Chun Shih dines on flying dagger, the catch of the day in King Hu’s wuxia classic.
  • Chun Shih dines on flying dagger, the catch of the day in King Hu’s wuxia classic.
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Dragon Inn (Long men kezhan) *****

For the first 15 years or so of my life, I was weaned almost exclusively on English-language movies. At the time, a Taiwanese martial arts epic (badly dubbed or otherwise) would not have ranked high on my must-see list. It wasn’t until last year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival revival that I first caught wind, if not sight, of King Hu’s “flying people” masterwork, Dragon Inn.

By his own admission, the backward-looking review-screener that Pac-Arts artistic director Brian Hu (no relation) provided was not up to snuff. The image was washed, the ratio cramped, and the subtitles insufficient. After 20 minutes, the disc was ejected. And while much of the audio still sounds as though it was recorded in a Greyhound terminal, I dare say the Janus Films restoration, opening Friday at the Ken, looks sharper than any of the 1967 Eastmancolor release prints.

Harken back to 1457 AD, a time when hard-hearted eunuchs governed China. The country’s most powerful undercover operations have been divided in two: the Imperial Guard, dressed in white, and their black-clad counterparts, the East Espionage Chamber. The pre-credit beheading of falsely accused General Yu at the hands of Eastern Agency leader Zhao Shao Qin, followed by the swift exile of Yu’s two children, sets in motion this ineffably entertaining action-adventure romp. Fearing revenge, Qin orders his troops to ambush the pair the minute they arrive at the titular lodge.

In terms of color, clarity, and screen dimension, the new pressing leaves the ancient transfer in the dust.

In terms of color, clarity, and screen dimension, the new pressing leaves the ancient transfer in the dust.

While Qin’s troops camp out awaiting the arrival of the Yus, Xiao Shaozi (Chun Shih), a mysterious swordsman with lightning-fast reflexes, appears — he uses chopsticks to corral a flying dagger and can land a tossed bowl of hot noodle soup on a dime. Shazoi’s frequent refusal to fight without leaving his chair backs up the combatant’s assertion that he’s a “lazy man.” (The scenes where the baddies unsuccessfully try to slip him a Mickey will leave you laughing out loud.) He is soon joined by more comic relief, in the form of two brother-and-sister warriors and a pair of eunuchs castrated by an impudent asthmatic blond gladiator, against whom the five wage their climactic battle.

Video:

Dragon Inn Movie Trailer

Hu relies on precision editing, rapid movement, and, of course, ingenuity to pull off the in-camera effects (and cover the budgetary seams). It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a film that pays this much attention to cutting on movement. It’s a lesson that 90 percent of today’s so-called action directors could best profit from. Contemporary audiences, weaned on the rapid-fire-commotion-separated-by-the-thinnest-of-narratives that currently passes for action films, will discover an oasis of layered resourcefulness in Hu’s cinematic sleight of hand.

Here’s one film guaranteed to out-Marvel any of the major blockbusters on this summer’s release schedule, a timeless classic that we now have the good fortune of seeing on San Diego’s only surviving single-screen. Save a seat for me!

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