In my humble estimation, Dragon Inn is one of the greatest martial arts films of all time, and it’s follow up from King Hu, A Touch of Zen – one of the genres greatest epics. The problem is, how do you follow a film as acclaimed as A Touch of Zen when critics love it but the audiences in cinemas didn’t quite connect in the same way? The reaction to this stumble is the fire and brimstone that great directors are forged by. The answer to this particular question is to make the Fate of Lee Khan, newly issued on Eureka’s Master of Cinema imprint. And, to be perfectly dismissive, it returns to the well created with Dragon Inn to tell a similar tale. Where King Hu’s 1967 title was about as tense as martial arts cinema has ever been, Lee Khan does something entirely different. The set up remains the same in that we join an ensemble of workers in a remote restaurant as events escalate before the eventual kung-fu blow-out, the difference here, however, is that with Lee Khan King Hu pre-empted the hangout movie by a good decade or so.
In Dragon Inn has an emperor’s political opponent murdered and in the exile of his children, the emperor’s eunuch takes it upon himself to have them murdered too – which all leads to a tense and very serious slow build that, as I said earlier, is one of the masterpieces in martial arts cinema. In the Fate of Lee Khan, the titular character (Tien Feng (Fist of Fury, The Young Master) and his sister, Lee Wan’er (Hsu Feng (Farewell my Concubine, A Touch of Zen), travel to a remote inn in order to obtain a map detailing the actions of a group of resistance fighters that leads to a major face-off stretching between the inn built into the wall of a rock face and a nearby quarry. The revolutionaries in question being the heroes of this feature. This high stakes story only reveals itself in the second hour, in the first half it plays out completely differently. This Inn has recently expanded beyond food and wine to allow gambling on the premises and to cope with the new rambunctiousness that comes with the inflated emotions of competing for money, the owner (Li Hua Li) has taken on board a few new waitresses (the most recognisable being Ying Bai (Hapkido)) who also happen to strong martial arts practitioners.
King Hu has pre-empted the hangout movie by a good decade or so
While eventually just as tense as its forebearer, for that opening stretch Hu’s film has a complexion much closer to that of the knockabout comedy. Patrons will gamble with one another and if you learn one lesson from Westerns it is that where there is gambling there is also cheating – so in step the girls to break it up. There are also drunkards getting handsy or low-level government affiliates expecting more from the girls. Regardless of the reason, the waitresses stand up for themselves psychically in scenes that would go on to become played for laughs staples of the movies produced by the likes of Shaw Brothers and, later, Golden Harvest.
Each scenario sees the girls use a style of martial arts that compliments their frame rather than jumping around and fighting as the male counterparts would in the same situation. Say whatever you want about the style and credibility of King Hu as a director of Martial Arts cinema. While he will never compare to the likes of Chang Cheh, Lau Kar-Leung or Sammo Hung (who did the fight choreography): Hu is something much more important, he was the first feminist in a big boys club that treated women as objects to be lusted and fought over. All of his female characters between this, Dragon Inn, Legend of the Mountain, Come Drink with Me and Touch of Zen, never once surrender their feminity yet still they are all, strong-minded and capable fighters within their respective worlds. Elsewhere in that opening stretch are scenes that establish the dynamics of the local community and the personalities therein, typically martial arts cinema is in a rush to get to the fighting so character development is usually sacrificed for training montages or the like. Honestly, it’s a nice distraction from the norm.
Another aspect of King Hu’s style is his location work. As much as I love martial arts cinema from Hong Kong if you have seen one (historical) feature you know what they all look like. It’ll be shot on a sound stage, fundamentally, and the lighting makes everything look artificial and without substance – a conscious decision given how quickly turned around these films are. In all of his work, Hu shoots on location and quite often in Taiwan. The panoramic vistas that are employed in the visual language of his work saw him referred to as artist by his peers (Chang Cheh, as referenced in the excellent essay by Stephen Teo). Also, with the ability to use that natural light it makes his work feel more substantial than the cartoon stylings that became the norm in the 1970s and 80s. Short story even shorter, King Hu makes beautiful films and on this fantastic Blu-ray print, I dare say it has never looked more visually arresting.
To call the third art of King Hu’s Wuxia trilogy another other than excellent would be entirely unfair, fair enough, it is not a patch on its two forebearers but to say it isn’t as good as two of the finest films the genre ever produced isn’t exactly the same thing as calling it weak. That being said, it is a big sell for the martial arts movie fan. Before you’ve reached that point of seeing all the titles you can get your hands on all you want is to see some people fight, whether it is brutal, slapstick, or somewhere in between. On that level, as fun and lighting paced as the film is, those sorts of fans will leave disappointed. However, the more seasoned fan who has seen everything the genre has to offer a dozen times over will be at that point in their fandom where they are looking for something that stands on its own two feet, away from the hackneyed norm. Now that Masters of Cinema have issued the entire trilogy I can comfortably say that whatever divergent itch you want scratching, Eureka have you covered – don’t start with the Fate of Lee Khan as it is the perfect complementary side dish to the other two King Hu movies that form the spine of Wuxia cinema’s Mount Rushmore.
THE FATE OF LEE KHAN IS OUT NOW FROM MASTERS OF CINEMA