They say you can’t have it all and in Ming Dynasty China the eunuchs certainly didn’t! OK, I must apologise for that lapse in comedic judgement. But the ball is in my court. Oh, please make me stop. Anyway this lack of a certain, um, something may explain why they were mad for power and painted Evil Eyebrows on their noggins to give them that extra mad-as-a-cut-snake villain look. Certainly works here for Donnie Yen’s character!
Yen is part of an all star cast in this remake of the 1966 film Dragon Gate Inn by King Hu. Hu followed this film with the even better Come Drink With Me and, in doing so, nailed the wuxia staple of staging fight scenes in inns (think of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which featured a long homage to this kind of thing). Come to think of it, it is such a staple that celebratory re-enactments still take place all over the world in pubs on Friday nights to this day. Fantastic!
This 1992 remake updates Hu’s film with some wonderfully over the top choreography and a little dash of light hearted raunchiness. The other, equally terrific Tony Leung (Ka Fai to be precise) plays Chow Wai-No, the former second in command to the executed Military Secretary Yang, now fully paid up head of the rebel alliance thingummy. His comrade in arms is the rather lovely Yau Mo-yin (Brigitte Lin) who would quite like to be doing more than just polishing swords and plotting government overthrows with Chow.
It is Yau who rescues the children of the executed Yang from the evil Tsau and then spirits them away to the Dragon Inn. Here she is joined by Chow and you’d think, ‘ah, mission accomplished, good food, wine, a cosy establishment under the stars … surely the sweet, sweet Barry White-like music of love cannot be far behind?’ And you would be wrong. For is not the Inn watched over by Ms Jade who has also taken a shine to Chow? And are there not a whole bunch of eunuch secret police wandering about the said establishment in not very good disguise?
Yes and yes!
Thus throughout the coming hours all the parties concerned circle each other, warily testing each others limits and weaknesses. Jade and Yau face off in a particularly funny battle that involves the exchange of clothes — a slyly played moment that openly asks the audience to smirk along.
Meanwhile Jade has a nice trade in oddly sourced pork buns going on the side. After watching both Dumplings and Untold Story recently this really makes me think that some people have a few deep seated issues with their food. I will, of course, be sticking with the vegetarian spring rolls from now on though, just to be sure.
Eventually the ever brill Donnie Yen shows up and an all out battle results in which Jade, who has being playing both sides, must decide who she will help.
With production from Tsui Hark you have to expect the cinematography to be spacious, rich and cleanly shot, the framing and editing tight and, most of all, the fight scenes to be top notch. Dragon Inn does not disappoint on any of those fronts.
What some have complained about with this film is the plot and, yes, it does seem rather thin. But this is wuxia, where the desire is really to represent heroism and chivalry, where good people triumph, the evil lose and those who are undecided eventually see that the right course of action is the only course of action. This kind of simplicity might seem to some to indicate that all wuxia demands some kind of allegorical reading in these times. Certainly in Hong Kong in 1992 Dragon Inn could have been read in any number of ways.
But to read this film as some kind of comment on power, the will of the people and those who prevaricate between sides is probably drawing a long bow. You could say the same about Star Wars or Alexander or any number of other films. It is a fairly universal text wherein other things might be discussed or not.
In this case Dragon Inn really works best as a terrific piece of melodramatic entertainment. It is a film to stomp and cheer the heroes on, spend time thinking about what a fine looking cast is up on the screen and hope that the nasty eunuch fellow gets, um … the chop? His, ah, come-uppance? Ouch!