New York Asian Film Festival Review: New Dragon Gate Inn

Written by Patrick Hao

66/100

One of the most exciting features to be shown at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival is the free retrospective screening of New Dragon Gate Inn. The film will be shown outdoors on August 11th at New York’s Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center, a fitting location as New York’s hot summer August weather will match the sweeping desert setting of New Dragon Gate Inn.

You can get your FREE Tickets to see New Dragon Gate Inn here

Although directed by Raymond Lee, New Dragon Gate Inn is writer/producer Tsui Hark’s project through and through. His sensibilities radiate off the screen from the frantic swordplay to its bizarre sense of humor and silliness. Hark’s modus operandi at the time was hopping between classic Chinese genres from Peking opera in Peking Opera Blues to fantasy wu xia in Zu Warriors to a straightforward nationalist historical epic in Once Upon a Time in China.

Therefore, it makes sense in Hark’s prodigious oeuvre to have a film like New Dragon Gate Inn, a remake of the influential 1967 King Hu classic wu xia film, Dragon Inn. The set up is essentially the same: During the Ming Dynasty, a tyrannical eunuch (played Donnie Yen whose performance is delightfully swimming in a river of ham) and his group has begun ruling over the desert region of China. In order to quell resistance groups, the eunuch concocts a plan to draw out the resisting faction by taking the children of a rebellious minister to the desert. From there, Hark’s sensibilities begin to deviate from the original film. Like many of Hu’s wu xia classics, the original Dragon Inn is a classical film that is about chivalric heroism and relies on slow build suspense as the warring factions and warriors meet. Hark’s film is more tongue-in-cheek subversive. And to say Hark’s film goes at a breakneck pace would be an understatement.

The rebels are led by Chow Wai-on (played by Tony Leung or “Big” Tony to differentiate from Little Tony Leung who will be in Shang-Chi later this year) who saves the children from the Eunuch’s forces, and he takes them to safe harbor at the Dragon Gate Inn, ran by Jade (Maggie Cheung). In a macabre twist, Jade runs her inn by seducing and then killing her guests and using their meat as bun filling, making her the Sweeney Todd of the East. As the warring factions meet at the inn, Jade’s best interest is to keep the peace, which is made harder as she begins falling for Chow Wai-on. This is made more difficult with the arrival of rebel warrior, Yau Mo-Yun (Bridgitte Lin) who is Chow’s lover.

New York Asian Film Festival 2021

The tangled intrigue of the plot allows for a lot of fun screwball silliness. Maggie Cheung is radiant, proving that she is one of the greatest movie stars to ever grace the screen. A more western audience knows her from Wong Kar-Wai movies (In fact the trio of Leung, Cheung and Lin stars in Wong’s esoteric wu xia epic Ashes of Time just a few years later) or her work with Olivier Assayas. But she had her start working in comedies like Police Story and she gets to exercise her full magnetic star power. She had the comedic sexiness of classic old Hollywood stars like Barbara Stanwyck or Ginger Rogers, which made me wish that Preston Sturges could have utilized her gifts. The seduction scene between Cheung and Leung is a great example of Hark’s mix of legitimate sexiness and slapstick comedy – qualities that are not often associated together. This is not to take away from Bridgitte Lin and Tony Leung, who are both stars in their own right, but Cheung is given the room to flex all the things that made her great as a movie star.

But this is a wu xia film; how is the action? New Dragon Inn is a Tsui Hark production which means the action comes often and comes fast. The action choreography is staged by frequent Hark collaborator Ching Siu-tung who has a controlled chaos to his action. Most of the action is set in the small space of the Dragon Inn which increases how visceral the chaos is. This all leads up to the climatic four-way fight between the three rebel sympathizers and the Donnie Yen, which might be up there in the great scenes in Chinese cinema.

The New Dragon Inn may not have the heft or substance of the original, but it is a hell of a good time. What better way to watch it than with a rowdy hot crowd as part of NYAFF? 

