Traveling swordsmen discover a plot to assassinate the two remaining members of a defeated general’s family and decide to intervene.
King Hu made some of the greatest and most revolutionary films in the wuxia (or martial arts) genre. I first came to love Hu’s work when I saw “A Touch of Zen” (1971), a three-hour martial arts epic with sweeping cinematography, spellbinding action, and a wildly unconventional script. I was so impressed with “Touch of Zen”, in fact, that I preordered Criterion Collection’s release of this film because I wanted to see it as soon as possible, and I was not at all disappointed.
(SOME SPOILERS IN THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH)
After the defeat of a general in battle and the general’s subsequent beheading, the general’s remaining family- his son and daughter- are banished. The victor, a Eunuch, sends a troop of assassins to wait at the Dragon Inn, where they plan to kill the remaining members of the general’s family. But before the troop of assassins can complete their plan, a group of travelers discovers the plan, and decides to intervene.
Brains Before Blood
If you’re at all a fan of martial arts films, then you’ve probably come to realize that the plots of these films, more often than not, are little more than scaffolding to frame the fight scenes. What do I mean by that? Well, usually, even in the best martial arts films like “The Raid” and “The Raid 2”, “Ip Man”, “Enter the Dragon”; the plot takes the back seat- it doesn’t matter- that’s not what the viewer came to see- they came to see crazily choreographed fight scenes. What makes King Hu’s films stand apart is that while they never sacrifice action to slow down for plot, the plots for his films are well thought out, the characters are defined and we know their motivations, and the quick pacing of all of this lends itself to the action to make the film even more intense. Hu shows incredible prowess in the way he sets up his films slowly, showing us the Eunuch’s assassins arriving at Dragons Inn, acting like they own the place. It’s interesting that he chooses to establish the some of the villain’s lackeys before we really get to know anything about our protagonists. When we finally start to learn about Chun Shih, he first shows up to the inn and shows a quiet resistance towards the assassins staying there; taking action not to offend them, but at the same time refusing to bow to their wishes. As more characters (both Ying Bai and Feng Hsu from Hu’s “Touch of Zen” are in this film as well) begin to arrive at the inn, and the assassination plot begins to reveal itself, the bodies begin to pile up, but Hu takes the time to make you care before ushering your towards the slaughter.
Influential is an Understatement
King Hu partnership with martial arts instructor Ying-Chieh Han on both this film and “A Touch of Zen” is what I think makes both of those films stand out as action films that can still hold their ground fifty years after their original release. The pacing of the action in this movie makes it just as intense and visceral as some of the stuff we get today, and most of it is wildly inventive and some of it is quite brutal. Particularly towards the end of the film, when the assassins and protectors flee the inn, I kept thinking of films like “Hero” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, or even “Kill Bill Vol 1”. The way that the fighters are portrayed is almost as if they possess otherworldly powers, but that never takes away from the fact that they are human and they can die. Fighters fly over one another, flipping around while clashing swords. The Eunuch actually jumps from tree to tree to move faster at a certain part of the film, and other characters leap from roofs or off of swords. The frenetic pacing, the visceral fight scenes, the gorgeously rich and inventive cinematography all lends itself to making a film that is both ahead of its time and lastingly influential.
I know martial arts movies are not everybody’s thing. I have plenty of friends that find the physically impossible over-the-top action a little cheesy and laughable. This film has those elements, so if you’re one of those people, you can probably avoid this film. For anyone else- from those who love martial arts or wuxia films to those that only have a mild interest in it- I would recommend this movie to you. This is a stylish, fast paced action thriller with lots a tense premise and a surprisingly high body count for a 1960s movie. If you like arthouse films and action, this movie is a holy grail.
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