The camera moves like a mofo, the close-ups are edited together so tensely that they’re a hair’s breadth away from parody and there are more beautifully composed shots than you can shake a fake sword at.
A prologue sets the film during the Ming Dynasty – when the vases come from. A general is executed by the two conflicting ruling powers of the empire. The general’s kids are sent into exile but the Eunuch (Bai Ying) decides they must die and sends troops to Dragon Gate Inn, a lonesome hostelry on the edge of a desert, to intercept them.
The kids hardly feature in the film at all. Instead, a series of mysterious strangers turn up at the inn while the troops are waiting. All of them are more than handy with a sword and very soon mayhem breaks out.
Of course, wuxia films are all about the sword fights and there’s plenty of that going on here. But what really impresses are the breath-taking fluid, simple track and/or ‘pull-back’ camera movements from which the fights are constructed.
There are also beautifully composed shots with very classical contrasts between foreground and background figures and action; and the close-ups, especially in the earlier interior sequences, which are cut together in a way that’s reminiscent of the famous opening of Once Upon A Time in the West. These escalating sequences of reaction shots, notably when Xiao (Shi Jun) enters, plays with and faces off with opponents whilst the harried inn staff look on, they alone make this film a must see.
The arch spatial compositions aren’t limited to the shot framing. There’s a highly developed sense of dramatic space as well. The enclosed space of the inn is the contested site for opposing factions and it is constantly transformed, its value and significance flipped by the dynamic movements of the battling groups; with the heroes first invading, then defending the inn, then fighting on the outer shell of the inn before leaving the desert terrain completely.
This release is the lovely 2014 4K restoration. It really does look a treat, especially the primary blues and reds against the ochre desert background.
The extras are top drawer too, especially the documentary analysing the visual style of the film, by critic David Cairns.
As high visual concept cinema, Dragon Inn is hard to beat. And there’s balletic violence aplenty on offer too.
Review by Colin Dibbben
Dragon Inn is out in dual format edition from 26 October 2015.