Jun 9, 2016

Seattle International Film Festival 2016: A Restoration Premiere of the Kung Fu Classic Dragon Inn (1967)

Dragon Inn (1967) is one of the first wuxia (Chinese martial arts) films; it's been a huge influence on the genre, having been remade two times. However, it is in only the past couple of years that it has been seen in Western theaters. For that reason it was especially thrilling that SIFF premiered the 4K restoration of the film at the Egyptian theater last night.

The best part of it all is that no one in the audience last night was thinking about history being made, or influential cinema. This thoroughly entertaining movie gripped the crowd, inspiring laughs, gasps and rapt attention. Made in Taiwan, director King Hu's follow up to the equally influential Come Drink With Me (1967) packs a lot of action, humor and tension into what is essentially a one-set film.

The action revolves around the children of General Yu, a leader who has been beheaded thanks to the efforts of the emperor's first eunuch, Tsao. His secret police attempt to take over the titular inn so that they may lie in wait of the escaping offspring, but they are stymied by the arrival of Hsiao, a skilled and clever martial arts fighter who has been hired by the Inn's owner (and General's ally) to stop the ambush. He is aided by equally an skilled duo of brother and sister fighters who through their father also had a connection to Yu. They team up to fight this devious gang and protect the children until they can find a safe haven.

While there is plenty of clever and well staged action in the inn scenes, it is the wit of Hsiao, and the increasingly desperate murder attempts by the secret police, that make them so entertaining. Sharp-eyed and always several steps ahead of everyone else, Hsiao is perpetually amused by the ineptness of those who try to stop him. This film could stand on its wit alone.

That said, the fight scenes in Dragon Inn are deservedly influential. They are balanced in mood: never relying too heavily on laughs, but avoiding the bleakness that can plague later entries in the genre, and well-paced thanks to the ritualistic, measured beats and sound effects that would define the genre. The tension of the longer sequences is beautifully heightened by a score that relies on repetition and well calibrated emotional cues to build suspense.

While I enjoy the more expansive scenery and slick fight scenes of later kung fu films, the more modestly staged Dragon Inn is in many ways a more satisfying film. Stuck inside an inn together for most of the film's running time, the characters are by necessity especially interesting and well-rounded. The exchange of wits is just important here as the exchange of blows. The result is that when a character dies, the audience sighs in disappointment, because he isn't just the guy in the blue head wrap; they've gotten to know him.

Once the action does move outside, the lushness of the scenery adds much to the film. These scenes were especially enhanced by the 4K restoration, which punched up the already vivid colors and had a beautiful velvety look to it.

I think these were the most appreciative audience members I've encountered at this year's festival. With a gorgeous restoration and timeless humor and action, I understood and shared their delight.

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