Written by Patrick Hao
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.
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.
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