New Dragon Gate Inn Trailer

New Dragon Gate Inn is screening as part of the New York Asian Film Festival for free. The film will be shown outdoors on August 11th at New York’s Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center.

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Fallen Angels

Written by Anna Harrison

90/100

Fallen Angels originally existed as a third story to director Wong Kar-wai’s movie Chungking Express before he made the story its own movie; as such, it is practically impossible to separate the two upon watching. Chungking Express, divided neatly into halves, follows two cops in their charming quest for love and human connection in Hong Kong. Fallen Angels follows seedier characters in their desperate quest for love and human connection in Hong Kong. Its multiple stories weave and intertwine with each other throughout, as opposed to Chungking Express’ clean division, and the film feels more fragmented, though not in a bad way.

In both Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, Takeshi Kaneshiro plays a man named He Zhiwu: a cop in the former and a mute delinquent in the latter; in both, his characters have a strong connection to cans of pineapple and expiration dates. (In Chungking Express, he tries to buy every can of pineapple that expires on May 1 in a desperate bid to connect to his ex-girlfriend; in Fallen Angels, he claims that eating an expired can of pineapple as a child made him mute.) The Midnight Express food stand and women in blonde wigs pop up in both films, parts of disparate storylines which only partially overlap, like ships in the night. And, of course, both films look gorgeous, full of the vigor and vibrancy Wong has such a knack for. Still, Fallen Angels stands well on its own.

It’s hard to properly describe the plot of Fallen Angels. There’s a hitman (Leon Lai) and his agent (Michelle Reis), who carefully makes the bed for her employee every day; there’s He Zhiwu, who goes around mutely bullying others into giving him money; there’s Blondie (Karen Mok), the woman with hair reminiscent of Brigitte Lin’s in Chungking Express, and her apparent friend Charlie (Charlie Yeung), though the two women never share screen time. They all drift through Hong Kong, affecting the other characters but never realizing it. These characters long for human connection, trying to hold onto precious memories and prevent them from slipping through their fingers, a running theme in Wong’s films and especially poignant here when He Zhiwu sits to watch tapes he made of his deceased father, or when Reis’ character combs through the hitman’s trash just to feel closer to him.

Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle—who shot the second half of Chungking Express along with several other Wong films—breathe a very different life into Hong Kong than shown in their earlier film. Still vibrant, still gorgeous, this Hong Kong has a sharper edge to it than its predecessor, which was more innocently romantic. Wong rarely lets his camera rest, instead opting for a more chaotic rhythm with his editing, reflecting the hectic lives of his characters and giving more heft to the moments when he decides to let the camera linger. He showcases his actors in a wide lens, slightly warping their faces; their features become the only thing we see, and Wong manages to make Hong Kong and the people in it near microscopic, giving us intimate access to the city’s beating heart. 

Fallen Angels finds Wong further experimenting with time and space in his films—where Chungking Express was clearly bifurcated and its two stories only briefly overlapped, Fallen Angels jumps between its stories with little or no warning. Yet even with this irregular narrative, it is a testament to Wong’s abilities as a filmmaker that the film feels cohesive, for—as with Chungking Express—the main character isn’t the hitman, his agent, or He Zhiwu: it’s Hong Kong. Ironically, in focusing on only slivers of the city, Wong lets us know the whole better. We feel its inhabitants’ loneliness amidst a sea of people. 

Where Chungking Express had an optimism to it with hints of sadness, Fallen Angels feels far darker, though never nihilistic. One of its main characters murders people for money, after all, but a movie whose final line is “But at that moment, I felt such warmth” is hard to classify as strictly a downer. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor or later Wong venture In the Mood for Love, because frankly, what movie could? But watching Fallen Angels, I felt such warmth.

Highly Recommended

Fallen Angels Trailer

Fallen Angels is currently available to stream on Criterion Channel

You can follow Anna on Letterboxd and her website