Flaming arrows fly. Jumping, twisting, hurling, whirling bodies brandish swords. Warriors die in many inventive ways: impaled through a wooden door, decapitated by sword, caught by the sudden thrust of a thrown dagger. It’s a cinematic tossed salad of mayhem.
That’s the style of Chinese cinema known as wuxia, and it became a worldwide audience favorite with the balletic, acrobatic melees in Ang Lee’s 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. On November 3 at the U-M Center for Chinese Studies, you can see the movie that inspired Lee: director King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn.
This 1967 movie about the eunuch agents of an emperor clashing with the rebellious family of a rival executed for treason was the original wuxia film and inspired many remakes, knock-offs, and imitators. Though later films had the advantage of advanced technical tricks that would render them more seamless and realistic, none could match the operatic intensity of Hu’s classic, a huge cult phenomenon in the Far East.
The explosive battles and swordplay take place in the fifteenth century, in and around a large country inn. The government’s eunuch militiamen plan to ambush the exiled relatives of the general whose brutal beheading we’ve seen in a prologue, before the opening credits. These mercenaries, we’re told, have formidable martial arts skills and brutal sensibilities; in one of many amusingly mangled English subtitles, it’s said that “people are petrified of their notoriousness.” We soon see why, as they casually slay some of the inn’s workers for minor acts of impudence.
But soon a mysterious stranger arrives and wreaks his own swift justice. It turns out he’s a friend of the innkeeper, and he’s backed by his nephew and niece–the latter a remarkable young woman who, as in all subsequent wuxia offerings, including Crouching Tiger, is an even more artistic fighter than the men. Gradually, the forces on both sides decimate one another in a series of skirmishes that punctuate stretches of melodramatic intrigue. In what became standard wuxia style, the fights are staged as set pieces with less regard for realism than for the orchestration of flying bodies. It’s an oddly ritualistic approach to mayhem–like boxing matches with theatrical entrances, hidden weapons, and delicious trickery.
Traditional Chinese instruments punctuate the action with keening, screeching, or thumping sounds, like an avant-garde opera. There are little snatches of wonderful camerawork, such as a low-angle shot of a protagonist through a hole in a bamboo hat he’s putting on. The color of the print I saw was surprisingly pristine and, though nothing is subtle and the “special effects” look rudimentary to current eyes, there’s a rough beauty to Dragon Gate Inn and a satisfaction to watching an art form in its birthing.