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A Restored 'Dragon Inn' Is No Mere Martial Arts Film, It's A Visual Treat

courtesy Janus Films

One of the greatest Chinese martial arts films has just been restored and is showing at theaters around the country.

Writer and director King Hu set 1967's Dragon Inn in the late 15th century, the time of the Ming Dynasty in China, in the midst of a conflict between two powerful groups. The bad guys, the East Espionage Secret Police, execute a man unjustly, his family flees and the Secret Police go after them.

From the looks of things there are only two buildings in this world – the castle from which the Secret Police emerge, and some great distance away, the Dragon Inn, where much of the action takes place. The arid landscape is beige and gray, but the fighters wear bright blues, yellows and reds. Two of the main characters look positively startling in pure white. The flamboyance of people set against a world they've made sterile.

Dragon Inn doesn't work like most Western films. It's not interested in the intricacies of psychology; the characters carry straightforward motivations that don't change over the course of the film. What matters more is how a complex of events finds resolution. The actors don't move quite like actors in realist pictures; they're a little stiffer and more precisely choreographed.

In a way, Dragon Inn has the complex rhythm of a chess game; it's both rigid and fluid at the same time. The picture can also feel literary, so in some situations, you get more the idea of an action than the visceral depiction of an action. King Hu films running actors from the front, from the waist up, so they appear to run without covering literal distance, or he'll just show their lower legs from the side, which also makes the movement abstract.

The formality of what in Chinese are called wuxia films, martial arts movies, can put western people off balance, but once you settle in, and you're inside a masterful film like Dragon Inn, it's a remarkable experience. The sheer precision of gestures and visual composition is astonishing, like geometry in motion. Five characters with swords surround one sword-bearing opponent, who nearly always dispatches them with movements as practiced as the conventional western shootouts between men in white or black hats carrying six-shooters.

Chinese martial arts films are also magical. Somehow, a group of able and ingenious fighters show up at the Dragon Inn to defend the family. Xiao, the hero played by Shi Jun sits alone at a table surrounded by men of the East Espionage Secret Police who have a bad attitude toward him, but when they attack, Xiao catches flying arrows and knives in his bare hands and sends them back at his enemies. He can make great leaps; he sees things behind him; he can drink poisoned wine.

Like other wuxia films, Dragon Inn is broad melodrama. Innocence is easy to spot and sorely oppressed until the defenders spring into action. It's like opera, which no one goes to see for its psychological nuance; people go to opera for the power and subtlety of the music. In Dragon Inn, the music is visual. It comes through the interplay of the colors and the virtual dance of the actors. As in opera, the gestures and movements in Dragon Inn are conventional, but the genius of the film comes through King Hu's imaginative use of those conventions.

You know that at some point toward the end of the film, the arch villain, the devious and powerful eunuch, he of the legendary kung-fu, who heads the secret police, will emerge from his castle and will engage in decisive combat with Xiao. You also know who will win, but it's not what they do; it's how the film makes that music of motion, color and shape – the great fundamentals of cinema.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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