I know I’m in the minority here, but I’m not a huge fan of Tsui Hark’s films.

I should like them, I know. Hark directs lavish kung fu/wuxia epics (yay) with lots of female kung fu masters in them, very often female kung fu masters dressed as men (a favorite of mine, which should come as no surprise to anyone), but something about them just falls flat for me. I didn’t bother finishing Green Snake (1993), wasn’t impressed by Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame (2012), which despite having (1) a lady kung fu master dressed as a boy and (2) friggin Detective Dee, a favorite literary character of mine, was a disappointing mess of bad CGI plus “and then (gasp!) and then (gasp!)” plotting. Once Upon a Time in China (1991) was totally good, and it’s probably my favorite of his films that I’ve seen, but it can’t keep up after the initial OMG FUCK YES of Jet Li (as Wong Fei Hung) saving Chinese New Year from evil English imperialists by lion dancing up the rigging of a ship to pluck the greens.

DragonInnAnyways, so yeah, Dragon Inn. Accuse me of drinking a big glass of Haterade, or perhaps baking up a nice fresh batch of hater tots, or whatever, but … I just didn’t think it was all that great. I know it had audiences cheering at the Sundance Film Festival, but like Detective Dee and Once Upon a Time in China, it’s a film that I came away from feeling like it was far better in theory than in execution.

The premise is totally great: An evil, power-crazed eunuch (is there any other kind in film?) murders an uppity minister and the minister’s whole family save for two kids, whom he saves to lure rebel general Chow to him. Members of Chow’s army, including Chow’s awesome cross-dressing lover Mo-yan (Brigitte Lin, I looooove you!!) free the kids, and then take them to a desolate inn near the Dragon Gate Pass to try to smuggle them over the border.

Then they get to Dragon Inn and … oh dear. Maggie Cheung is there, being a shady brigand and a sort of … desert-criminal-kung-fu-master-Mrs. Lovett (again, good premise!) called Jade, but unfortunately, she’s super-duper obnoxious. Her cook Dao is pretty tight though, with his ability to flay anything ruthlessly. At any rate, Jade figures out that Chow’s girlfriend is a girl through your typical Perceptive Feminine Wiles™ and then sets her cap for Chow when he arrives. And by set her cap, I mean that, even after seeing how much Chow loves Mo-yan, Jade aggressively and frequently attempts to seduce Chow, up to and including trying to force him to sleep with her to obtain her help once the eunuch’s hit men show up. Uncool.

Anyways, so yeah, it’s a great setup! Genderqueer-ish stuff! Sword battles! Handsome Tony Leung Ka-Fai being handsome! Wuxia action sequences!

And yet … the by-the-numbers catty nonsense between Jade and Mo-yan is a boring entanglement that really doesn’t make the star, Jade, particularly endearing. So that set my attention a-wandering … plus, the directing is sub-par. There is little artistry in the filming of Dragon Inn overall, despite the beautiful sets and costumes, and action sequences are often wasted due to poor framing. What should be tense desert battles are a zoomed-out mess of people stampeding around on horses with no discernable purpose; other sequences that would have benefited from a wider angle feel claustrophobic and cheaper than they should. Many of the kung fu battles feel simultaneously crowded and disjointed, with the exception of the Maggie Cheung vs Brigitte Lin sequence, which was definitely the best part of the film.

For me, Dragon Inn gets 3 1/2 out of 5 stars. I’d give it a solid 4 but for the annoying ending. Ah well! I’m glad I saw it, and it’s certainly worth watching. It just didn’t quite live up to its reputation, which is common enough with 90’s Hong Kong films.

Next time: Probably Golden Sparrow. Yay for Cheng Pei-Pei!