I keep saying The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is the Stagecoach of martial arts movies, but that’s wrong, this is. Or rather, they both are, but they represent two perfect forms of distinct subgenres of the martial arts film. 36th Chamber is the kung fu training film, where the hero must be humbled, learn new skills and then apply them to achieve his revenge and the betterment of society. Dragon Gate Inn is a swordplay film, one with fantasy elements (though these are more subdued than in the wilder flights the subgenre would explore as it ran its course, for example in Chor Yuen’s Heroes Shed No Tears or Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain), one that aims more for mythology than philosophy. Hu made it in Taiwan, after splitting with the Shaw Brothers over disagreements during the making of Come Drink With Me, released the year before, in 1966. The film became a massive hit throughout Southeast Asia, and can be seen partially as the movie playing in Tsai Ming-liang’s end of cinema masterpiece Goodbye, Dragon Inn, the best film about working in a movie theatre ever made.
Structurally the film is elegantly simple. The first half sees the various factions arrive at the eponymous inn, a remote outpost on the Tartar frontier, a rocky desert landscape bordered by tall, forested mountains. The eunuch in charge of the nation’s secret police has had a prominent general killed and exiles his family to the edge of the Empire, hoping to flush out any pro-general elements. Arriving at the inn in turn are the bad guys, a wandering swordsman, the owner of the inn, and a heroic brother and sister (the girl in disguise as a boy). As each arrives, the villains try various subterfuges to draw them into a fight or poison them, while pretending to be friendly. At night, the villains attempt a sneak attack on their rooms, in a sequence very similar to one in Come Drink With Me. At exactly the halfway mark of the film, 55 minutes in, one day and night has passed and all masks are lifted: the heroes have recognized each other and joined forces and will attempt to rescue the general’s family.
The second half spreads over two days and one night. The first day, the family arrives and the heroes defend them and the inn against enemy attack. This is built around two action sequences, one with the sister fighting a band of soldiers, the other with the wandering swordsman taking on an even bigger band and facing off against the local bad guy in charge. That night, the heroes are reinforced by a small group of soldiers from a nearby outpost and a pair of brothers who defect from the eunuch’s forces. The second day is a chase sequence, as the heroes flee the inn and make their way through a mountain pass to safety. They’re surrounded by the bad guys and ultimately face off against the eunuch himself, joining forces to defeat him (as much by using his asthma against him as their own skill — this may be lost in the translation, but I wonder if the asthma is a side effect of his extreme kung fu skills).
As in Stagecoach, character is revealed along the way, as much through gesture as dialogue. It’s revealed that the heroes are all connected: the wandering swordsman, Hsiao, played by Shih Chun, who looks like a slightly less ghostly version of the villain in Come Drink With Me, white-robed and equipped with an umbrella (Wong Fei-hung style — identifying him as a good guy, despite being dressed in the color of death), is an old friend of the innkeeper, who was a lieutenant under the executed general and who also served with the father of the two siblings. The sister falls in love with Hsiao, though this is only apparent in the looks she gives him at certain key points. The two brothers have their own grudge against the eunuch. The eunuch doesn’t get much screen time, appearing first in silhouette as his retinue slowly makes its way to the inn, but Hu always accompanies his appearances with a wildly atonal brass blare, which builds from a simple fanfare to an actual theme as we see him up close for the first time. The film isn’t thematically deep, but the characters are individualized enough to become iconic rather than merely generic.
Dispensing with the effects-driven finale of his previous film, or the energy-shooting antics of wuxia films that came before and after it, Hu’s action scenes are more or less realistic. There are more than a few trampoline jumps hidden by the editing tricks David Bordwell so well highlights on his website. Similarly the heroes are able to wave away arrows shot at them by a simple cut and flash of a sword. The fights are fun and suspenseful, but they never shock with verisimilitude or craziness. Compared to later martial arts epics, Dragon Gate Inn has a much smaller scale and much less emphasis on the actuality of fighting movements. But those films can tend to overwhelm with spectacle: we become more impressed by the actors on-screen, or the opulence of the sets and costumes than engrossed in the narrative unfolding before us. What King Hu achieves here is a balance between plot and action, between structure and character, between fantasy and reality, a simplicity of design and movement that reminded me more than once of the minimalist Westerns of Budd Boetticher. With his next film, A Touch of Zen, Hu would go further into the philosophy underlying the wuxia mythology, melding the action movie with Buddhist spirituality to create a truly profound epic. With Dragon Gate Inn, however, he was content to make merely a perfect action picture.