Corruption invades the court, the innocent flee the city but are pursued. Able to run no more, they take refuge at a point of hospitality where they encounter the jaded forces of justice who eventually offer themselves as a human shield, protecting the precious seed of a new world while beating back the evil of the old. It is the archetypical wuxia plot, but never better told than in King Hu’s (Hu Jinquan) seminal Dragon Inn (龍門客棧, Lóng Mén Kè Zhàn).
The first Taiwanese production from Mainlander Hu who began his career at Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong, Dragon Inn is set in feudal China. A weak emperor has enabled the rise of an ambitious underclass of eunuchs – once trusted servants whose forced celibacy supposedly ensured loyalty because, having no children, they would have no interest in dynasty. A loyalist scholar is about to pay the price for the eunuchs’ rise when they have him executed for treason as a means of silencing his rebellion. Fearing reprisals from his still young children, they exile them to the far frontiers as a ruse to disguise their murders on the road. Fortunately, however, the Yu children are saved by the heroic intervention of wandering swordsmen. Hoping to head them off at the next pass, the villainous Cao (Bai Ying) sends his best men to Dragon Inn where they will lie in wait.
Obviously, Cao’s plan is not to work out quite as he intended. Firstly because of the arrival of ultra cool swordsman for hire Xiao (Shi Jun), who happens to be a friend of the temporarily absent innkeeper Wu, and then because of the wandering bandit Zhu Ji and his sister (currently dressed as a man) Hui (Shang Kuan Ling‐Feng), who are determined to cause trouble with the East Espionage Chamber who are currently occupying the inn by means of force. In order to minimise the possibility of resistance, EEC have also wiped out a local company of Tartar soldiers, seemingly indifferent to any diplomatic incident which might ensue. Xiao, Wu, Ji, and Hui, are eventually joined by a pair of Tartar defectors who were pressed into the EEC after pledging their loyalty to Yu, and thereafter commit themselves to ensuring the safety of Yu’s offspring as a means of protecting his legacy while facing off against the corrupt forces of Cao.
Like all wandering heroes, Xiao and the others are mainly concerned with the problem at hand, saving the Yus, rather than acknowledging that their present predicament is a product of the society in which they live. They do not challenge “authority”, but only minor corruption as embodied in the upstart Cao who has attempted to step beyond his station. Cao is, however, himself a victim of his society as Xiao almost seems to admit in his cruel taunting of him over his complicated liminal status as a castrated man. Xiao repeatedly mocks his lack of appendage and his (presumed) lack of sexual experience coupled with his inability to father children which places him well outside the demands of regular society in being unable to carry on his family line. Cao’s usurping ambition is then a kind of revenge born of frustration and resentment against a society which has placed a deliberate limit on his progress.
Still, his villainy knows no bounds – not only did he have a “good”, innocent man sent to his death, but he also dared to call for the murder of his still small children solely to secure his own position. Of course, this inevitably means that the fault lies with the “weak” emperor whose softness has enabled the wicked ambition of men like Cao who have simply stepped into a vacuum created by insufficiently robust government (an idea perhaps born of the same kind of social values which have corrupted Cao). Nevertheless, our heroes are nominally loyalists rising in support of the fallen Yu in an attempt to rescue his legacy in the form of his children. Outlaws all, they have their wanderers code and even if their first meeting may be strained, they are quick to recognise each other as fighters for justice even if by virtue of being among those who’ve chosen to live outside of the systems of corruption which define their world. The tale ends as they always do, but it does so with an ambivalent sense of triumph in acknowledgement of the hollowness of moral victory in a world still defined by corruption and injustice.
Dragon Inn screened as part of the Taiwan Film Festival UK 2019.
Restoration trailer (English subtitles)