One of the few pieces of Chinese classical music I can recognize is the “Dagger Society Suite.” Since my tastes usually run more toward the three chord therapy of rock’n’roll and the odd rollicking of a folk tune, I’m shocked to recognize the composition at all. But here it was as the overture to “The Dragon Inn”, playing over the starting credits. The music draws attention to the screen and lets you know that all of the hype about the 1967 film is justified.
The sword clashing epic is one of director King Hu’s more well-known works, and it gave birth to a rash of movies that copied his original vision. Written and directed by Hu after he left the world-famous Shaw Brothers Studio in 1966 and relocated to Taiwan to make other films, “The Dragon Inn” turned out to be the best of the director’s catalog.
There is a rich narrative that finely builds the drama as new characters enter the Dragon Inn. Set during the Ming Dynasty, the emperor’s minister of defense is framed by a power hungry court eunuch and put to death. His family is hunted by the secret police until they end up at the aforementioned Inn. With them comes an odd band of people with stories, problems and baggage that foreshadow action to come. By action, I mean sword fighting.
Sword fighting is pretty much key to this film, and Hu came up with exciting, action-packed moments that push the plot forward. The choreographed quarreling is also what drives the film to its swirling finale. Again, the melody of “Dagger Society Suite” is felt in the film’s movements and conflict. Hu delivers in ways that put him years ahead of his competition. It’s almost like watching a real and violent ballet.
To call this film thrilling or a landmark work of art may be an understatement. The fact that it is coming to Ken Cinema with a gorgeous, newly-restored 4K digital transfer, created from the original negative is tremendously exciting. The film looks gorgeous and years ahead of it’s time. Featuring the acting talents of Shangguan Lingfeng, Shih Chun and BaiYing, the film won the award for Best Screenplay and was a runner-up for Best Director at the 1968 Golden Horse Awards.
Hu was flawless in blending Japanese samurai film traditions with Western editing techniques and Chinese aesthetic philosophy, music and operatics to create something visually and emotionally different. Hu began the trend of a new school of wuxia films, and his perpetual use of a woman as the central protagonist was well known and emulated all the way up until Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Zhang Yimou’s “ House of Flying Daggers”.