DPs Arthur Wong and Tom Lau, stupendous locations in the Gobi Desert and a gorgeous production design that lets us know when the action is coming. If red lanterns suddenly appear, or red drapes, you know it’s all about to kick off.

Dragon Inn aka New Dragon Gate Inn – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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