Dragon Inn – Driving a Hard Bargain

Country: Hong Kong
Genre: Martial Arts
Director: Raymond Lee
Year: 1992

Rating: ★★★½☆


After reviewing the disappointing Thai action film Dynamite Warrior, I felt like I owed myself some fun, so I decided to revisit Dragon Inn, a star studded swordplay movie from the Golden Age of Hong Kong Cinema which is widely acknowledged to be a classic.

I was surprised to find that the first act was nothing special. This is unusual because I had fond memories of Dragon Inn. Usually, when you count a film as one of your favorites, it’s largely because either the first act, the third act, or both are especially good. Dragon Inn is one of those rare flicks where the 2nd act is by far the strongest.

A strong second act is very hard to achieve. First of all, a second act is where you explore theme and character, and build tension through a steadily building set of challenges for the hero/heroes. The tension is released in the third act or climax, which tends to be more of a crowd pleaser. Likewise, how our heroes get themselves in trouble in the first place in the first act tends to have a lot of intrinsic interest. Also, a second act is typically twice as long as a 1st or 3rd act, which makes interest more difficult to sustain.

This is where Dragon Inn shines. Built into the structure of the second act are characters that continually raise the stakes and provide a central mystery, both of which are resolved in the climactic third act.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I?

Dragon Inn has an interesting plot. During the Ming Dynasty, the evil Eunuch Tsao (Donnie Yen) is consolidating his power by killing off his rivals. In one family, he has killed off everyone except a daughter and son, who are making their way to the border. Tsao has done this deliberately to smoke out Waai On (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), an ally of the dead patriarch, correctly guessing that Waai On will attempt to rescue the children.

Waai On sends his lover Mok Sau (Brigitte Lin), along with some mercenaries, to rescue the kids, and arranges to rendevous at the Dragon Inn before making for the border.

The Dragon Inn is owned by Seung Yuk (Maggie Cheung, in one of her finest roles), who is quite a piece of work. She’s a prostitute who thinks nothing of killing a client if she thinks she’ll make more money by stealing his purse and dumping the body into the basement kitchen to be used as filling for meat dumplings.

When the advance unit of Eunuch Tsao’s private army arrives at the Dragon Inn shortly after Waai On, Mok Sau and the kids, Waai On tries to negotiate with Seung Yuk to reveal a secret passageway by which he and his friends can escape. Meanwhile, Eunuch Tsao’s man (Lau Shun) is also negotiating with Seung Yuk to delay Waai On until the main army arrives.

Much of the tension and fun comes from guessing Seung Yuk’s motives. Is she playing the two factions against each other to maximize her profit, or is she delaying Waai On because she wants to have sex with him? Whose side is she on? Or is she only on her own side? You don’t really know.

During the whole second act, all the characters never say what they really mean. They’re always calculating, attempting to gain advantage or save face, sidestepping the conflict simmering below to avoid erupting into a pitched battle. The suspense is considerable.

Notice that up until now, I’ve said nothing about the action choreography by Tony Ching Siu-Tung. That’s because the entertainment value of Dragon Inn is mostly dependent on character, with martial arts coming in a distant second. That’s pretty unusual for a Hong Kong kung fu flick.

In fact, the martial arts in the 1st act is not all that impressive to me. It’s frenetic, lots of flying around and whirling in the air, but you don’t really get a sense of strategy. It’s just a lot of empty movement. Along with the exposition, there are lots of battles in the first twenty or thirty minutes of the picture, but they left me cold.

Things pick up considerably once the characters are stuck at the Dragon Inn. There’s a wonderful tug of war between Maggie Cheung and Brigitte Lin where they are each trying to undress the other with martial arts moves. Likewise, while the Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung characters are bargaining with one another, they are also typically embroiled in a kung fu battle, which operates as an extension of their emotional state. It’s all quite elegant, really.

I attribute the elegance of the second act to director Raymond Lee, who also directed the wonderful and obscure A Killer’s Blues, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this site. But then again, the complexity is a hallmark of producer Tsui Hark, the director of classics like Once Upon A Time In China and Peking Opera Blues.

As usual for a Golden Age of Hong Kong movie, in addition to the leads, there’s a wealth of good supporting character actors on hand in Dragon Inn, including Lawrence Ng, Elvis Tsui, and Chan Chi-Fai.

For those who enjoy this kind of thing (and I’m one of them), the eventual fate of the leaders of Eunuch Tsao’s advance army is gratifyingly bloodthirsty.

Eventually, as in pretty much any martial arts adventure, everything boils down to one last fight, in this case between Eunuch Tsao and our heroes. In this case, Eunuch Tsao is outnumbered three to one, and he’s still got the edge.

That’s one of the things that distinguishes Western thrillers from Eastern ones. Typically, in a Hong Kong movie, evil is more powerful than good, and the combined forces of several good people is required to even have a shot at vanquishing evil. More often than not, the supreme sacrifice of one or more of the good guys is necessary. There isn’t even any assurance that good will ultimately triumph.

This pattern holds true for Dragon Inn.

Another thing you should know about Hong Kong movies is that they are often stylistically inconsistent. All three acts of Dragon Inn are quite different in terms of visual style and even storytelling strategy. The climactic moment of the big fight is prepared for in the second act, but stylistically comes as something of a shock. I’m not sure that I liked it all that much. It seemed rather crude after the subtlety of the 2nd act, but hey, it was still fun.

Unfortunately, the 2nd act of Dragon Inn was so rich that the ending felt like a bit of a letdown for me. I’m still recommending Dragon Inn, though.

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