When I reviewed Come Drink With Me on the blog, I described it as a “Wuxia Western,” as the initial plot of the film – with Golden Swallow going to rescue her brother from bandits holed up in a monastery – could easily be the plot of a western. It is only with the introduction of Drunken Cat’s plot that the wuxia elements come to the fore. Dragon Inn, by comparison, maintains a better balance of the concepts, melding them together to make a cohesive whole.
The film is based around the titular Dragon Gate Inn, a sop-over place for travelers headed through a mountain pass, with the pass behind the inn., and a rocky floodplain in front. The western part has to do with a bunch of ne’er-do-wells holing up in the waiting for some children and their protectors to come through as they flee to the west, so the baddies can ambush them. While the baddies wait, several fighters drift into the inn, get caught up in events, and decides to help the family.
Where the wuxia gets involved is the children are those of General Yu – a general who was honest and forthright but who ended up on the wrong side of the Court Eunuch Tsao – so Tsao had Yu executed. The ne’er-do-wells are with Tsao’s secret police and the fighters are various swords-people with varying ties to General Yu – their ties to Yu being higher than any loyalty to the state. This change, narratively, helps merge the wuxia thematic elements with the western framework much more strongly.
The change of location also helps. With this film, King Hu had relocated from Hong Kong and Shaw Brothers to Taiwan and the Union Film Company (which appears to basically be the government of Taiwan). Hu takes full advantage of the new terrain at his disposal, making the environment as much a character as Monument Valley was for John Ford. It makes for a truly breathtaking film.
The plot, with the corrupt Chinese central government, and various parties banding together to help the family of someone who stood against that government escape to exile also feels like a stronger fit with Taiwan instead of Hong Kong. It’s propaganda adjacent, but it’s not as ham-fisted as Zhang Yimou’s Hero would be later.
In short, Dragon Inn is a much stronger demonstration of King Hu’s craft as a director and as a writer, and I understand why this film made the Criterion Collection when Come Drink With Me didn’t.
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