By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
A landmark of Taiwanese cinema and one of the most influential Chinese-language films ever made, the beautifully restored version of the 1967 wuxia staple Dragon Inn makes its way to San Francisco for a brief theatrical run.
The timing is strangely fortuitous, as Dragon Inn reveals itself to be a likely influence on The Hateful Eight, and the release comes right after Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin reinvigorated cinephile interest in wuxia, a kung fu subgenre known more for melodrama, mysticism and beauty than for extreme violence and skilled martial artists (think The Raid movies, but opposite).
As in Tarantino’s chamber western, violent and untrustworthy strangers gather at a remote inn, forming tenuous alliances and facing off in a series of tense confrontations. Some of the strangers are “East Espionage Chamber” hitmen, servants of a eunuch tyrant determined to wipe his executed rival’s family off the earth. However, some of them are shadowy but highly capable protectors.
Dragon Inn still feels fresh and timeless, and the bold colors and old Hollywood aesthetic make this feel as much like John Ford’s lost kung fu movie as a fifty-year-old martial arts picture. All of the plot business involving the eunuch’s rival and his fugitive children amounts to a wafer-thin MacGuffin, just a loose inspiration for director King Hu’s showdowns and action setpieces.
But my God, what showdowns and action setpieces! My only gripe: a protracted and somewhat annoying crescendo.